Liverpool thrive on the Dominic effect

Simon O'Hagan meets a defender whose potential is at last being fulfilled
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The Independent Online
One compensation for being substituted, always assuming you've played well, is you don't have to share your bow with the rest of the team. And as Dominic Matteo cantered towards the Anfield touchline a quarter of an hour before the end of Thursday night's European Cup-Winners' Cup tie against MyPa-47 of Finland, the Liverpool crowd roared their appreciation.

It should have been a heart-warming moment for the young man who had given another assured performance at the centre of Liverpool's three-man defence. Except that few of the 39,000 present were thinking about Matteo - the cheers were nearly all for Patrik Berger, who was coming off at the same time.

That, in a way, has been the story of Matteo's life. Ever since he found himself playing in a junior team in which Kenny Dalglish's son tended to draw most of the attention, Matteo has lived with the feeling that maybe he didn't really belong with the stars. Not any longer, surely.

Matteo's inclusion in the England squad for the World Cup qualifier against Poland on Wednesday week marks another stage in an upsurge in progress this season after a four-year period of learning in which neither he, nor Liverpool, were ever quite sure whether he would make it. So while the call for Matteo had been tentatively predicted - Trevor Brooking offered a notable endorsement of him on last week's Match of the Day after he had helped quell Chelsea in Liverpool's 5-1 victory - it still caused a few raised eyebrows. Who was this 22-year-old with the unusual surname and only 31 Liverpool first-team games behind him?

Matteo - he had an Italian grandfather and there are relations he has been to visit just outside Montecassino - was born in Dumfries. When he was four the family moved to Southport, where his father has a dress-making business. He grew up supporting Liverpool. "I'd catch the train with me mates, get off at Bank Hall and walk down," he recalled last week at the Liverpool training ground.

If the still boyish Matteo was a more assertive type, the details of his playing career might not read quite so unobtrusively. But as he said, "Maybe I've been a little bit too nice. You've got to be nice off the field, but a bit nasty on it. I'm learning that. I suppose I've always known I've had the ability. I've just not used it to its full advantage."

One of Matteo's problems was arriving at the club so young - he joined as a 16-year-old youth trainee after Paul Dalglish's father, then the Liverpool manager, had noticed him playing in the same Birkdale United side as his son. "In a way I think it was unfortunate for him coming through the system," Roy Evans, the Liverpool manager, said. "It's not easy to get to a position when you feel on a level with some of the bigger names. In the early days there was a doubt about his maturity and his confidence, but that's just the way some people are."

Other clubs liked the look of Matteo, and offers streamed in - as many as 30 last season. Liverpool thought there was potential still to be realised and hung on to their man, but it's an indication of how far he was from the manager's thoughts that Evans was under the impression that a proposed loan to Sunderland two seasons ago had been scuppered by an administrative error. In fact Matteo played one game for them.

On those occasions when Matteo got a first-team outing for Liverpool, he could never be sure where they wanted him to play. His left-footedness was an advantage, and he was used at left-back, left midfield and in central midfield. Matteo, however, was not so happy. "I didn't do myself justice partly because I was being played out of position."

Central defence was where he wanted to be, and this season he has at last had an extended run there, preferred to Neil Ruddock and, initially at any rate, capitalising on an injury to John Scales. "What I like about it is you're always involved. It's a position you can work on every day because you can never perfect it."

All of a sudden Matteo is at the forefront of the new trend towards more rounded defenders who can probe and build and make wise use of the space in front of them, offering a glimpse of a post-Tony Adams future in which anyone who wants to play at centre-back will need to think about what men like Matteo and Gareth Southgate can do.

Certainly Matteo's qualities are just the sort to appeal to Glenn Hoddle. His comfort on the ball, the crispness of his passing, his fine attunement to the ebb and flow of movement around him, his elusive incursions upfield and a lithe athleticismmake up for a lot of what he lacks in experience. And a willingness to impose himself - on both team-mates and opponents - is increasing all the time.

"He's got a hell of a lot to offer," said Mark Wright, who plays alongside him in the Liverpool defence. "If confidence is all that's missing for the moment, he'll acquire that. The other things he's got, like pace and ability, you can't acquire." It surely won't be long before it's Matteo who is doing the upstaging.