Matt Jansen: I was suicidal. I kept asking 'why me?'
Brilliant for Blackburn and a World Cup possible for England before a horrific accident almost claimed his life and cut short his career. Now he's fighting back. Nick Townsend speaks to Matt Jansen
Sunday 25 April 2010
It's nearly time for the cull. Joy and despair jostling each other, separated only by one man's judgement and intuition as players wait to discover if they've made Fabio Capello's final cut.
Matt Jansen knows the feeling. In 2002, he was on the cusp. Japan and South Korea beckoned, and he was awaiting the confirmation that he and his club manager Graeme Souness had been led to expect, by no less than Sven Goran Eriksson himself. The Blackburn Rovers striker had been measured for his World Cup suit and invited to a party that David Beckham threw on the eve of the squad's departure.
The call never came, provoking a chain reaction that nearly ended his life, and effectively terminated his career, certainly within elite football. Which is why, at 32, Jansen awaits me not at a Premier League training ground, but here at Leigh Genesis, of the Unibond League Division One North, where he is player-coach under manager Garry Flitcroft, once his captain at Ewood Park.
Just in passing, you broach Capello's current striking dilemma, and suggest what an impression he, Jansen, could still have made on today's team had fate not so cruelly intervened. He possessed such potential that it is impossible not to ponder what he could have become.
He talks of Jermain Defoe and Wayne Rooney being the most talented, though not always in harmony, and the merits of Emile Heskey or Peter Crouch in tandem with the Manchester United man, before suddenly suggesting: "You never know. I might get a shout." The accompanying laughter belies the years of frustration since he was genuinely in contention. "If he [Capello] had been here a month or so ago I might have got the nod!" On that evening he had scored a hat-trick.
"If it had been in the Premier League, you'd have said they were three of the best goals you've seen for a long time," Flitcroft told me later. Except these were in the 4-3 defeat of Rossendale United, before a crowd of 61.
For much of the last eight years, Jansen has committed his very existence to a return to the Premier League. He has, on occasions, accepted it was not to be, but then reapplied himself. Still believing. Until last year.
Yet, though he is now fully committed to a future of coaching, and harbours ambitions of management, no one would condemn him if a sense of grievance still seared his being. Back in 2002, he was 24, a creative striker. He was elusive, clever, a good finisher, and blessed with pace. As he puts it himself, he was "on fire" for Rovers. He had always been a free spirit. Raised near Carlisle, he had played for his local club but, when he moved on, had rejected Manchester United in favour of Crystal Palace, who subsequently sold him to Rovers for £4.1 million.
Capped six times at Under-21 level, he had arrived belatedly on the periphery of England's senior scene. "Sven Goran Eriksson was at our game at Liverpool the day before the squad was announced and he told Graeme Souness that I should try not to get injured because I was going to the World Cup," he recalls. But his name didn't appear on the roster. "It was quite a shock," says Jansen. "But apparently, Sven and Tord Grip decided they should have an extra defender and so, at the 11th hour, they took Martin Keown instead of me." Keown didn't play any part.
Jansen wouldn't be the first to suffer such rejection, of course, although it was handled maladroitly. He decided a break in Italy was the answer.
"It was the weekend that the squad were going to Dubai [on England's pre-tournament week there]. I thought 'stuff this, I'll go with my girlfriend [Lucy, now his wife and mother of their two young children]. Get away from football, everything'. Well, we got away from it, but ended up staying away for a little bit longer than I'd planned..."
They hired a moped in Rome, and at a crossroads Jansen was edging out when a taxi struck them. Lucy was unscathed, surviving with just a graze, and dreadful memories. "She thought I was dead," said Jansen, who suffered a brain haemorrhage and was in a coma for six days before returning home.
Yet, remarkably, he was playing for Rovers again within five months, and, what's more, scored twice in an FA Cup tie at Aston Villa. But progress wasn't sustained.
The striker who, over the years, lined up alongside Chris Sutton, Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke and Craig Bellamy, explains: "I recovered physically, but not mentally. Before the accident I was on fire, I was on the verge of an England call-up. I was high on confidence – but I could never regain that."
