INTERVIEW: Matt Piper’s career – in his own words

When I launched FromTheSpot, I knew that there was one player I really wanted to get involved in the project. While he might not necessarily be a household name across the country, for Leicester fans like myself, Matt Piper will forever be synonymous with the iconic Filbert Street ground – having scored the Foxes’ last competitive goal there before the move to Filbert Way.

I reached out to Matt at the end of last year, and he kindly agreed to an interview. Here’s what the ex-Leicester City and Sunderland winger had to say about his career…

Breaking into the first team

Coming through the youth ranks at Leicester – your hometown club, that’s got to be a sensational experience. Did it ever feel surreal at any point, or was it just what you were used to – the normal?

So the way I got in at Leicester, Peter Taylor was the manager when I started to get near the first team and I had about a year left on my contract, I think, and [he] called me into his office. The first team at the time was shocking – they were awful, down near the bottom of the table. Ade Akinbiyi’s a great mate of mine, but he just couldn’t score at the time. The team was quite old and sort of dated – there were lots of injuries, and I was doing really well for the reserve team and I thought ‘now is my opportunity’. I was training with the first team and doing well and loads of players were saying to me ‘you’re going to get an opportunity’ – so I thought ‘I’m going to speak to the manager then’.

I spoke to Peter Taylor and he said ‘listen, I don’t want to let you down but we’re going to offer you a new contract. It’s not going to be as much as we’re offering Jordan Stewart, Matt Heath, Martin Reeves’ – all the guys that were the same age as me.

‘We’re going to offer you half as much as we offered them, because we see them as first-team players at Leicester City in the Premier League in the future, but we don’t unfortunately see that with you. But, we want to re-sign you, so when a League One or League Two side come in for you, we’ll be able to recoup some money for you’.

So basically, he was telling me that he didn’t believe in me and that he didn’t think I’d get in the first team. He got sacked about three weeks after that meeting, and my reserve team manager at the time, Garry Parker, said ‘I’ve got the job for one night’ before Micky Adams and Dave Bassett came in, and he said ‘I’m going to start you against Leeds in the league cup’.

To answer your question in a long, roundabout way, it was really surreal because I was so far away from the first team under one manager. Three weeks later, I’m a starting, first eleven player for the first team and that is how my career started – so it did feel really surreal going from playing youth and reserve team football and then within three weeks being a sort of first team player.

I suppose one big break is all it takes then really!

Yeah, I’ll tell you mate. A lot of it comes down to, listen, if you’ve got skills like Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo when you’re growing up, you’re going to make it as a footballer as long as you don’t get injured. But I think there’s a lot of guys like me, with the skillset of someone like me, that need a little bit of luck on the way – and if it doesn’t quite happen for you and you don’t quite get that luck, as I did, you can go through life not experiencing what it’s like to be a professional footballer. I grew up with a lot of lad, around 15 or 16 [years old], that were better than me or as good as, and they didn’t make it. They didn’t get the breaks that I got – so luck definitely plays a part in it.

Advice for younger players

I suppose that ties into my next question quite nicely. What advice would you have for people getting to 14, 15, 16-years-old who are really wanting to pursue a career in football? It’s less than 1% that make it – so do you think there should be more emphasis on backup routes outside of football in case an injury does force them out of the sport?

Yeah, without a doubt. My biggest passion now isn’t the commentary for Leicester – I love doing it, but that’s not my biggest passion. My biggest passion is something called FSD that I started in 2017 – which is for sixteen to nineteen-year-olds and offers an education, a life skills programme and a football programme. [The reason] I started that up is because I wasn’t interested in education whatsoever growing up, like 99% of the footballers that have made it, or even those that haven’t made it. When you’re that football-minded, you don’t generally tend to concentrate on your education because you think you’re going to grow up and be a footballer.

As for my story, I made it – but at 25 I got injured and had to finish my career with nothing to fall back on. That was really important for me to emphasise that point to the next generation that education, life skills and how you hold yourself in social settings is just as important as trying to be a footballer – because as we all know, if you don’t make it… you’re going to have to go in a different direction and if you haven’t got any of those skills that I’ve just spoken about, you’re going to struggle in life to find what you want to do.

