Paul Matthews

Former Player Remembers: Paul Matthews

Playing as an outside-right or as a midfielder, Paul Matthews made over 70 appearances for Leicester City under Matt Gillies, Frank O’Farrell and Jimmy Bloomfield.
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When he spoke to Club Historian John Hutchinson, he talked about becoming an apprentice at Filbert Street, despite his rugby background, scoring his first home goal against Everton, playing against the great names of his era, suffering injuries, and his life after leaving Leicester.

Despite starring for Leicester Boys while a pupil at Cort Crescent Primary school, Paul played no organised football between the ages of 11 and 16 because, after he passed his 11 plus examination, he was sent to the rugby-playing Wyggeston Grammar School, rather than to the City of Leicester School, which was the best school for football.

At Wyggeston, he played at fly-half in the school’s rugby teams and was a county rugby trialist as a scrum-half. His football was confined to playing impromptu games with his friends as often as he could. 

Thinking back to those days, Paul explained how, despite this background, he became an apprentice at Filbert Street: “I have been a Leicester supporter all my life. They are my team. When I was about 14, I used to stand in the Kop behind the goal with my mates.

“My dad used to work with [Leicester City captain] Colin Appleton’s brother, Dave. When I was 16, he asked Dave if Leicester would have a look at me. In those days, all the non-signed-on players used to train at the Club on Tuesday and Thursday nights. At that time, I only weighed 8' 6'. I played on the Filbert Street car park in a trial game and it went from there. The training ground used to be where the Saffron Lane Sports Stadium now is. I went through the process of playing against local teams in trial games. The Club then took me to their 1963 FA Cup Final (against Manchester United) and, that day, they told me that they were going to sign me as an apprentice.

“I went for an England Youth trial as a right winger. The head coach was Sir Bobby Robson. I got through to the final 20 but I was never going to get in the team even though I played really well because West Ham’s Harry Redknapp was already established in the team. He knew all the coaches whereas I had rolled up from Leicester and knew no one. It was nice to think, though, that I was the second best young right-winger in the country.

People don’t realise how mentally strong you have to be as a footballer. I had this from the beginning. Being so lightweight, everybody tried to kick me. Most people would get upset with that. I quite liked it because I always thought if that if they kicked me it was because I was better than them.

Paul Matthews

“I always knew in my own mind that I was going to be a professional footballer. I got in the first team when I was 18. My debut was against Aston Villa. I remember that their left-back was Charlie Aitken. I just took everything in my stride. It didn’t faze me at all. I was gifted in with my quickness and with my ability to beat people and see things. Bill Shankly (the legendary Liverpool manager) named me as one of four players to look out for in the First Division. Looking back on it today it is as though all of this was happening to somebody else, not to me.”

Paul’s maiden goal for Leicester was against Blackburn Rovers in April 1966 and his first at Filbert Street was in a 3-0 victory over Everton a month later. Derek Dougan and Jackie Sinclair were the other scorers.

Paul also remembers a later game against Everton: “World Cup winner Alan Ball played in that game. I marked him. They told me that when Leicester got the ball I had to make the team play, but as soon as it broke down, I had to mark Ball. Playing my normal game and also chasing him to close him down left me absolutely shattered. He had some engine! After 70 minutes, I was on my knees and they brought me off. 

“People don’t realise how mentally strong you have to be as a footballer. I had this from the beginning. Being so lightweight, everybody tried to kick me. Most people would get upset with that. I quite liked it because I always thought if that if they kicked me it was because I was better than them. It was a tribute to me because they couldn’t stop me any other way. When I went by Tommy Smith at Liverpool, he threatened to break my leg if I did it again. I was about 19 and he was an England international and I was far too quick for him. He didn’t like it!

“I played against some good players. I recently came across a programme from a game I played in against West Ham when they had World Cup winners Martin Peters, Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst in their side. I played against Jimmy Greaves and then there was always Georgie Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law!”

One of Paul’s games against Best, Law and Charlton was the relegation decider at Old Trafford three weeks after the 1969 FA Cup Final.

Leicester City had to play five vital games in those three weeks, the results of which would determine whether or not the Club would be relegated after 12 seasons in the top flight. Paul played in all of them. Unfortunately, Leicester City lost 3-2 at Old Trafford in the last game of the season and were relegated.

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Leicester City 1970/71
Leicester City 1970/71

City's 1970/71 squad, with Matthews sitting second in from the right on the front row.

