A journey of determination, hard work and the nature of politics in football – Matthew Lieshout shared his work of craft with our Academy players.
March 17th 2019, the academy players gathered inside Drury United club rooms, darkened to highlight the 6-minute clip [watch it here] of Matthew’s senior year at University. A familiar figure appeared first on-screen, with the academy and head coach of Franklin United, Mark Holt, taking Purdue Fort Wayne through a rondo warm up. This would be many paths crossed between the pair. What follows is plenty of wonder free kicks, tenacious tackling and plenty sharing of the ball. Oohs and arrhs from the crowd complimented a player that worked on his craft in our back yard. And so the journey begins!
The Beginning – Pukekohe
Beginning with first kicks at the age of 4 down at Bledisloe Park, Matthew was like any other kid picking daisies rather than focusing on the game. Matthew continues to talk about what influences he had at Pukekohe AFC, coupled with great mates and a dad, Michael Lieshout (former president of Pukekohe AFC and current president of Franklin United), who coached Matthew at 17th Grade Pukekohe AFC.
With a grin of proudness, he claims that his age group were the first Pukekohe team to represent at Metro level. A team that has seen a list of good players go onto do great things (Stephen Ashby Peckham – All Whites and AFF Futsal player). As the years progressed, players started to leave for other clubs to progress into the senior teams that played NRFL. This left Matthew, the youngest in the team, to seek a new adventure and challenge.
One that he had the opportunity to be coached by Fred De Jong, ex-professional and All White player, at Ellerslie U19s. Over the course of the year, Matthew decided to focus solely on football as his chosen sport, a determination to work at his craft and to see where it would take him. Matthew gained a lot from Ellerslie and the challenges from the first XI at Saint Kentigern’s. Accompanied by the tireless hours outside of traditional team training, Matthew would work away at his technical game. Focus, to be proficient with both feet. Getting through the grind of the gym, which would focus on football movement efficiency and position-based. And watching players that play his preferred position, looking at what makes them a step above the rest. The hard work was paying off. It gave him the opportunity to represent Auckland City Youth at the National Youth League, from which compiled a highlights reel to apply to universities in America to gain a scholarship.
Across the Pacific – Scholarships
Scholarships provide an opportunity for players to study and play a sport for minimal cost. Matthew reiterates the importance of school. Even asks the question, “Who’s doing well at school, up to date with homework?”. Silence falls, a few hands rise. Even a few parents laugh and grumble in the background. “I’m serious” is Matthew’s response and from there breaks down the percentage of the scholarship; 60% academic, 20% leadership skills, 10% football scholarship and working the rest to cover the cost. Football did not take Matthew to Spring Hill College, Alabama –academics did! The environment of Spring Hill College now became the tool to hone the craft of Football. To continue the process. Training 4 or 5 days a week in glorious weather, with a campus that offered food breakfast, lunch and dinner buffet style. Did Matthew delve into the healthy dishes he ate, no. A routine of a good coffee and a run is what started his day and still continues today. The key message, habits are important to the process. And so is good coffee!
Matthew had a decent freshman year, playing in NCAA Division 2, and was approached by Purdue University Fort Wayne, which played at a higher level of NCAA Division 1. This is where Matthew would cross paths with another kiwi, Mark Holt, which they previously matched up against each other in New Zealand’s Division 1 winter season league game.
Mark Holt, Head coach of Eastern Suburbs at the time, remembered the encounter quite well as Suburbs won the game. Matthew was a standout player that day for Ellerslie and Mark knew they had a decent player and person that would fit the mould of Purdue Fort Wayne. Playing a division higher allowed more money to be spent on scholarships, which aided Mathew with the full cost of the University fees.
On top of this, training sessions were more sophisticated and linked to Instat (match analysis tool) to prepare for the fast and furious season of college football. Travel and accommodation to away games were upgraded, flights instead of 9-hour coach journeys and luxury hotel rooms. “You felt like a king! More winning meant more budget, which meant feed like a king!” said Matthew. But this was small. Compare them to Denver who had $10,000 to spend on a single game against Purdue Fort Wayne. Fireworks, cheerleaders, the lot. Each day, each game was a different experience.
This experience was taken to the next level when Matthew was invited to play and train at the IMG Academy for two summers. A professional complex that catered for a variety of codes. Boca Juniors and Nottingham Forrest were several Football teams that regularly attended in their offseason. Sharing facilities and gaining an insight into how a professional works. Who wouldn’t take up the opportunity to watch how they apply themselves in the gym, sit down and chat to Carlos Tevez and even share a table at lunch with Kei Nishikori (Japanese tennis player).
