2009 League 1 trophy lift

Former Player Remembers: Matt Oakley

In 2016, midfielder Matt Oakley spoke to Club Historian John Hutchinson about his lengthy career in football.
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Before he retired in 2017, Matt played nearly 700 league and cup games between 1995 and 2017. This total included 148 games for Leicester City between 2008 and 2011, during which time he captained the Club to the League 1 title.

Matt began by recalling his earliest years in football.

“I was born in Peterborough, but when I was very small we moved to Hertfordshire," he said. "I started at Luton Town. I would go down once a week, there were about 60 or 70 boys with a few coaches.

“I went to Arsenal as a schoolboy after being spotted by an Arsenal scout. I left Arsenal when I was about 14 or 15 and went to do a YTS apprenticeship at Southampton for a two-year spell. I went there initially on trial. The trial lasted for about a month. I was living in digs with a local family, staying with older lads who were already apprentices. I loved it. So when I got offered a two-year apprenticeship I accepted it. 

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Matt Oakley

The midfielder played nearly 150 times for Leicester City.

“At the end of my two years as an apprentice, I was offered a two-year professional contract,” Matt continued. “At the end of my final year as an apprentice, I had played my first game in the first team, against Everton in the Premier League, I was 17, I came off the bench. As an Arsenal fan, I was a big fan of Anders Limpar (an ex Arsenal player) who was playing for Everton that day. Alan Ball, who was manager, put me on as a wide left wing-back. I had never really played on the left. I could use my left foot but not as well as my right. I remembered that Anders Limpar always used to cause the full-back problems by twisting and turning loads of times and then he would cross the ball.

“My first touch was heading the ball out of my own six yard box and as it was coming in, I was thinking that if it hits the wrong side of my head, I would score an own goal and if it hits the right side of my head, then I would clear it. Thankfully it hit the right side! We drew 0-0 and I got to shake Neville Southall’s hand, a legend of the game. The players at that time were the players I had collected as a kid in my Panini sticker albums. It was surreal really but also was exciting. From that moment on I wanted to be part of the first team squad. 

“I loved playing for Southampton and one of the highlights was playing in the FA Cup Final against Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ in 2003. We were only beaten 1-0 though. They were an amazing team! The final, at Cardiff, was one of the first games that had the roof closed. The atmosphere was electric, for our fans especially. It was so loud and because of the roof being closed it made it impossible to communicate with my team-mates!”

I probably could have picked up more Under-21s caps but I was a big part of the first team and playing in Southampton’s first team at the time was my only focus.

Matt Oakley LCFC.com

While Matt was at Southampton he, became an England Under-21s international.

He added: “The difficult thing for me was that I was always playing in Southampton’s first team, and a lot of that Under-21s side weren’t in their club’s first teams. I was playing pretty much a full Premier League season and then being asked to play in internationals. I just wasn’t able to play in enough of them because I was either picking up slight niggles or else I was in recovery from games. 

“I had pressure from the manager too talking about our next games and that put a pressure on me to decide whether to go away to play in internationals. I probably could have picked up more Under-21s caps but I was a big part of the first team and playing in Southampton’s first team at the time was my only focus.

“Gordon Strachan made the comment in the press in 2003 that I was one of the best performing English midfield players. This was a great compliment to hear but England at the time had such great midfielders with players like [David] Beckham, [Paul] Scholes, [Frank] Lampard and [Steven] Gerrard. It would have been some achievement to break into that squad! Gordon and I had a very good relationship and we have remained friends since.”

Matt then lost the best part of the 2003/04 and 2004/05 seasons through injury at the end of which Southampton were relegated to the Championship. 

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Matt Oakley

He captained the Foxes to the League 1 title in 2009 before helping them to reach the Championship Play-Offs.

“My injury came when I was playing the best football so far in my career and on the back of a really good season. It was in the September of 2003 and we played Middlesbrough at home. The ball just broke between me and their midfielder George Boateng. I was going to go in for a tackle and the ball was going away from me. He was coming in quite aggressively. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to make the tackle so I jumped in the air and landed going in the opposite direction. I remember a pop going off in my knee and it felt like someone had stabbed me with a knife, I was in incredible pain for about 30 seconds and required the attention of the physio. I remember Gordon Strachan coming across from the dug-out as I was looking down at my knee. He said: ‘Are you alright?’ I said: ‘Yeah. I’m really sore but it’s gone now'. He said, in his typically jokey manner: ‘That’s good. I’ve made three substitutions so you’ll have to go back on!' So I had to carry on for the remaining 10 to 15 minutes. I finished the game but I had snapped my cruciate. That was the start of two dark years really. I was out for 16 months in the end.

“When I got injured we were fourth in the Premier League. By the time I came back I think we were fourth from bottom, Gordon had left and we ended up getting relegated at the end of the season!

“In December of the following season, George Burley was in charge and I was back to playing well. I had a year left on my contract and we had discussions in the January about me signing a new three-year deal. I was delighted but then I picked up a small injury. I was forced back to play too early by the manager and physio and I re-ruptured my ankle tear. This then kept me out for a couple of months towards the end of that season.

