Footballers' Lives with Matthew Tipton: 'Mental health awareness is very important. I've been affected by suicide and something like that never leaves your memory'
Portadown boss Matthew Tipton talks to Graham Luney about his much-travelled career and the significance of encouraging his players to open up.
Q: What are your early football memories?
A: My parents were young when they had me and we played football together. My dad, Chris, was 17 and brought me to play football with his mates. I was born into football in that sense. For my fifth birthday in 1985, I just wanted a football birthday party. We had a black and white leather football and I booted it against the fence. It was a big estate in Bangor, Wales, and all the kids wanted to play outside. I can remember scoring a diving header with the school team and I went from there. A few kids, including myself, got trials at Liverpool. Steve Heighway and Steven Gerrard were there and I was invited back to the club’s Centre of Excellence at the age of nine which was brilliant. I ended up playing football with kids twice my age at home and it felt like we played all day. Nothing changed until I left home, aged 16, and I joined Oldham.
Q: You were very young then, how did that work out?
A: Oldham had set up a coaching centre in Wales so I didn’t need to travel. They looked after me very well including after I broke my ankle. They arrived at my house on my birthday and presented me with a number nine shirt. I agreed a four year deal from 14 to 18. At under-16 level, I started to break into the youth team.
Q: At that point did you feel a football career was possible?
A: Without being big headed, from the age of 10 I knew I had a chance. I was going to Liverpool and if those top clubs are interested you know there’s an opportunity if you’ve got the desire to make it happen. I kept scoring goals and my parents were being offered good money. We felt we owed Oldham and should show them loyalty. I left home but didn’t get homesick. It was a dream to try to make it as a footballer and I threw myself into the challenge. I was impatient and wanted to make the reserves as soon as possible.
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Dave Miskelly was there and we shared digs. I’ve heard people say they are homesick but I don’t understand that. You’ve got to embrace the lifestyle and give it everything you have. We got four-year pro contracts and I joined the first team squad under Neil Warnock.
Q: Of all the clubs you played for, what was your happiest time?
A: For the first few years at Oldham, I was living the dream. I really enjoyed my first spell at Macclesfield as I did really well. I was captain and scored plenty of goals as we got to the play-offs. Then I moved onto Mansfield which was a disaster. I went there for the money and it’s a lesson. I tell players now don’t just do things for money. I regretted it instantly. I was brave enough to admit the mistake. It’s easy to say now I should have went somewhere else. Looking back, I probably could have stayed at Oldham longer.
Q: What about settling at one club. Would that have suited you more?
A: You don’t always have that option. Contract offers get withdrawn and sometimes you have disagreements with clubs. It’s easy to look back and say I could have been less rash in certain situations. Injuries can be disruptive as well. At the age of 26, my head went and I thought about retiring but I got the love of the game back.
Q: You worked with Keith Alexander at Macclesfield. Did his death hit you hard?
A: Keith died at the beginning of March, 2010. We had lost 1-0 at Notts County and after the game I wasn’t happy that he didn’t put me on as I felt we needed a goal. I was confident and I had always done well at their ground. I was waiting for him after the game and then thought I’ll leave it until tomorrow. We all went home and the next morning I got told he passed away. I helped to take training for a few weeks.
It was horrible because Keith had brought me back into football after a period in the wilderness. I started enjoying football again. He was a great guy, brilliant with the players. You can’t put your feelings into words. There’s a hell of a lot more to life than stressing yourself over one result. After his funeral I scored a penalty and we won 1-0 at Accrington. I just remember thinking we lifted the mood a little.
One time my wife Becci was in hospital and going into labour and I told Keith. He said ‘I need you’. He phoned me back quickly and said: ‘I’m so sorry, I don’t know what I was thinking about, I’ll work something out and keep me updated.’ I always say family comes first and Keith recognised that.
Q: What is your best football moment?
A: I scored the goal that kept Bury in the Football League, we were 2-1 down and I scored twice, then my shirt was off and I was in the crowd. I really enjoyed the whole time at Macclesfield. I won a penalty for Oldham at Maine Road but wasn’t allowed to take it. I played for Wales up to under-21 level but just missed out on a senior cap. I just look back on my whole career and feel good about it.