However, Matthew’s message is consistent and adamant that hard work, desire and continuous drive to become better at your craft is what leads you to your destiny. The final year of college offers different avenues to explore, which in turn is reflected in the accolades that he is racking up:
- USLPDL Top 50 Player
- Summit League First Team
- Summit League Tournament Team
- UTRGV Invitational Winners
- UTRGV Offensive Player of the Tournament
- UTRGV Invitational Tournament Team
- Most Wins in PFW History
- 12 Goals in 18 Games
- International Athlete of the Year
Sweden – Säffle FF
Next step on the journey that Matthew delved into was Säffle FF, Sweden. A semi-professional club playing in the 5th tier of Sweden. In New Zealand terms, the equivalent of the ISPS Handa Premiership. Considering the stature of the Club in Sweden, Säffle FF draws in crowds between 600 to 1,000 people every home game and has 9,000 residents that live in and around the town. Imagine if that percentage per capita was present in Franklin. Every home game would see 4,500 to 6,500 fans attending the game, enough to fill half of the Ecolight Stadium in Pukekohe. Matthew portrays the club in a fantastic light. The hospitality, food provided, remuneration package for games and the weekly training programme of 4 sessions, all mentioned with a broad smile demonstrating a great experience.
Yet what comes with this, behind the smile, is the grind of day to day life. Not knowing the language and the continuous turn over of flatmates that can not hold a position at the Club. “It’s not easy off the field, you have to be adaptive and determined to do what you love to do on the field,” he said. A clear message that mental preparation and resilience is vital for survival to be a footballer in a foreign country. A question that was not asked by the audience but relevant; How do you require that experience or resilience? As throughout the presentation though, Matthew always has a silver lining and delivers a gem of advice to the on watching Academy players – “Know who you are and what you are about” said Matthew. A lesson that takes a lot of thinking and understanding of you and the game. Sweden is a slower based football and that offered opportunities to his game and development. A style that suits his attributes. Go be yourself, but first, know who you are.
Germany – Wuppertaler SV to VFB Homberg
Germany was the next destination, after a positive season on the field for Säffle FF. Matthew’s agent had lined up a trial at the traditional club, Wuppertaler SV, and a small 4th tier club, VFB Homberg. Both teams play in the 4th tier of German football, however, are far from similar what the league states. A comparison would be Leicester City playing in league 2 with Macclesfield Town or Wellington Phoenix playing in the NRFL division 2 against Franklin United. “Trials were a blast, they went well”, Matthew went on to explain. Even the challenge of playing against players that were contracted to the teams and did everything possible to make it as difficult for Matthew to shine.
Wuppertaler SV was impressed, so much they offered Matthew the opportunity to continue training with no formal offer of a contract. A club that has state of the art facilities, top of the range video analysis and a fan base that would fill a 3rd of their 30,000-seater stadium. From the outside perspective, this seems a great offer, yet for Matthew, he wanted assurances and waiting until the transfer market to open again (1st of January 2020) was too long for no guarantees.
Matthew headed south to Homberg, which is west of Kaiserslautern of the Bundesliga, to discuss terms they were offering to take Matthew on as a professional player. This would be where for the first time that Matthew talks to the Academy players around the politics of professional football. Not only that, the challenges of foreign players attempting to play in European countries. Homberg had put a good package on the table, however, the breakdown of the package would not allow Matthew to live and play football (work) in Germany due to the low wage which did not meet the threshold of immigration. Due to the club’s position, they were, unfortunately, could not offer a higher wage and Matthew was soon heading back north to Wuppertaler.
During Matthew’s time in Homberg, his agent was still in contact with Wuppertaler SV and discussing a wage that would allow Matthew to live and play football in Germany. This was the time that the transfer window for European countries was opening again and movement between clubs were happening. Once again politics of football had sprung into action and what was supposed to be a formality of signing the contract had become a nightmare. Sporting director and head coach of Wuppertaler SV had been sacked and with that the decision to sign Matthew.
January became the longest month in the calendar waiting to hear back from other clubs and agents. Unfortunately, nothing arose, and Matthew’s journey has not ended rather is just another speed bump along the way. One which is another learning opportunity and time to reassess what is next.
In the meantime, Matthew has reignited a connection with former coach, Mark Holt, and is looking forward to the challenge of New Zealand football. Along with playing for Franklin United, Matthew sees this as a chance to give back to the community. A community that provided an environment for Matthew to fall in love with the game, learning challenges that are faced with South Auckland clubs and most all welcome back with open arms like he never left.
“Life’s trials will test you, and shape you, but don’t let them change who you are.” ~ Aaron Lauritsen
“Your comfort zone is a place where you keep yourself in a self-illusion and nothing can grow there but your potentiality can grow only when you can think and grow out of that zone.” ~ Rashedur Ryan Rahman
“Other people don’t get to tell you what you can have! Someone else doesn’t get to tell you who you can be! The world doesn’t get to decide what you can try. You are the only one who can make that decision.” ~ Rachel Hollis