Veteran midfielder talks about his time in professional football having reached 600 League gamesMatt Oakley made his 600th league appearance in professional football when he came on as a second-half substitute in City’s 3-2 win at Colchester United on in early September.
Matt has had a long and distinguished career in the game starting out at Southampton, playing alongside the likes of Matt Le Tissier and Francis Benali, before going on to achieve promotions with Derby County and Leicester. Simon Larkins caught up with Matt to discuss his career which has spanned more than 20 years.
Question: Hello Matt, you recently made your 600th league appearance in professional football. Was that something you were aware of and what does it mean to you?
Matt: I don’t know really. I stopped counting years ago, but it is obviously a nice milestone to make. I think 500 was back at Leicester and it is great, being 39 and still playing. I wasn’t expecting that when I was first playing games, so I’m very, very pleased.
Q: You league debut was back in 1995. Can you remember much about that game?
Matt: Yes, my league debut was at Everton. I think it was May time as it was one of the last games of the season. Alan Ball was my manager and he had seen me playing in youth team and he wanted to take me with the first team. I thought I was just going along to support and help out with kit, but I ended up being named on the bench. It was last 10 or 15 minutes I came on for.
Q: Can you remember who was in that team and who you came on for?
Matt: I don’t remember who I came on for, but I remember playing against Anders Limpar. He was one of the players who I liked when he was at Arsenal as I was an Arsenal fan. Neville Southall was in goal, so there were some big names in that Everton side. I don’t remember much about the 10 to 15 minutes that I got at the end, but I remember shaking Neville’s hand and it being the size of a dust bin lid.
Q: There were some really big names in the Southampton side at that time as well. What were those characters like?
Matt: That was around the time when the foreign players were coming in, but we had strong British and Irish core to our team with people like Jason Dodd, Francis Benali, Matt Le Tissier, Jim Magilton and Dave Beasant. There were some big, big characters there and then we had the foreign lads coming in. So we had the likes of Claus Lundekvam, Egil Østenstad, Eyal Berkovic and Anders Svensson. We had some really good quality coming in. We had the games when we beat Manchester United 6-3 and the other game where Manchester United blamed their kit. The 6-3 was an interesting game, I played it that one and it was pretty special.
Q: It must have been a great to play at the Dell also?
Matt: Yes, it was a tough place to go. You played on that ground and the ball would go out for a throw and, if you were in the crowd, you could literally grab a player. So the away teams didn’t like playing there at all and we got some really good results because of that.
Q: Looking at that Premier League era and midfielders you would have come up against, it was a time where the division was blessed with top class players in the centre of the park. Who was the toughest of those players to play against?
Matt: Patrick Veira, he was just a complete all-round midfielder. He was an athlete. He was strong and powerful, could score goals and tackle. I just thought he was the pinnacle. He also played for my club as well, so maybe I am a little bit biased towards him because there are players like (Paul) Scholes, (David) Beckham, (Roy) Keane, Nicky Butt, (Steven) Gerrard and (Jamie) Redknapp who you could mention. In fact, the list goes on. However, Veira was the pinnacle.
Q: It was a great time to be at Southampton as well because it was a really successful time?
Matt: We had four years where it was really touch and go and Matt Le Tissier carried us with his goals, but then there was the transfer of a bit more of quality. The change of the stadium, from the Dell, attracted more investment and the team got stronger. Then we had (Theo) Walcott coming through, Wayne Bridge and (Gareth) Bale. You started seeing the club evolve.
Q: Was it your injury troubles that ended your time at Southampton?
Matt: Yes, I was playing really well at the time. There had been a lot of talk about England and that was the golden era of midfield players in the Premier League. Then, out of the blue, I landed and went to turn and the next thing I felt a pop in my knee and two years later I was trying to find myself back playing. It was disappointing really, because I felt I was really fulfilling what I was going to do.
Q: Then of course you joined Derby County and captained them to promotion from the Championship?