Not many people do it and I’m still doing it. I’m a privileged person in that I’m 39 and don’t feel I’ve really worked a day in my life. I coach kids 16 to 19 for Belfast Met and have my own coaching business in primary schools. I loved every single goal I scored, they are the highlights. In contrast, when I was manager of Warrenpoint I put myself on and got sent off after 10 minutes! But we won the Championship and Mid-Ulster Cup. I tell players there will be a lot more days when you will feel down about football, that’s just the reality.
Even if you win and have a bad game you will feel disappointed. The only time I got a 10 out of 10 rating was when I scored a hat-trick for Dundalk against Michael O’Neill’s Shamrock Rovers. We won 5-1 live on Sky and Portadown manager Ronnie McFall was onto me! I can also remember scoring a hat-trick for the Ports at Solitude to get into Europe.
Q: Who was the best player you have played with?
A: John Sheridan at Oldham, even at the age of 36, was unbelievable. Lee Duxbury was captain at Oldham and a machine. He had a fantastic will to win and I learned a lot from him.
Q: Toughest opponent?
A: Former Manchester United and England defender Wes Brown, without a doubt. We were the same age and he had everything - pace, power, strength and was great at reading the game. You never felt you could get the better of him.
Q: Has Ronnie McFall been a big influence on you?
A: My family moved over from England to try something different. I’m living in Comber now and used to travelling. I loved my time here and hit the ground running. Ronnie let me get in the box and do damage. Without him and Portadown, I wouldn’t be in this position as manager of the club. Becci is manager of Asda in Newtownards. George has come through ClubNI but he was born in England and is Welsh through me too. George is 16 and James is 10.
Q: Ronnie’s career ended on a bit of a sour note at Glentoran, did you feel sorry for him?
A: I did because he came in to do them a favour. I didn’t like the way it finished for him at Portadown either. Some people are a bit bitter but I feel he should be revered at the club. I’ve invited him back and would love to see him back at Shamrock Park. The club is going in a different direction and in my view there should be a statue of Ronnie there. I hope wounds can heal and I’ll hold out an olive branch. I didn’t want to leave Portadown but I wanted a two-year deal after moving my family here and Linfield offered a good opportunity.
Q: How do you reflect on your time at Linfield?
A: It just didn’t work out. It was a club in transition and I didn’t really know that. Experienced players were leaving and the team didn’t click quick enough. I was desperate to be fit for the European games but I never really gave myself much time off. I put my body through too much stress when I should have given myself a proper rest. I scored 21 goals in 30 games for them which was a decent record.
Q: Has your family been supportive?
A: My mum and dad, Chris and Julie, live in Wales and they’ve been unbelievable. I was a kid going to Liverpool and Chester a few times a week and needed their support. You don’t realise how hard it is to juggle things until you have kids yourself and they clearly made big sacrifices. They are still waiting for the big house I promised them! Myself and Becci have been married since 2004 and been together 23 years since we were 16 and met in an Oldham nightclub. Without her, I don’t know how I would have got through the tough times. When I was young and stupid, she reeled me in. Becci goes to matches and we’ll chat about it quite a lot.
Q: Away from football, have you had to deal with any tough times?
A: It was hard when Becci’s mum Anne passed away. We were around 21. Anne was in her late 40s. I had football to go back to and it was like a release but I supported Becci. She has a good relationship with her father, Bob. I think living in a different part of the world has helped us move a little bit forward as a family. When something terrible happens it can hit you hard. We are a lot more mental health aware now and I’m a big supporter of it.
I want players to know my door is open. People don’t want to tell you there is something wrong. It’s not easy for people to open up about things that can make us feel down. As you get older, you learn more and on the Pro Licence course mental health and your own well being was very important.
A manager can’t do everything when it comes to dealing with all the players and Dave (Miskelly) is a big help to me. I’m 39 and still a young manager. I’m a novice. You change as a person and I think I’m more tolerant now. I’ve also been affected by suicide and when that happens to friends or family it can be very difficult to accept. Something like that never leaves your memory.
Q: Does the Portadown job keep you busy?
A: It’s full-time and I’m kept very busy. There’s never any down time from training plans to meetings. We want to get back into the Premiership and that’s my job. When I joined the club, there was no cohesion and now we have managed to merge the youth and first team together. The average age of the squad was about 19 and we have to develop our own players but I know I can’t just play kids all the time.
Q: Do you miss playing?
A: Not really. I knew I wanted to go into management and towards the end of my career I was injured. You get time to do stuff like socialising! People talk about the craic of the dressing room but the guys are working a lot and have to spend a lot of time with their families. I’ve thought about writing a book… if I have time!
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