Cornwall is famous for many things. Cream teas (jam first, cream on top, of course), stunning coastline and the legend of King Arthur are just three things that spring to mind when mentioning the southwestern county – but you would have to look a long way down the list before you find footballers.
Having never had a league team or even a decent-sized venue, Cornwall’s contribution to the national game is extremely limited. Apart from former Leeds and Everton keeper Nigel Martyn, its players are few and far between, but West Ham struck it lucky when they got hold of the finest outfield player Cornwall has ever produced, Matty Etherington.
Signed by Glenn Roeder in 2003 as part of the deal that saw striker Freddie Kanoute go to Spurs, the left winger spent six years at the club, winning Hammer of the Year in his first season and being part of the team that came within seconds of winning the 2006 FA Cup. His pro career began at Peterborough, under Barry Fry, and for someone who was to soon find himself labelled one of the most promising youngsters in English football, Etherington told Blowing Bubbles, this was an ideal start.
‘Playing in the lower leagues first was definitely good for me, and I would always encourage youngsters to go down that path if it’s offered,’ the 42-year-old told Blowing Bubbles. ‘I always tell people with kids in academies, it’s so easy to get swallowed up when you’re just one of a number of good young players, but I was given a chance in the Peterborough first team when I was just 15 – long term, that did me good.’
Initially, Etherington used to catch a Friday night train from Truro to King’s Cross, and then to Peterborough, making the return journey on a Sunday, before one year into secondary school, the whole family relocated to Cambridgeshire, much to the annoyance of his sister, but it paid dividends as Etherington flourished, and soon he and team-mate Simon Davies were given a trial at Manchester United.
‘They had just won the Treble shortly before we arrived, I was 17 and Simon was 19, so we assumed we’d train with the youth team, but when we got to the training ground, we were told to go and change with the likes of Teddy Sheringham,’ he said. ‘After three days of training, we played an U21s game against Boca Juniors. Sir Alex Ferguson said he was impressed and would keep tabs on us, but Spurs were in the background, and shortly afterwards, they signed us both.’
Etherington was one of George Graham’s last signings for Spurs, and when he left, David Pleat, an old friend of Peterborough boss Barry Fry’s, took over as caretaker, giving the new pair their first run-outs at Anfield, and their full debuts at Old Trafford. So far so promising – but then Glenn Hoddle was appointed on a permanent basis.
‘Originally I was up against David Ginola for a place in the team, which was tough enough, and then he left and Christian Ziege was brought in. Hoddle liked playing wing backs, so he was first choice, I was second,’ he said. ‘Ziege got a preseason injury which gave me a good run of games, and we did well in them, but as soon as he was fit again, I was out of favour, which was disheartening and made me realise my future wasn’t going to be at Spurs.’
In summer 2003, newly-relegated West Ham came in for Etherington, and if he thought things were going to be more stable than at Spurs, he was wrong, as by October he was facing his third different manager, with Roeder having been replaced temporarily by Trevor Brooking, and then permanently by Alan Pardew.
‘Despite this, I was excited to be there, it felt like the right place for me to be, and those just turned out to be bumps along the way,’ he said. ‘I was one of those players that needed confidence and I was injured for Alan Pardew’s first game, but he said he’d watched me and wanted to build the team around me, which gave me a boost for all of that season.’
That first season out of the top flight was a particularly tumultuous one, with personnel changes on and off the pitch, as West Ham struggled, ultimately in vain, to get back up at the first time of asking, but amid the chaos, Etherington’s consistency and quality was a ray of hope, and his play-off semi-final goal against Ipswich is still fondly remembered.
‘There was a lot of turmoil in terms of management and player turnover that season, with lots of speculation over what would happen to Jermain Defoe and his contract, before he ended up leaving in January, and also Michael Carrick, who stayed for the whole season,’ he said. ‘But once we got that first season out of the way, there was a more settled feel to the squad in 2004-05. We scraped into the play-offs, but once we were there, there was a real belief we could go on and do something’
Goals from Bobby Zamora, another White Hart Lane cast-off with whom West Ham got lucky, again saw off Ipswich in the semi-finals and then earned a final win over Preston, to get Pardew’s men back into the Premier League, and set up a memorable third season for Etherington at Upton Park.
Pardew’s purchases that summer included Paul Konchesky, Danny Gabbidon, James Collins and Yossi Benayoun, heralding raised expectations and raised standards. For Etherington, there was one player who stood out.
‘Over the years, I played with the likes of George McCartney and Rufus Brevett, but Paul Konchesky was the best full back I played with at West Ham,’ he said. ‘We had the best understanding, we knew what to do when, the manager trusted me and whenever I played, I gave my best.’
