“Age is not about how old you are but how old you feel” Johnny Matthews (1946-2019)
There are many characters in the history of League of Ireland football. Some famous. Some infamous. Mick O’Brien would court danger by breaking the crossbar of his goalposts when Athlone Town were losing. Jackie Jameson could light up the grand old lady Dalymount when he held court there in the eighties. Liam Touhy was such an inspired thinker and talker about the game that his influence has extended to successive generations of players and coaches at both domestic and international level while Mick Leech was reverently called “the Jimmy Greaves of Irish football.”
Johnny Matthews was in that bracket. A man whose talents went hand in hand with a swashbuckling Waterford side that dominated our national league for the better part of the swinging sixties and economically challenged early seventies. A forward of such natural talent that along with Alfie Hale and John O’Neill he terrorized clubs the length and breath of the Emerald Isle with Waterford. One year they even hit 76 goals between themselves.
It was a time when football was played out on sub standard pitches, laced balls and heavy boots, yet the Blues style of play won admiration from their peers. Waterford’s clashes with their old adversaries Shamrock Rovers became the stuff of legend to a point that one game at Rovers hallowed Glenmalure Park in 1969 drew 24,000 to the ground.
Of course, there would be one undeniable link between both clubs by then.
Paddy Coad, who had started a revolution at Milltown in 1949 after the untimely passing of Jimmy Dunne (who had lined out for Arsenal, Southampton & Sheffield United, were he scored a record 41 goals in a season, still unbeaten) was given the unenviable task of overseeing what should have been a transitional period in Rovers history. The Waterford man brought in many young players, including Liam Tuohy, and the team became known as Coad's Colts. The Colts won 19 trophies between 1954 and 1959. Under the guidance of Coad, Rovers won three League of Ireland titles and the FAI Cup twice.
It was Coad who, in 1962, was given the task of working his magic with his hometown. The contrasting fortunes couldn’t be more different. Waterford were a struggling league side. In 1963/64 they finished second from bottom. A season later they propped up the league for the very first time and where told to “Pull their socks up” by Sam Prole, then Chairman of the league.
Paddy brought in players like the no-nonsense Jimmy McGeough from Derry City and the magical Vinny Maguire to bolster a side with the talents of Mick Lynch, Al and Shamie Casey, Noel Griffin, Paul Morrisey , and soon after Alfie Hale, one of the most clinical finishers in the history of the League of Ireland. Despite losing the opening game of the 1965/66 season 4-0 v Bohemians, the Suirsiders went on a run that saw them top the table come winter. It was here one final piece of an elaborate jigsaw finally, and fittingly, fell in place with the signature of a confident young good looking 20-year-old striker labouring away in Coventry City’s reserves looking for his big break.
Not that he had gone unnoticed by then Chairman Jimmy Hill. The Londoner, already a respected inside right in the domestic game after a nine year spell at Fulham, felt Johnny Matthews could do with some game time and sent the Coventry native on what was supposed to be a brief six week stint to Waterford to see could be hack it.
Signed and transferred on St. Patrick’s Day 1966 Johnny thought he was big business when he landed in the city by the Suir.
“When I crossed the bridge into Waterford I saw this big parade along the Quay. Someone said to me “This is for you. It’s because you signed for us!” I felt great. Little did I know it was the St. Patrick’s Day parade! To be honest I didn’t know what to expect from Waterford. I remember the first time I saw Kilcohan Park and thought that’s a nice training pitch, so where do they actually play! But I adapted well. It was easy to be honest with the team I had around me. There was so much natural talent it was a pleasure to play with them.” Johnny Matthews
Matthews played in the last seven games of the season, helping the Blues secure their first ever League of Ireland Championship in that historic 1965/66 season.
He immediately struck a chord with the Blues faithful, becoming a firm favourite. Johnny would go on to secure a total of six championship medals with Waterford. The Blues were the toast of the town, supported passionately at Kilcohan Park and followed the length of the country by their devoted fans. With success came ventures into Europe.
European Champions Manchester United came calling on September 18th 1968 in a game switched to Lansdowne Road where 48,000 souls watched Best, Law, Crerand and Co win 3-1 yet all the press talked of was the 65th minute strike past Alex Stepney courtesy of Matthews.
Two years later Matthews made his mark again as Waterford went down 3-2 to Scottish giants Celtic in the European Cup (the Blues had been ahead 2-0 in a match one Scottish paper had commented as “a game to watch the slaughter of the part-time Leprechauns”) to ad to his European tally.
