Midfield schemer is a much over-used phrase. When applied to Matthew Oakley it takes on a whole new meaning, however.
"I would like to set up a design company when I have finished with football. It is something that I am really interested in," the Southampton player says. Indeed, Oakley drew up the plans for his own home. "I took on a house about 18 months ago," he says. "I took it off plan. The outside had been done and I designed all my interiors." The house, in Southampton, is, unsurprisingly, modern. As is everything about this forward-looking club.
Strange that Oakley should be discussing his future just before the biggest game of his career: the FA Cup Final today against Arsenal. But the 25-year-old is no ordinary footballer. Indeed, he was once so disenchanted with the game that he decided to quit. Aged just 15. And the club he was attached to? Well, it just had to be Arsenal, didn't it? He was a schoolboy at Highbury for two years. "I did not really enjoy it," says Oakley. "I used to leave school at 4pm and jump on buses and trains to meet my dad and he would have to rush me down into London to go for an hour's training. It was something that I was not that into and that is why I probably left. The link was there but I never really felt part of Arsenal." His coach then was Pat Rice, who will be by Arsène Wenger's side today as his assistant.
The Oakley family were living in Hertfordshire and the young Matthew, a schoolboy team-mate of Lee Bowyer and Stephen Hughes, was so disenchanted that he decided not to pursue a career in the game. "I did not enjoy my football at that point," says Oakley. "I was doing so much sport that I fell out of love with football." Other interests took his attention. "I was more into drawing at that time, graphics and that sort of stuff," says Oakley, whose uncle and aunt are both architects. "And I was going to go into architecture." And so he went back to school, to complete his GCSEs. "I started playing local football and there was a scout there from Southampton who just said: 'Would you come down?' I said 'no'," Oakley explains frankly.
It was then that his mother, Sally, intervened – not to tell him to get his qualifications, but to gather his boots. "She said go and have a look and see what you think. I came down not really expecting much and fell in love with the place, really." He arrived for a week's trial, which turned into a month, and stayed. "I think the difference was I was stuck in digs with other lads that had come from homes as well. We bonded quite quickly and I felt part of it," Oakley says. Nevertheless, he is the only one of that group of apprentices who has made it into professional football.
Nine years later the young midfielder has recorded 197 appearances and survived seven managers at the, until recently, unstable south-coast club, having been initially taken on by Ian Branfoot and then signed as a professional by Alan Ball. Now, under manager Gordon Strachan, he is the longest-serving Southampton player, given Jason Dodd's absence, who will appear today. And if Chris Marsden, despite coming through the latest training session, does not overcome the knee injury that threatens to deprive him off his day in the sun, it will be the assuming Oakley who wears the captain's armband. "The big thought for me is that if Chris does not play then I will be leading the team out," he admits. "Hopefully James [Beattie] will score the goal and I will lift the Cup." Unsurprisingly, he feels indebted to his mother who will be there today, as she was at the semi-final at Villa Park against Watford. "She was just like a little girl again," says Oakley, before agreeing, with a smile: "I was lucky that my mum pushed me in the right direction."
Today will represent quite some turn-around. He started the season out of favour and unsure of his future, although that did not last long. By Christmas, Strachan was calling for Oakley, an England Under-21 international, to be included in the full squad. "This season has been quite hard for me," Oakley says. "Because the manager did not fancy me at the beginning. He went with Anders [Svensson] and Rory [Delap] in the middle and said: 'You are going to have to fight your way back in'." He quickly did.
Nevertheless, Oakley credits Strachan with making the difference this season, his first full term in charge. "He has got this enthusiasm and it just rubs off on you," he says. "After the team talks, you just walk out on to the pitch and you are ready for the game. He has played a big part in it." So the one thing Strachan has instilled – along with his prodigious work ethic – is confidence.
"Clubs always talk about the cup run," admits Oakley. "And I don't think we are ever going to compete at the top end of the table. It was always 'we want a cup run, we want a cup run', but our minds were always on relegation and getting the cup games out of the way."
"That was always the way it panned out and we never really got beaten by a top side, it was always a lower-division side. Whereas this year we have taken the old cliché of each game as it comes." In doing so they have defeated both top-flight (Tottenham Hotspur) and lower division (Millwall, Norwich City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Watford) on their way to Cardiff.
Another big factor in Southampton's extraordinary season – an eighth-place finish in the Premiership and into Europe – has been the 24 goals of James Beattie. "This year we have believed in ourselves but the big difference has been James," Oakley says. "The ability has always been there and this year he has believed that he will be at the top of that league, scoring all the goals. That is the way we play, getting the ball into James as much as we can and he has been putting the ball in the back of the net for us." Not that Oakley has scored many himself – just the two, both excellent, clean strikes from outside the penalty area in the hard-fought victory over Millwall in a tense replay at the New Den. It was after that determined win – which had followed a last-minute equaliser at St Mary's – that Southampton started to believe they could go much, much further in this year's competition.
Exposure to Strachan and his enthusiasm has not changed Oakley's mind about a future outside of football, however. "I think I would be frustrated with coaching," he admits. "That may change when I am 35 but at the moment that is the way I see it." Then it may well be that he goes back to college to gain the qualifications he needs for architecture. But for now he still has designs on other things – thanks to his mum, of course.Reuse content