A 9th place finish in the Premier League that season by a team who had only just scraped into the play-offs was impressive, but what was even better was a run to the FA Cup final, for the first time since 1980.
‘We were a really good side,’ he said. ‘There were lots of young players like me, who had a point to prove, mixed in with a bit of experience like Teddy Sheringham. Up front we had Marlon Harewood, Dean Ashton, Teddy and Bobby with Yossi and I supplying – all that youthful naivety and experience, mixed with energy and confidence, made for a fantastic team.’
For the third year in a row, it was back to Cardiff for the final game of the season, this time against Liverpool. But Etherington came very close to watching the most dramatic cup final in years from the stands.
‘About four weeks before the final, we had an 11 v 11 game at Upton Park and Christian Dailly busted all my ankle ligaments,’ he said. ‘Alan said he would do everything to give me a chance to play, which was a real confidence boost, but I had to do everything I possibly could for four weeks because I came very close to missing out, and didn’t come back to training until two days before the game. It was similar when I was at Stoke and we reached the Cup final, I nearly ruptured my hamstring four weeks before the final, which was a 12-week injury, but somehow I managed to play.’
The game turned out to be an epic, with West Ham coming within seconds of winning, only for Steven Gerrard to snatch a 3-3 draw for Liverpool, who then won on penalties.
‘Once I was on the pitch, I felt great, the adrenaline kept me going and I felt I could carry on playing for longer when I was taken off (in the 85th minute)’, he explained. ‘I genuinely thought we’d won when I came off – Liverpool weren’t causing us any problems, they weren’t attacking that much, the game was petering out and they looked tired, but then we know what happened. That was a real hard one to take, it took a long time for all of us to get over it.’
It should have been the start of great things for that team, but it turned out to be anything but, as new signings – most infamously Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano – coincided with the team heading into stormy waters the following season.
‘Pards was always driving us to strive to be better and aim higher, so maybe the club tried to run before it could walk with regard to signings that summer but we went along with it,’ said Etherington. ‘I still think there was more in that squad and it didn’t need to be disrupted as they tried to do.’
A change of ownership did not help matters, and in December, Pardew was fired. ‘I sent him a message the day he was let go, because we let him down,’ said Etherington. ‘He hadn’t changed, maybe the players had bought into their own publicity a bit and some got carried away. There wasn’t as much hunger, and I felt I had to apologise on behalf of all of us.’
From being within seconds of being an FA Cup winner, suddenly Etherington’s West Ham career took a turn for the much worse, as his face did not fit with Pardew’s successor Alan Curbishley, and by the time he quit a season and a half later, to be replaced by Gianfranco Zola, the gambling habit that had long been a background feature in Etherington’s life moved to the fore, to dominate it.
‘It started out of boredom when I was at Spurs, on my own, without my family around, and too much time on my own,’ he said. ‘I got introduced to greyhounds at Spurs, with a couple of fun trips to Walthamstow, and from there it just grew, to be at its height at West Ham. For the first few years, it was under control, but towards the end, it totally took over.
‘It impacted my life on and off the pitch, because I was not as dedicated as I should have been, I was desperate to get out of the ground as quickly as I could to go and have a bet. I regret it so much, but we all make mistakes, life is about what you do afterwards.
‘One of the biggest regrets of my career is how I behaved towards Zola. He was brilliant, really innovative as a coach, and a genuinely nice guy, and I loved working with him and Steve Clarke, but I had a back problem so I was struggling. He took an interest in me and encouraged me to get into yoga, but because of the state I was in, I turned my back on him and in the end, he pretty much gave up on me – and rightly so.’
Salvation came from a move to – of all places – the Bet365 Stadium and Stoke City, where he played for another five years, reaching another FA Cup final, before the back injury forced him to retire in 2014. Since then, Etherington has coached back at Peterborough and had a brief stint as manager of Crawley Town, which he describes as ‘nuts, I had to resign for my own sanity. Maybe I was too eager to be a manger, I’d still like to in the future, I should have been a bit more patient’.
Although he said he needed the change of a move to West Ham as the gambling was ‘too all-consuming, so it was definitely the right move at the right time … it was time for something new,’ he now lives in Essex with his young family, and his wife’s family are West Ham fans.
‘My time at West Ham was a hugely significant portion of my life for many reasons,’ he said. ‘I proved that I was a Premier League player, despite all the issues that were going on in my life at the time and how difficult that transition was. How it ended was very disappointing, but I had a fantastic time there.’