Dealing with injuries

Your spell at Sunderland was overshadowed by that injury. What advice would you give to players going through injuries – maybe not at the top level, but in academies or lower leagues?

What really helped me, because I was sort of injured throughout my whole career – I played the first thirteen games in the Premier League when I signed for Sunderland, and then it was kind of two games here, injured again, three more games six months later, injured again…

What I learned after about the third time I got a long-term injury was that you can still develop as a footballer, as a person, and as a human being, while you can’t play the game that you love. What I mean by that is I used to go on YouTube, I used to read books on football, on coaching – trying to develop myself in different ways that weren’t just attached to being out on the football pitch.

And what came back from that is that every time, I was a much better player because I understood the tactics of the game more, I understood my position more, I understood different tricks and skills that you learn in your mind first before you learn out on the football pitch. So my biggest advice for anyone that gets injured is [not to think] ‘oh I’m injured now so life stops, football stops, development stops’. It doesn’t. It all goes on, and that’s really important I think.

Career highlights

Moving on to some more personal highlights for you – scoring the final goal at Filbert Street has got to be up there, but where does that rank in your career highlights? Do you ever replay that moment in your head – and if that’s not the highlight, what is?

Well to be fair, in a short career and one that hasn’t really got many highlights in it – I won the Championship with Sunderland which was really big for me. I played fourteen games that season, so I contributed to it – even though [it wasn’t] that much. The rule from the league was that you had to have played fifteen games to get a Championship medal, but a manager gets three discretionary medals that he can give out on top of the squad’s medals. He gave me one – Mick McCarthy, because he said I contributed some really important moments throughout that season even though I wasn’t playing that much.

So that was big for me, being a part of that Championship-winning team. I got to a semifinal with Sunderland – the semifinal of the FA Cup, played at Old Trafford. We lost 1-0 to Millwall and they went on to play in the final, obviously, and lost against Manchester United. Going deep into that competition was a big highlight, but yeah – you’ve nailed it mate.

The biggest highlight of my career, and I didn’t even realise it at the time – I just really wanted to score my first Premier League goal! So yeah, I scored that header and sort of as time’s gone on, that goal has become much more important to me if you can understand what I mean. When you first score it, you’re just buzzing because you’ve scored a Premier League goal, and then over the years – because I’m not stupid, I realise that I think I played 23 times for the first team at Leicester – there’s a lot of guys and youngsters that come into the side and play that amount of games, and really the fanbase at Leicester don’t remember them unless prompted.

That goal has sort of, it gave me a little place in the folklore of the football club, I think. I feel blessed to have that, because obviously I’m a Leicester lad, and so that goal means a lot to me.

I can imagine that to have your name associated with Filbert Street going forwards is quite special!

Yeah! I mean it’s such a weird story about that goal, because as I say, I wanted to score my first Premier League goal. At the time, Dave Bassett was the manager and my contract was running out – I played in the Premier League for £375 a week when I scored that goal! The week before, I went into his office and asked for a new contract – and I asked for five grand a week, £5000 a week.

So from £375 to £5000 a week, which I thought was warranted because clearly I could play in the Premier League and I was doing well – and he basically said ‘no, you’re not getting it’. He said ‘you’ve not even scored a Premier League goal yet!’ – so I came out of that meeting and I thought, right, in that last game against Tottenham, not because I wanted to be the last goalscorer at Filbert Street, but because I wanted to prove a point and score my first Premier League goal so I could turn around and say to him ‘I’ve done it now, give me the five grand a week’. We shook on £2.5k a week, and then I signed my new contract.

Once again, we’d like to extend a huge thank you to Matt for agreeing to this interview. It was truly fascinating to gain his insight into his career as a professional footballer – and how it has affected his career after his early retirement, as he now spends much of his time working with FSD.

‘Keep an ear out’ for future FromTheSpot news, because we might just have something big in the pipeline for you all!

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