“By the end of the season, there had been no more negotiations and then I was offered a reduced one-year contract and labelled as injury-prone by the chairman. In my mind I was looking forward to signing a three-year contract and potentially going on to a testimonial because I had been there for over 10 years. I wasn’t expecting to go and I don’t think the fans expected it either. 

When I went to Derby in August 2006 the plan was to get promoted in the third year. We did it in the first year.

Matt Oakley LCFC.com

“There was lots of talk over the summer and I had another meeting with George. He wanted me to stay but [chairman] Rupert Lowe wouldn't budge on the length of time, something I required as I then had a young family. I couldn’t go forward with a one-year contract when other clubs were offering three-year contracts. The local media reported that I was demanding too much money and this upset me as this was not the full picture as I was only after security for my family. I was unable to put my story across to the fans and this was a difficult situation for me to accept.”

Derby County, in the Championship, were one of the clubs interested. Billy Davies had been after Matt for a while. He phoned Matt’s agent to tell him he wanted Matt to help him rebuild the team at Derby and that he wanted him to be captain on a three-year contract. 

“When I went to Derby in August 2006, the plan was to get promoted in the third year," he said. "We did it in the first year. We went on an amazing run and broke many club records and were promoted through the play-offs by beating West Brom. We weren’t even really built for the Championship, but there we were in the Premier League! 

“We struggled. Within five months, by early December 2007, Billy had been sacked and Paul Jewell had taken over. Changes were happening. Steve Howard was sold in January to Leicester. Then Steve phoned me two weeks after that, right at the end of the transfer window and said: 'Look, Ian [Holloway] would love you to come here to Leicester'. I didn’t think Derby would let me go but they sold me for £500,000. 

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Matt Oakley

Matt spent two seasons at Derby County and played for the Rams in the Premier League.

“I had come from Derby, who were struggling in the Premier League, to Leicester, a team that was really struggling at the bottom of the Championship. There was a lot going on in the background. Ian [Holloway] was trying to do his best but there was a lot of pressure on him. We got relegated, unfortunately.”

The following season, in League 1 for the only time in their history, Leicester City won the title. Matt, captaining the side from midfield, scored a few goals as part of a 23-match unbeaten run, and was named in the League 1 team at the end of the season. 

“Relegation to League 1 was the end of the bad times for Leicester and the start of the rebuilding process,” Matt reflected. “Nigel [Pearson] came in and he put a good structure in place to move forward. We won League 1 in style and it was an amazing feeling to lift the trophy in front of a capacity home crowd. We then continued our good form and got to the Championship Play-Offs the following season. It was sometimes difficult for me at Leicester because I came from Derby, but being captain I had a responsibility to the Club and I did develop quite a good relationship with the fans in the end.

“I remember that after we lost the Championship Play-Off Semi-Final against Cardiff, there were rumours that Paulo Sousa was at the match and was going to be the manager. It was hard because the players were right behind Nigel and he suddenly left. Paulo took over and had completely different way of doing things. Being captain, I became very close to Paulo but unfortunately results were poor and it didn’t work out for him.

“Again there was a change and the new owners from Thailand came in. I had the pleasure of spending some time getting to know Vichai and Top. They brought Sven-Göran Eriksson in to manage the team and this brought a lot of media attention. It was a bit of a whirlwind.

2014/15 was a great year for me at Exeter as I made 49 appearances, which was the most I’ve completed in a season in my whole career.

Matt Oakley LCFC.com

“Sven put his plans in place, signing a lot of players. He wanted to have three players in each position. Leading up to that season, the FA changed the rules reducing the substitutes from seven to five. That caused Sven and the squad a lot of problems. This meant that there were about 10 of us sitting in the stand at matches and there was an unsettlement in the changing room. 

“When he told me that I wouldn’t be part of the starting XI or the subs, I said I would train as hard as I could so that I would be ready to play when needed but I asked him not to have me travel all around the country just to sit in the stands. He said he respected this and wanted me to help out with the young players. I respected Sven and was willing to help him with this.

“I still felt fit enough and wanted to play but missed the competition after a while. I then had a call from Paul Tisdale at Exeter, who was a good friend of mine, so I went there in September 2011.

“The 2014/15 season was a great year for me at Exeter as I made 49 appearances, which was the most I’ve completed in a season in my whole career. The Liverpool FA Cup game in January 2016 was special. Going back to Anfield for the replay at 38 was a proud moment of my life and for my wife and two daughters.”

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Matt Oakley

Matt later joined Exeter City and spent five years there before retiring.

While at Exeter City, as well as playing, Matt began to get involved in recruitment and also analysis. He concluded by saying: “In my career, I had great success with Southampton, Derby and Leicester and I loved my time at all my clubs and most of all, I had the privilege of captaining all of them.”

Since the interview, Matt retired from playing for Exeter City in 2017 after making 165 appearances before becoming part of the Grecians coaching staff for a year.

He then moved to MK Dons as assistant manager to Paul Tisdale. Under their guidance, MK Dons achieved promotion to League 1 in 2019, but Matt left the Dons along with Tisdale six months later.

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