Matthew Briggs became the youngest player to feature in the Premier League in 2007. His career since has been a fascinating journey back to the top.
Matthew Briggs was walking through a building site heading towards a scaffolding and hefting a mortar block.
In the past few weeks it had become the routine he was accustomed to. It was a far cry from the Premier League pitches he had played in his youth.
‘I just stopped, and I was thinking, what has happened to me? How have I ended up here? No disrespect to the trade, I think it’s a great trade, but it was just not me. I’m a footballer. And I was thinking I’ve gone from playing Premier League and now I’m working on a building site. It knocked me for six.’
In the space of just a few years, Matthew Briggs went from playing for clubs like Fulham and Watford, to working with his uncle in an entirely different trade.
At 27 years of age, most people would have given up. They would have packed their bags and said their farewells to football. But not Matthew.
‘Ultimately there was switch in my head that just thought no. Something just told me don’t give up.’
It was a decision which would send him on a flying trajectory back to the top.
For most 16 year old kids the month of May heralds the long dreaded exams. GCSEs and revision is at the forefront of their minds. For Matthew Briggs, however, May meant playing in the Premier League.
In the midst of his GCSE exams, Briggs, who had made his debut for Fulham’s reserve team at the age of 14, received a call up to the club’s first team.
‘It was just one training session and the next day I was travelling to Middlesbrough with the first team,’ Matthew tells FTF.
‘I came on for twenty minutes on my debut and I had to sit my GCSEs the day after. At school everyone was just staring at me and rushing around me. A few people were asking for autographs. The reaction was overwhelming.’
By playing for Fulham at such a young age, Matthew made history. He became the youngest player to play in the Premier League.
‘At the time I didn’t really think too much of it until after when I started getting media attention because of it. That’s when I realised what I had done.’
Back to reality
When it was time to come back to pre-season Briggs was eager to get started.
‘I was excited for the season, but then I went back to Fulham and I was back in the youth team. I thought maybe it was just because it was pre-season and everyone was back with their age-groups, maybe once the season starts I’ll be integrated back into the first team but it never happened.’
That’s when his new status as the Premier League’s youngest player started to lie heavy on Matthew’s shoulders.
‘I had everyone asking, why are you not in the first team, why are you not playing? Why are you not training with them? And that’s when it started to become pressure, because you have all these expectations on your shoulders and it started to impact me mentally.’
Briggs admits it was a confusing time. From the club seeming to have complete faith in him to being completely shunned by the first team.
For a 16 year old that can be mentally draining.
‘No one really said much to me about why I wasn’t being included. And it did have a massive impact on my confidence.’
‘Laurie Sanchez (the manager of Fulham at the time) actually admitted in a documentary I did on Youtube that he never knew anything about me and he took very little interest in the youth set-up at the time, and he was simply told that it would be in the club’s best interest if he brought me on for my debut.’
Behind the scenes, Matthew had a lot of interest from other Premier League clubs prior to his historic cameo for Fulham. Teams like Chelsea and Arsenal were both interested.
‘I had offers from Arsenal and Chelsea, and I was swaying to go to one of them. My friend Craig Eastmond who was at Arsenal at the time kept telling me to come.’
However, before Matthew could make up his mind, Fulham came in with their own proposition. A debut in the Premier League was hard to refuse.
‘They offered to give me my debut, but in order for me to do that I had to sign a contract. When I look back on it, I think Fulham gave me my debut just to force me to sign their contract.’
Fulham’s promises of first team action simply vanished once Matthew had signed their contract. Instead he was stuck in a limbo. He trained with the first team on a regular basis but was never given a proper chance. Unable to play reserve games or go out on loan because he was seen as a ‘backup’, he admits it impacted his ‘development.’
Under Martin Jol, Briggs seemed to have a breakthrough. He became a regular in the club’s Europa League campaign before an injury curtailed his season. Jol promised to give him a new three year contract with the youngster’s current deal expiring at the end of the season. Sadly Jol was sacked.
‘When the new manager Felix Magath came in, he took the contract away.’
Briggs became a free agent.
‘I was injured for the whole year, so I didn’t have too many options. Millwall had Ian Holloway who had been after me for years so it seemed like the right choice. ‘
But Millwall wasn’t the destination Briggs hoped. Holloway’s perpetual rotational changes didn’t allow Matthew to get a proper momentum to his game.
‘I’d play for two weeks and I wouldn’t play for a week, then I’d play again and then I wouldn’t play for like three weeks.’
