Norwich winger Matt Jarvis missed almost three years of his career because of injury but somehow he is battling back on loan at Walsall. Adam Bate went to see him to find out more about the dark days and how he found the motivation to get through them…
May 15th, 2016.
It is a difficult day for Norwich as they fulfil their fixtures with a 3-0 defeat to Everton at Goodison Park. Their relegation had been confirmed four days earlier. Nathan Redmond, Martin Olsson and Robbie Brady will return to the Premier League next season. John Ruddy and Ryan Bennett have since made it back there too. For Matt Jarvis, it is a different story.
January 5th, 2019.
There are 5,506 supporters in the stadium for Bolton’s home tie against Walsall in the third round of the FA Cup and many of them are disgruntled. Their team are in the Championship drop zone and there is anger at the chairman. Even so, they still put five past the visitors. Perhaps some recognise the former England international on the wing for them too.
Jarvis is making his first senior appearance for 965 days.
Needless to say, it has been a long road back. Three times he has gone under the knife. Medial ligament problems. An ankle fracture. Even something called iliotibial band friction syndrome in the knee. He is 32 now, not exactly young for a player who was at his best when flying down the wing. Did he ever think the dream was over? There’s a pause.
“Yeah, there were times,” Jarvis tells Sky Sports.
“I went to see the specialist about the ankle again and the specialist just said that they had done everything they could do and if it didn’t work I would have to think about retiring. It was heart-breaking. Mentally, it was an extremely difficult time. This is all I have ever wanted to do so to be told you might not be able to do it again was devastating.”
For much of his career, Jarvis has been a hero to supporters. One of his early games with Walsall took him back to Gillingham, the team that gave him his professional debut, for the first time. “I got an amazing reception,” he says. “It was incredible. I thank them for that.”
Next month, he will return to another former club, Wolves, for an evening celebrating the tenth anniversary of their Championship title win under Mick McCarthy. He won the club’s player of the year award in 2010/11, winning an England cap under Fabio Capello.
But more recently, there has been little adulation. His wife Sarah has been a huge support and the birth of his son has helped to put things in perspective. But he freely admits something has been missing. A gap that only football can fill.
“I do find it hard to flip between the two,” he admits. “You have got football and you have got your personal life but I do find it hard. I am sure if you asked my wife she would tell you that the last two-and-a-half years have not been easy.
“If you are playing well and you’re flying you are always going to be in a better mood. If you are injured you don’t want to go out, you don’t want to be seeing people and them asking why you’re out. It is just another thing for someone to throw at you so you end up not going out and not being happy so it becomes this spiral.
“You are getting people messaging you asking if you have retired and telling you that they can’t believe you are still injured. Nobody ever wants to be injured. I think people have this perception of players that they want to be injured. They don’t. It is the hardest thing about being a footballer, honestly.
“It’s the best job in the world but the down side about being injured is that you can’t help the team and you can’t do what you have trained to do for years and years. This is what you are supposed to be doing and you can’t do it. You get depressed and it is extremely difficult because you do feel that guilt that you are injured.
“But for me the bigger guilt was that I was away from home. I was missing my son grow up, I was missing seeing my wife and family because I was trying to get myself fit. That’s what kills you. Missing seeing your son grow up. I missed a lot of him growing up because I was there trying to get fit so you feel guilty about that. Football is my life, that’s what it is.”
Speaking at Walsall’s training ground, Jarvis is in a relaxed mood but it is clear that he has wrestled with these sacrifices. Being back in the Midlands, away from his young family and their Surrey home, is a big commitment, but it’s one he feels compelled to make. “I am still the ultimate professional. I do all the bits that I need to do, I come in early and I stay late.”
Now, he is finally getting his reward. For a man with more than 200 Premier League games behind him, running out in League One, a division in which he last played in 2007, might not seem a career highlight but that’s how it feels right now. “I have come full circle,” he says with a smile. “The buzz of playing is fantastic. I have wanted this for so long.”
There is a job to do at Walsall too. When Jarvis arrived, the team was on a run of five games without a win and while there was that memorable day at Gillingham, that was the only one of his first eight games that didn’t end in defeat. Dean Keates’ team now find themselves in the thick of a relegation battle – and looking to the senior players to help them through.
“During my time at Norwich I went through that transition of starting to help the youngsters because we had a lot of them in the squad,” he says. “So I gave them little pointers here and there whether it’s about football or outside of football. I can use my experience to help here too, especially when we’re going through a tough patch. That’s my role now.”
Jarvis on Norwich
“I think last season you could see the potential of the team but then a few players left and a few youngsters came in from the academy. Some others were signed and nobody really knew how it would go but the manager has got his philosophy and everyone has bought into it. All the new players are playing well. He has got competition for places too which always helps because they are pushing each other. With the style of play and the goals they are scoring they have been really impressive.”
Of course, he is also trying to rediscover his own game. That can be a challenge because there is only so much that can be done in the gym. “That’s the hardest thing now,” he adds. “I was training for months at Norwich, but games are so different. You play differently to how you train and that’s especially the case when you play in a position like mine.
“I am all about short bursts of speed. Short breaks and then going again. But in training you can’t get into the short bursts as much. So it is just getting used to that again. Before the game you visualise what you are going to do because you have already done it a thousand times before. You know you can do it, it’s just about concentrating and being positive.”
Walsall vs Barnsley
March 23, 2019, 11:30am
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Jarvis has had to sit out the last three games with a minor ankle problem but there are hopes he will be back in the team for the home game against Barnsley at the weekend.
It helps that he has targets in mind. The goal that got him through the darkest times. There are the short-term ambitions, of course. He wants to be the one who gets the goals and assists that take Walsall to safety. He talks too of wanting to make 500 league appearances – which would mean going injury free for at least another three seasons after this one.