Thursday 23 January 2020

Obituary: Johnny Matthews

The ex-Waterford FC player and boss collected a record seven League of Ireland medals, writes Sean Ryan

Winner: Johnny Matthews at the FAI National Draw at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin, in 2013. Photo: Sportsfile
Winner: Johnny Matthews at the FAI National Draw at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin, in 2013. Photo: Sportsfile

Sean Ryan

The death on Christmas Day of former Waterford FC footballer Johnny Matthews has led to a massive outpouring of tributes from across the sporting spectrum, emphasising the high regard in which he was held in his adopted city.

Johnny came on a six-week loan from Coventry City in March 1966 as a 19-year-old, quickly won the approval of the Blues fans for his twinkling footwork and ability to score goals, met the love of his life, Mary Clare, and departed the scene, aged 73, only after fighting a losing battle with an inoperable brain tumour diagnosed last summer.

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Although his father, Horace, had been a professional footballer with Coventry, Johnny was educated at a rugby-playing school, and proved adept at the oval ball game, winning a Warwickshire Schools County cap, and scoring tries regularly from the out-half and full-back positions.

He only started playing football when he was 15. However, he quickly made up for lost time, his form with the Coventry Youth Club attracting the league club's attention.

After a successful trial, he helped City's youth side to reach the semi-final of the FA Youth Cup and was signed as a professional when he turned 17.

Although a left-winger, he came to the fore because of his ability to score goals.

"I noticed that Eusebio scored a lot of his goals from six yards by staying at the far post when others wouldn't expect the ball to get that far," he recalled. It was a tactic he adopted with great success.

Kept out of the first team by the form of Welsh international Ronnie Rees, Johnny suffered a setback when he had to have a cartilage removed, and it was towards the end of his recuperation that Coventry manager Jimmy Hill, the renowned TV pundit, was asked by Blues striker Mick Lynch if he had a player for loan who could strengthen their chances in the league and cup - in which they had reached the semi-final.

Hill asked Johnny to go over for six weeks as it was a good chance to play first team football. When the league title was won he was asked to stay another year, and he found the incentive of playing European Cup football too hard to resist.

He went on to win a record seven league titles, six with Waterford and one with Limerick, three runners-up medals in the FAI Cup, nine inter-league caps, and played in 16 European Cup ties.

Topping all that, of course, was meeting his wife, Mary Clare, on the train returning from a cup semi-final against Dundalk in Dublin. She was the daughter of former Waterford chairman Don Kennedy so it was a football match in every sense.

Undoubtedly it was Matthews's fantastic scoring record that endeared him to Blues fans. In 342 League appearances, he scored a club record 147 goals, and he added a further nine goals with Limerick and Cork United for a total of 156, which is ninth in the all-time league scoring charts.

His memorable goals include a penalty against the English League XI in 1971 when he sent Gordon Banks the wrong way, a rocket shot from 25 yards that beat Linfield, and goals against Manchester United and Celtic in the European Cup. "To be involved in games like that was an honour in itself," he said, "to score was a bonus."

When Waterford were relegated from the Premier Division, they turned to Johnny to steady the ship. He was told it would have to be an all-local team, so he informed the eight imports from Dublin that they wouldn't be needed, and found a bunch of locals who proceeded to win the First Division title. It was a notable success, but it didn't guarantee security of tenure as he was let go by the directors.

A bubbly character and a gentleman, Johnny was only once sent off, and that was for allegedly telling the referee that he was allowing the opposing captain to referee the game, something the said captain owned up to afterwards.

He was also booked in unusual circumstances on a foggy day in Ballybofey. He hit the ball so hard that it hit the back stanchion and came out. The referee, who mustn't have seen it hit the stanchion, waved play on, and an irate Matthews was booked for protesting.

Perhaps it was incidents like that which prompted him to take to refereeing when his playing and managing careers were over.

He made it to the highest level, and was regarded as the best thing that ever happened by a schoolboys' administrator, as the boys and their parents all knew and respected him.

A great competitor, Johnny tried his hand at many sports and was more than capable at most of them, captaining Munster at cricket, and also playing squash, tennis and golf to a good level.

All along the way, he made plenty of friends and there has been an outpouring of appreciation from them for the huge contribution he made to life in Waterford in the last 53 years.

Among Johnny's many talents was his ability to spin a few words together, whether on air as a pundit or in print as a reporter at League of Ireland games.

He carried out both functions for a number of years, and was an honoured member of the Soccer Writers' Association of Ireland.

He is survived by his wife Mary Clare, daughters Jenny and Sarah, and sister Gloria.

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