Johnny would leave Suirside after 13 years in 1979 but immediately continued his success story by becoming a stalwart under Eoin Hand at Limerick United who took the Shannonsiders to their first League of Ireland title in 20 years. This would lead to yet another stab at Europe and with it one of the most unjust decisions in football at the time. Limerick had been handed a dream tie against Spanish giants Real Madrid. Even by 1980 the Benabeu based side had won La Liga 20 times, not to mention an historic six European Cups. The home tie was switched from Market’s Field (a terrible decision as less than 7,500 turned out at Lansdowne Road) so Hand knew what he was up against.
For a while the rule book went of the window on September 17th 1980 as Limerick United gallantly took the game to Madrid, lead 1-0 at half-time through Des Kennedy, only to be undone through two goals in the last 20 minutes – a debatable penalty (Juanito) and a late 85th minute winner (Pineda). It gave the league one of its heart-breaking “Close but no cigar” moments because what could have proved a real game changer came in the 25th minute when Matthews worked some space for himself at the edge of the six yard box ahead of defender Iasidro and got in position to slide home Johnny Walsh’s superb cross. But before the roars had died from Limerick supporters throat the ref ruled that Matthews had strayed offside. It was a hairline decision at best.
“I done two cartwheels and a wave at the crowd before I looked over and saw the linesman with his flag up. I tell you one thing it’s a good job he didn’t understand my Coventry English! I was so disappointed.” Johnny Matthews
The goal would have given Johnny a unique European treble of goals against three European Cup winning sides in Manchester United, Celtic and Real Madrid.
There would be stints with Cork United (1981/82) and back with the newly renamed Waterford United (1982/83) before ending the eighties with spells at Galway United and Longford Town. Having acquired so much knowledge over 20 years in his profession it seemed only natural that the adopted Waterfordian would take the managerial hot seat at some point. That arrived with First Division Newcastlewest in a Player- Manager role in 1986/87. At that point the Limerick based side had entered the still new First Division structure, taking charge of half a season and guiding them to a mid-table finish, however it was a call to arms from Kilcohan Park two years later which marked another success in Matthews CV.
In the 1988/89 Premier Division season Waterford had been relegated for the first time in their history so they started their 60th year as a club in the First Division. Form was desperate, morale was low and attendances had dropped to less than 300. The Blues may have been a big fish in a small pond after relegation, but everybody want a nibble off your weary carcass.
Immediately Matthews reinvigorated his side and there would be a 27-game mammoth clash with Dermot Keely’s Sligo Rovers to see who would snap up automatic promotion. It came down to a two- legged play off. The Bit O’ Red took a slender lead 1-0 from the first leg at the Showgrounds but Matthews men prevailed in front of a paying crowd of £4,240 Kilcohan a week later by winning 2-1 after extra time. Both clubs had been playing for a paltry £4,000 from League sponsors Opel but money was never the motivation here. Of course the game will also live long in the memory for Johnny’s inspired clothing of choice that day, a ramshackle Superman effort which he ran the touchline every time the Blues scored. I remember it because those goals (“Mock Reid on 24 minutes and Kevin Kelly in extra-time) cost me two burgers. One from the crowd pinning me to the ground and the other I left fall in sheer amazement at this lunatic in a Superman suit running up and down the touchline when Waterford scored.
Years later I remarked to him “Hey Superman, you owe me a burger” when we sat down to talk about possibly of writing his biography which he wanted to be called “Sent from Coventry”. It’s with a heavy heart that I write this piece given the events of the last 24 hours.
One part of Johnny’s make-up was that he never took any bullshit. What you saw was what you got. It was this steadfast attitude that saw him clash with management at Kilcohan Park just weeks after the Blues First Division promotion, which ended up in him vacating the seat much to the dismay of the Waterford faithful. He had argued for certain assurances but felt he was never backed on them.
With an in-depth knowledge of the Junior League structure in Waterford it would only be a matter of time before Matthews took the reigns at one of the local clubs, having particular success with Waterford Glass before he donned the black of the man in the middle and becoming one of the most respected referee’s the town has ever seen.
Having played Junior League football for ten years and wrote about it for another 20 I don’t think I ever heard a single bad word said about Johnny. He could take the flack many defenders, midfielders or forwards would naturally dish out on the field of play, but his knowledge and reading of the game meant Johnny got it right a lot more times that the opposite. And he was respected for that. He took no bullshit. My mind wonders back to a game for Kilbarry Rangers away to Rathgormack in 1993 which was a spectacular 3-3 between the two worst sides in Division 4A were he disallowed a goal for Rathgormack after warning them of the two gaping holes they had in the net , which eventually saw yours truly level in injury time and Kilbarry go unbeaten for a record two games that year, thus pushing us off the bottom.
Johnny was so full of life. He ran a franchise on it. My heart goes out to his family and friends through this difficult time. A part of all our hearts have been broken this morning. His legacy is assured. Long ago. You only have to look at the outpouring of grief, good times and tales many, many people could have told about Johnny.