Ultimately, the two parties decided to part ways. Briggs went on loan to Colchester.
For the first two years everything went smoothly at Colchester. But then circumstances under Matthew’s control sent him on a tumultuous journey.
‘My son was born three months early, which was a really hard time to go through because he was in hospital for three months. Just before he was born I had a hip operation, so my final year at Colchester was a really stressful time.’
Briggs moved to Chesterfield at the end of the season. But things were far from settled. He had to commute ten hours to get to training.
‘Due to repercussions of my son being born early, it was a really traumatic time for my son’s mum, she ended up getting sick with all the stress from the pregnancy and my son being in hospital. She couldn’t even get out of bed, so I had to drive ten hours everyday and take care of her and my son.’
The stress of that couldn’t last for long.
‘In the end I had to throw in the towel at Chesterfield and we had to take her away to get treatment.’
Matthew ended up moving to Barnet on a non-contract basis for a month.
‘I came on to make my debut for the last ten minutes against Port Vale, and the next day the manager got the sack. The new manager didn’t want me and I was let go.’
That meant because Matthew had represented both Chesterfield and Barnet during the campaign, he was unable to find himself another league club for the remainder of the season.
‘I got so stressed because of everything that had happened, the trauma with my son, being worried about football and not being able to play. When I couldn’t find another league team, I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I ended up going into a bit of a depression.’
Everything was starting to catch up to Matthew. The stress and the pressure, it was too much to deal with. Any normal human being would struggle in those circumstances.
Briggs ended up working on a building site.
‘I have never done anything other than football, so it was a little bit of a culture shock for me. The guys who I worked alongside were good people, so that helped me a lot. I had my uncle there too.’
Mentally, perhaps the break from football was a necessary one. But like any artist or elite professional, the pull of the his craft lured him back to the game.
‘I just felt like someone had taken my legs away. No disrespect to the trade, I think it’s a great trade, but I was doing something that just wasn’t me.’
Then came the switch inside Briggs’ head. In a moment of inspiration he called his former coach in Colchester who passed his number onto Wayne Brown, then manager of eighth tier Maldon and Tiptree.
‘He used to coach me at Colchester so he knew me well, he told me he knew it wasn’t the level I wanted to play but that it would be a good start to get me back in the game.’
Briggs flourished in non-league. He won the club’s Player of the Year award.
‘I took it as my chance to get back in the game and I actually started to enjoy football again. No pressure. No stress. Things started to turn around for me from there.’
The Gold Cup
‘Guyana had been tracking me for a long time,’ Briggs admits. ‘It was always my dream to play international football. And when I started dropping down the leagues I decided to change my nationality.’
Guyana is a small Caribbean nation on the border with Brazil, Venezuela and Suriname.
‘It’s a beautiful country, it’s very hot, still has a bit of a rainforest. Life there is more relaxed, it’s more chill. The people are friendly and you get to have all the fresh fruits and stuff. It’s a nice relaxed way of life.’
In 2019, the country qualified for its first ever major tournament – the Gold Cup contested by nation’s belonging to the CONCACAF region.
Briggs after having impressed at Maldon and Tiptree was called up to play in the tournament.
‘It was a surreal experience, I came from nothing to playing on the international stage in a packed stadium against the US in the space of just a few months. It was incredible.’
Briggs had persevered and fought back from the abyss. He featured regularly in the country’s group games as Guyana finished third in a group with Panama, the USA and Trinidad Tobago.
The experience was indelible and it is something he is looking forward to doing again next year with Guyana only two games away from featuring in the group stages once again.
On the Rise
As a result of Briggs’ performances at the Gold Cup, the defender earned himself a move to HB Koge, a second division outfit in Denmark.
He was once again playing professional football.
‘I always had a dream to play abroad so I just snapped at the chance. The league is a decent level and it helped to jump start my career again.’
‘The game is a lot more technical here, lot less long-balls, it’s all about passing and moving and it’s fast paced too.’
After impressing for HB Koge, Briggs earned himself a move to Denmark’s first division with Vejle.
He is now facing teams like, Champions League outfit, F.C. Midtjylland and F.C. Copenhagen who troubled Manchester United in the Europa League last season.
It’s a remarkable comeback and Briggs’ story is far from over. He admits he dreams of one day returning to England.
With Briggs’ determination driving him on, there is no doubt he has the fighting spirit to achieve all his dreams.
There aren’t many who have fought back from the depths he has to succeed in such a cut-throat business.
One thing for sure, this is not the last you’ve heard of Matthew Briggs.