By Cam Melling
Fish and chips, Yorkshire puddings and roast dinners. Add the name Matt Jones to that list. Flying high at the top of the second tier in Portugal, Jones is enjoying a career as a British export.
Born in Stoke-on-trent, Matt Jones’ journey as a footballer has led him to Portugal, where he is now the number one keeper at Belenenses. He made the bold decision to play his football outside of England in 2009, although he’d been at college in the US for four years previously. “I came over to Portugal 3 years ago now. My coach in America was Portuguese and had a few connections over here. So after my 4 years in America I decided that I wanted to make the move back over to Europe.”
And that exact spot initially was not at his current club Belenenses but on the Portuguese island of São Miguel in the Azores islands with Santa Clara. “My coach then [in America], Joe Barosso, put in a good word for me with a club over here [Santa Clara] and I ended up signing a 2 year deal.”
We tend not to hear much about Englishmen playing abroad, David Beckham has had a go, and so has Owen Hargreaves but little succeed or if they do, little make a career abroad. Recently, we have seen Kenny Pavey, an Englishmen who has spent his entire professional career in Sweden playing for the big names such as AIK Stockholm, but there are little Brits except him making any more than a swansong abroad. Matt Jones is an exception to this and he has only praise for it so far. “I find it hard to believe to be honest that there aren’t more English players playing in the foreign leagues. It was a huge shock to me that I was the only English player playing in the Portuguese leagues and it’s been that way for the whole time I have been here.”
Although Eric Dier has now returned to Portugal after an uninspiring 18 month loan spell at Everton, he has had only one senior appearance in the Portuguese leagues – with Sporting Lisbon B - despite having 7 caps for England Under 19s which shows how tough it can be to break in. “It is true that the game is very different over here than in England. The game is very technical over here and is more about short, sharp passing and movements off the ball.”
However, Jones does not say this should put fellow English players wanting to make the leap away from home. “England can get a bit stereotyped as a long ball country and so English players don’t get the credit they necessarily deserve.” He also cites the lack of English players making the cut at home as a reason why players should join him, “I came through the ranks at West Brom and from the team I played in, there are just 2 - that I know of - players remaining in the professional game.”
It’s a truism that has been highlighted more recently by the lack of young English players coming through in the Premier League, so Jones says they should look overseas. “It happens a lot throughout the top English teams and so there are so many players that drop out of the game aged 18-19 that are quality players. It baffles me as to why there aren’t clubs from around Europe looking to pick up the players that fall through the net.”
But Matt Jones has made it abroad and now for him, it is all about this season. “The season has gone well for us so far. We are top of the league with 6 wins out of 7 and so have made a solid start to the season. For me personally I have managed to establish myself in the starting 11 which is hugely important for a ‘keeper when he comes into a new team.”
His side, Belenenses, have traditionally been one of the top clubs in Portugal but now are a sleeping giant in the Portuguese second division, “The club is historically a huge club in Portugal and is one of the four clubs who have ever won the national title - along with Porto, Benfica and Sporting.” His club look now set to return to former glories, currently topping the league after seven games, including an impressive 1-0 victory over Portuguese giants Porto’s B side.
Jones has ambitious plans for this season to make sure this happens, “Our goal is to get promoted into the Portuguese Premier League.” And he thinks it is only a matter of time until they return to the top tier, saying it is vital for the club. “The facilities it has along with the history means it is a club that has to be in the top tier of Portuguese football.”
So what about a return to England? There is still a long time left in his career, 26 being only a baby in the world of goalkeeping, “I’m still relatively young for a keeper so I hopefully have plenty of years ahead of me.” And although happy where he is right now, Jones has not ruled out a return back to British Isles in the future, “Coming back to England is something that crossed my mind at the end of last season. I had a couple of offers from clubs around Europe, England being one of them, but I then got the offer from here at Belenenses.”
“But coming back to England would be something that I would consider if a good offer was to come along.” However, he says he’s in no rush, “For now I’m happy where I am. I am almost fluent in Portuguese and have adapted to the culture.” In addition, we in Britain have something that we all enjoy and Matt Jones is no different, “Waking up with the sun shining makes it a lot easier as well!”
Matt Jones is one of the great ‘Brits abroad’ success stories right now, flying the flag for England on the Portuguese coast, making sure they know we have a good goalkeeper or two ourselves. And who knows, with England’s current goalkeeping crisis meaning Joe Hart has little backup. Why not look a little further afield, maybe to the area of Lisbon called Belem for someone to cover Hart’s expensive back? Then he really would be one of the best ever English exports. “In football you never know what is round the corner!”
This interview with Matt Jones was conducted by Cam Melling. You can follow Cam on Twitter @RomseyCam. Comments below please.