Was his comeback too rushed? "Hindsight is a very exact science, isn't it?" he says wryly. "The psychologists and psychiatrists and brain surgeons said I shouldn't have played for 18 months – if at all," says Jansen. "But I felt ready. However, though I might have been physically ready, I wasn't mentally ready. I had psychological problems. I was playing, but I was my own worst critic after the accident.
"Although I went on to play quite a few games and scored a few goals at the top level, I could never regain the belief I once had. I was constantly questioning myself. And the harder you try, the worse it gets." There were also oscillating mood swings. "I was up there [he gestures towards the ceiling], and down there [he points to the floor]. I was on anti-depressant tablets, all kinds. That was recommended by the brain consultants. I had horrible lows, I was depressed and suicidal. I was just not in a happy place. I kept asking myself, 'Why me?' "
He went on loan to Coventry in 2003 in an attempt to rekindle his career. Later, in 2006, he joined Bolton, where Sam Allardyce was manager. "I knew Sam was renowned for getting players back to their best but I still had the same problems, still had the same demons in my head. So I went back to Blackburn. I still wanted to keep hold of the dream." He also had a trial at Huddersfield and played three games for Wrexham, and no one could accuse him of yielding too readily to what was increasingly becoming inevitable. But finally he surrendered.
"I got so demoralised with the situation, got so angry and depressed, that I'd think, 'right, I've had enough'. I needed something more, something to focus on. When I wasn't playing, I'd think, 'maybe I can do it'. I'd get itchy feet again. Then Garry called, and asked me to be his player-coach. And I've loved every minute."
But those two goals against Villa in January 2003? And another marvellous strike against Liverpool that same season? Surely that instilled confidence? "They were just instinct," he argues. "It was when I had time to think that I was in trouble. I'd get the ball and I'd stopped being a player who would take five or six players on, and became a one or two-touch player because I wouldn't have to think so much. That's the way my head was working. It was a nightmare. I don't mean this in an arrogant way, but here I don't have to think about it. It's like playing in the garden with my dad, my brothers or the kids. It's not as important."
The reality is he could have quit the game completely if he wished. An aware and articulate character, he has a property portfolio and also trades currency. You ask him to run the latter past you again. "Yes, the US dollar, the yen and sterling," he explains. "You have to look at economics of different countries, and breaking news, like terror threats, interest-rate decisions that will affect currencies, even if by only a small amount during a day. You have to be pretty switched on, but if you're working with a large amount, predicting what will happen, it can show a good return. As often as not, I get it right. But it doesn't give me the same thrill as football did."
There remains that compulsion to be successful in the game that so turned him on, and then, in a strange way, turned on him. Jansen, like Flitcroft, is learning from his experience of overseeing the plumbers, joiners and students of Leigh Genesis. It is a daunting baptism. Off the field, the club which started life as Horwich Railway Mechanics Institute, then relocated and became Leigh RMI, face an uncertain future as they will no longer be able to play matches at their current home, the splendidly appointed Leigh Sports Village stadium.
But for Jansen, it has provided the ideal scope for transition from playing to coaching. "Of course it doesn't give me the same buzz as when walking out in front of 50,000 people. And it can be frustrating, because it's a different type of football. You throw a dummy, and they don't go for it, they just stand there! But they're a great bunch of lads here and I'm enjoying the coaching side. Hopefully, it's a stepping stone to something higher." And success will go some way to redress all that destiny has thrown at him.
Life and times
Personal: Born in Wetheral, near Carlisle, 20 October 1977.
Career: Began with Carlisle United in 1995, joined Crystal Palace for £1 million in 1998 (having turned down Manchester United) before a £4.1m move to Blackburn. Won promotion to Premier League (as second top- scorer) and League Cup, scoring in the 2002 final against Tottenham. Won six England Under-21 caps but missed his full England debut (a friendly against Paraguay in 2002) due to a stomach bug.
Accident: Disappointed to miss out on the 2002 World Cup squad, he and his girlfriend Lucy (now his wife) went on holiday to Rome. They were on a moped, waiting at a crossroads, when a taxi hit them. He suffered life-threatening injuries and was in a coma for six days.
Return to football: Astonished doctors by returning to fitness in five months but his mental state was badly affected and he was prescribed anti-depressants. He attempted a comeback with several clubs including Coventry, Bolton, Wrexham, New York Red Bulls and Huddersfield. Now 32, he is player/ coach at Leigh Genesis in UniBond League Division One North.
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