Paul continued: “My real problem at Leicester was injuries. When I was 18 or 19 and getting established in the first team, I did my first cartilage against Sheffield United at Filbert Street. I chased their winger. He stopped quickly and I stopped quickly. He pulled a muscle and my cartilage went. It was a big operation in those days. I had two cartilages out by the time I was 21 or 22 and had my third out when I was 25, when I had just signed for Mansfield Town. Neil Warnock did that one! You lose your nippiness when this happens. When you play, you rely on split second timing. When the ball comes to you and a player is coming in, you have got to pass it at exactly the right time. When your knees are fine, that’s no problem. You just do quick, sharp one-twos. When you have an operation on your knee, you lose that. You haven’t got that speed or sharpness. That’s why I moved more to midfield. I wasn’t quick enough to go past opponents after I’d had a couple of cartilages out.”

Paul’s best season at Leicester was 1969/70, when he played 33 games in Frank O’Farrell’s side, which just missed out on automatic promotion, in the days before there were play-offs, but his appearances subsequently diminished. He went on loan to Southend United in September 1972, three months before transferring to Mansfield Town.

He explained: “I left because Leicester wanted me gone. I was injured too much. Also, I had been at Filbert Street for nine years and when you have been at a club for 10 years you get a testimonial. I was always going to be the first to go because I cost nothing. When managers pay money for players, they are their first priority. It’s understandable. I should have left way before I did, but as a local lad, I just wanted to play for Leicester. I was happy there. The Club didn’t always tell me things. About 10 years ago, I was told that when I was about 19 or 20, Fulham, in the old First Division, offered £20,000 for me, which was a lot of money in those days. Manager, Matt Gillies turned it down. When Northampton Town were promoted to the top division in 1965, they came in for me as well but I never found out any of this. There were no agents in those days.

“Mansfield had never won a league title and they won two in three years when I was there, rising from the Fourth Division to the Second Division. I remember we beat Leicester in the Anglo Scottish Cup in August 1975 and I scored. I played out of my skin. After the game, Leicester’s manager, Bloomfield, who had let me go from Filbert Street, told me that George Preston (Leicester’s physio) had told him that, because of complications when I first had my cartilage out, I would never be able to play like that again. He now realised that I could.”

Paul put his form at Mansfield down to good coaching: “Mansfield’s manager, Dave Smith, had confidence and faith in me. In my first year at Mansfield, I got injured and the directors wanted to let me go but he saw something in me so he kept me. He used to bring me in in the morning and have a chat with me before we went training. He said that the year Mansfield won the fourth division, I was the best player in that division by a mile. I had always been able to play, pass and manoeuvre the ball, but he got me tackling. You wouldn’t expect that for a player of my size. So I started to think 'I must tackle, I must win the ball'. That became my focus. Nobody had ever said that to me before. After Dave Smith left to manage Southend United, Peter Morris, the old Ipswich Town player, became manager. What a good player he was. In training, no one could kick him or tackle him because he was so good. He was class.”

Also, when I finished football, I started running. I ran from when I was about 34 until I finished at 65. I finished racing when I was nearly 60.

Paul Matthews

Paul then went to Rotherham United for 17 months: “My knees were bad. I used to play and train and then had to sit at home resting with my legs up. I remember going to Northampton half way through my time with Rotherham. Clive Walker, John Farrington and Alan Woollett (Ex-Leicester players) were there then and Clive asked me to go there the next year subject to passing a medical. I had one, but I had no chance of passing it!”

Paul retired and played some local football for Enderby Town and Oadby Town while developing a post-football career.

He continued: “I needed to look for a job. I knew somebody at the Leicester Mercury and they did a big article about me with a picture saying I was back in Leicester and looking for a job. Two people rang me and one of them, a football lad who I knew really well, offered me a job with a big acoustic engineering firm at Shepshed called Bradgate Containers and I was there for 32 years. Within 12 months, I was purchasing manager. One of the directors played for Friar Lane. They got to the semi-final of the Vase two years running. I knew the manager well and for those two years I did the training.

“I also did some scouting for Leicester City and worked for a year at the Academy when David Nish was the Academy Manager. He approached me to run the Under-13s team. When I first went there, the team was poor but they worked and by the end of the season they had improved and three of them went on to become professional footballers elsewhere. Also, when I finished football, I started running. I ran from when I was about 34 until I finished at 65. I finished racing when I was nearly 60.”

Paul is still a regular spectator at all of Leicester City’s home games, well over half a century after he watched his first game at Filbert Street.

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