Matt: Yes, it was strange really because I was at stayed at Southampton for nearly 12 years and I was loyal to the club and it wasn’t until I left that had the success. The Derby team was unique at that point of being a very tight, tight group. We got up through the play-offs, we went to Wembley and I lifted the trophy. I got sold very quickly after that though, when the board changed manager, and went to Leicester and then found myself in League One in the space of 12 months. Derby sold me a really big dream when Billy Davies was there. I was really close to Billy. He was explaining what was happening with the club and they were talking about a three-year plan, but we did it in the first year. And everyone says how poor Derby were in the Premier League but we were just building for the Championship as part of that three-year plan. We got promoted in the first year of that and we found ourselves up against the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal with a weakened Championship team. We were always going to go down and unfortunately the board changed and had the money from Sky and the TV rights. There was a new influx of players and I just didn’t want to be part of that. I didn’t see where the club was going so I left and went to Leicester.
Q: How would you look back at your time at Leicester?
Matt: I had some good times there. There were some really good people at that club. Obviously when I was there we went from Championship to League One, which was an experience for me, but we rebuilt and got some good players in. There were players that needed to go and it was freshened up and we had some good years under Nigel Pearson, who is funnily enough now at Derby one of my old clubs. He put in a structure at the club that they are now reaping the rewards from.
Q: It was on next to Exeter City. How did that come about?
Matt: It was interesting really. The rules changed and they took the seven subs down to five and that year was when Sven-Göran Eriksson had taken over. I got on really well with him. He signed an amount of players based on their being seven subs and think it was only a couple of weeks before the season that they changed the rules and I found myself sat in the stand alongside nine top starting players. I was not even making the bench so I said to Sven ‘I don’t want to sit around in the stands. I’m towards the end of my career and I want to play.’ Then Paul (Tisdale) called me out of the blue and said: “What are you doing? Do you fancy coming and helping me out and helping with the young players.” And I said: ‘Yes, let’s do it.’ I have been here since.
Q: How much have you enjoyed your time at Exeter City?
Matt: Yes, I’ve loved it. It is a fantastic club that is run completely different to any other club. That is credit to Julian (Tagg), Paul (Tisdale) and Steve (Perryman) in how they have set up and the way they bring on young players. As you can see now we have got a 15-year-old playing in our team and you wouldn’t see that at any other club. They would wait and wait and wait until he was in a position to get in the first team, not like Paul. Paul wants him to learn as fast as he can. He’ll look after him and we will build him in slowly.
Q: Was that a big selling point for the move to Exeter City; that you could come in and help with the youngsters?
Matt: Yes, I like passing on what I have been through. The young players here are respectful. They like to ask questions and they listen and they look like they want to learn. I have been at other clubs were they think they have made it and they are not receptive of what you are passing on.
Q: What advice would you pass on to a youngster looking to emulate your appearance record?
Matt: I always had the mindset of playing games. I wanted to play the next game and I never really got elevated whether we won or lost. I sorted of stayed in the middle zone. If we won, I wouldn’t go over the top. I wouldn’t have thought I had made it. And if we got beat I wouldn’t get too down. It is a game at the end of the day and you have got to get out and play again. So, I had that knack of staying in that middle zone and obviously fitness helps. My body was always able to play games. So my advice would be to enjoy playing and work on prevention of injuries and keeping yourself fit.
Q: And it is a player coach role you have now got at Exeter?
Matt: I have signed a contract until January. I wasn’t going to continue this season, but Paul spoke to me at the end of the season and said he’d like for me to continue. So we discussed things and he sees value in me being on the bench and helping with the coaching and being around for the last half an hour in games, because we know that is when certain decisions are being made. That is when he wants me to be around and I’m more than happy to do that.
Q: I suppose you have probably played more than you would have anticipated with the injury crisis we have had.
Matt: Yes, I have been called on pretty quickly. It has obviously not been a great start injury-wise. However, if we can just get through the next two to three weeks and we start to get some of our players out of the treatment room we will have a very good team.
Q: Is it coaching that you want to go into long term or tactical analysis?
Matt: I like the analysis. I do that for Paul now. I will look at who we are playing next and do the pre-match analysis and, when time allows, I also do the post-match analysis. We work on a lot of stuff that you wouldn’t see behind the scenes. It gives us a little bit of a structure and a little bit of a focus. I like the psychology side of things as well though. That is the route I see myself going down as I see psychology as a massive part of football. And, if the younger players, can see a little bit of what I have been through and I can pass it on through knowledge of psychology then that will help them.
*This interview with Matt Oakley appeared in issue six of The Grecian on Saturday. For an exclusive interview with Danny Butterfield on his time at Exeter City pick up a copy of The Grecian at City’s next home match against Notts County on September 27.