Matteo's toil finally turns to fulfilment

Guy Hodgson on the Anfield defender whose tenacity has brought reward
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It is probably fair to say that if Liverpool had chosen to transfer Dominic Matteo during the summer, barely anyone in Merseyside would have been surprised or even cared too much. He was a nearly man, a player who had not fulfilled his promise, someone whose route to the first team seemed blocked by expensive buys and an extravagance of defensive riches.

Matteo, who was selected for Glenn Hoddle's England squad for the World Cup qualifier against Poland on 9 October, was so surplus to Anfield requirements he made only five League appearances last season and did not last 90 minutes on two of those occasions. Given that his manager, Roy Evans, is more loath than most to bring on substitutes, the implication seemed obvious.

Yet the Liverpool manager perceived qualities in the Dumfries-born player who is more likely to be seen in the Anfield press box looking for a place to sit than on the pitch. "He played in my first match [at Norwich in February 1994] and we waited and waited for him to mature," Evans said. "Last year we must have had 30 offers to take him on loan but we refused them all because we felt he had something he is now showing."

Matteo, whose mother and father are English and his grandparents Italian, moved to England early in his life and was spotted while he was at Christ the King School, Southport. He joined the staff as a teenager and apart from a short loan spell with Sunderland, where he played one game, he has been there since. "The staff here have been excellent to me," Matteo said yesterday. "I owe it all to them. There was a time when I wondered where I was heading, but they told me to keep at it and it shows that, if you stick at things, it pays off.

"Being with a club like Liverpool every game is an adventure for me and being involved with the England squad is regarded as a bonus. I just intend to go along to enjoy it."

It was his keenness to toil and his unflappability which impressed Graeme Souness, who gave Matteo his debut in October 1993, shortly after blooding another youngster, Robbie Fowler. "He's an honest player who likes to go forward," he said of the young defender. "His whole approach to the game is refreshing."

Whether he would have gone stale in the reserves is a matter of conjecture, but he has been discovered this season almost by accident. A rash of injuries which have sidelined John Scales, Neil Ruddock, Rob Jones and Steve Harkness at various times gave the 6ft 1in 22-year-old defender his chance and a steady run in the first team as a stand-in sweeper has uncovered an authority that hitherto had been missing.

Indeed, his performance in the 5-1 rout of Chelsea on Saturday was possibly his best yet. Defensively, he was sound but what probably caught the watching Hoddle's eye was his part in Liverpool's second goal. Sweepers in England, to the national manager's regret, tend not to advance in the continental manner, yet when Matteo intercepted a pass from Franck Leboeuf he shot forward like a midfield player.

Normally, central defenders cannot get rid of the ball quickly enough in this situation but he waited until the last moment, drawing the opposition rearguard before releasing Patrik Berger. A moment earlier and the visitors might have recovered, but the pass was timed to perfection and the Czech striker had a free run on goal.

As Evans says, Matteo has to prove himself over a season, not just eight games, although Hoddle feels he has seen enough. "He's been in superb form. I've watched him three times and so has John Gorman. Every scout has come back with marks of nine out of ten." The England manager, rather than his Scotland or Italian counterpart, has taken notice, perhaps Merseyside will cotton on, too.