"We're at the trapdoor": Matt Bloomfield on life below the Premier League
Matt Bloomfield signed for Wycombe Wanderers in December 2003. Fourteen years on, he remains a key figure at the club, having made his 400th appearance last year. As his fifteenth season at the club gets going, Nick Friend spoke to him about his durability, life in League Two and how footballers cope with retirement.
The average lifespan of a professional footballer’s career languishes at just eight years. For a managerial tenure, the figure sits at less than a year and a half. Football – now more than ever – is a game steeped in short-termism. The concept of longevity could hardly be further from the thoughts of impatient chairmen, desperate for immediate success.
Players and managers become collateral damage, shifted on from one club to another. Gareth Barry’s record-breaking 633rd Premier League appearance came as a relative antidote to what many view as a modern trend. Perhaps in the cushy world of the Premier League and its long-term contracts, where clubs are armed with enough television money to prop up a small nation, there is less of a dearth of hardened old pros plying their trade.
Yet, in Matt Bloomfield, a stalwart in Wycombe Wanderers’ midfield for the last 14 years, there exists a genuine dying breed. 423 league appearances on from his teenage move from Ipswich Town to Adams Park, Bloomfield has outlasted five permanent managers and remains a key part of the club’s furniture. A League Two player for 12 of his 15 seasons at Wycombe, to survive and thrive at one club at the bottom of the Football League ladder is remarkable and speaks volumes for Bloomfield’s attitude and appreciation of the game’s challenges.
“It’s fairly unusual these days,” he admits. “You don’t find it too often – there’s James Coppinger at Doncaster who’s been there for a fairly long time so you do get the odd guy who’s done it but it’s fairly unusual because especially at our level, contracts tend to be one year or two years. It’s a very volatile game, managers change every year and often, they want their own players in.”
Even Coppinger, who last year played his 500th game for Doncaster, was forced out of the club on loan in 2012 after relegation left the club struggling financially. That Bloomfield has avoided even that brief flirtation away highlights how unique his story is.
“At our level, there are just so many things that can go wrong – you know, Gareth Barry and those guys at the top of the game have four, five, six-year contracts, so you’d like to think that you’d stay in the game a lot longer because of that.
“Obviously, we don’t have the same numbers of backroom staff to look after your body as you do at the top. You don’t have all that that comes with it, so it’s tough at times. If you can keep your body going then you can keep going. But I’ve been very lucky to spend so much time at one club. I’ve shown a huge amount of loyalty over the years and that’s been reciprocated at times as well.”
For all the talk of loyalty that dominates modern football, the way in which Bloomfield talks of his own personal competition with individuals at his own club gives a valuable insight into life beneath the Premier League. The explanation of his enduring success is almost Darwinian.
The secret, he tells me, is nothing more than hard work.
“There’s nothing more to it than that. The amount of players and midfielders that have come through the door and have pretty much wanted my spot in the team – you have to be better than them. That competition drives you on. If it doesn’t, then you’re in the wrong game. You have to be inspired by other people’s qualities, try to learn from your competitors and try to add to your game and to improve yourself.
“There have been testing times where I’ve found myself out of the team or even out of the squad and you have two options: you either give up or you come back fighting. I always chose to fight and that’s what’s kept me in the game. You have to be lucky along the way, of course you do. Otherwise, you fall out of the game. If you fall back on that hard work, grit and determination then you can’t go far wrong.”
When Bloomfield talks of falling out of the game, there is no exaggeration in his words. There really is a sense of ‘survival of the fittest.’ It is a fascinating look into the insecurity of constantly hovering above the Football League backdoor. For, beyond League Two lies a bottomless pit of uncertainty.
Many clubs of stature and tradition have fallen into what is now known as the National League. The financial impact caused by the loss of Sky revenue and the inevitable drop in ticket sales leaves many clubs forced to drastically cut costs, and some to offer players part-time deals.
“Football is a dog-eat-dog world,” he confesses. You’re part of the same team but equally, you are in competition with some of the other players. I’m got a family to support, a mortgage to pay off and when you come out of contract it’s tough.
“I’ve had two-year contracts, one-year contracts, I’ve had long-term injuries to come back from. So again, do you sink or swim because you’ve had a long-term injury? Do you give up or have you got it in you and have you got the fight to get yourself going again?
“If you don’t then you drop out of the league. You might fall into the National League and suddenly you may have to go part-time. At the top, when you’re in the Premier League or the Championship there’s always somewhere to fall.
“We’re at the trapdoor. We’re in League Two and there aren’t really many other places to go. So if you don’t make it work at the club you’re at, you do always run the risk of dropping out of the league.
“If you are out of contract, you’d better fight hard for a new one because there’s always someone younger, fitter, stronger and fresher waiting there to take your place. But that is just the circle of life – there’s always someone coming through and that’s the way it goes. And if you blood a new name then it’s exciting for the supporters and for the people that work behind the scenes at the club and managers and coaches. So to have any kind of longevity, you have to fight hard to keep yourself in the game.”
For Bloomfield, he first came across this environment when he left the relative comfort of his hometown club, Ipswich, to join Wycombe in what he describes as “a massive culture shock.”
“I was moving into a changing room full of grown blokes who I’d never met before and a lot of them were on the way out of the club so the atmosphere in the changing room wasn’t always great. They were getting released and I was the new young kid on the block so that was tough as well. It wasn’t easy but I had to dig deep to just to make a career for myself. If I wanted to be a footballer then that’s what I had to do.”
Throughout, Bloomfield is at pains to stress his love for the sport that has given him a fruitful seventeen-year career. “I’ve loved every minute,” he emphasises when I ask what he’s made of it all.
However, it is his appreciation of the real world that stands out as so impressive. It is an understanding that reinforces his view of the volatility of lower league football.
“I love playing football but it’s a job now,” he acknowledges – by no means mercenarily, but merely highlighting the sport’s role in his and his family’s lives.
“I’ve played that long that it is a job and it does pay the bills to support myself and my two little girls. The longer I can do that the better. I love my life and I love my lifestyle. I get home and I get to spend that whole afternoon with my little girls until they go to bed. If I had a nine to five, I wouldn’t get that time.”
While he cherishes the lifestyle and opportunities that football has given him, Bloomfield is all too aware of what comes next. Stories of former household names struggling to cope with retirement are all too familiar these days. For Bloomfield though, the thought of football’s afterlife has been on his mind for more than a decade.
“I did my ACL when I was 24 and had to miss seven months of football and I suddenly thought: ‘Oh God, what am I going to do if this is all taken away from me?’ It was a real watershed moment for me. I grew up a lot and started planning for the future. I’ve been doing it ever since really. I’ve done a sports journalism degree, I’m doing my coaching badges, I’ve got an academy that I started up as well.
“I just think it’s key to try and plan as soon as you can because you never know when that day is going to come. I’m out of contract in May and I’d like to think that I’ve got many more years to give to football but if, for whatever reason, that doesn’t happen, then I’ve got to provide for my family and, equally, for my mental wellbeing.
“I need things to strive for in life because if I didn’t have anything there, then I think I’d suffer. Through football, you’re being judged every single day on the training ground, on a Saturday – the pressure is always there.
“I think I’d miss that if I didn’t have it in life so I think it’s key to try and get something else to replace that buzz. You’ll never replace that buzz of playing football but it’s important to try and get something as close as you can that will give you some meaning.”
The ‘buzz’ that Bloomfield speaks of is far more, however, than his appreciation of the footballer’s lifestyle.
“I’ll miss my teammates, I’ll miss the changing room, I’ll miss the five to three feeling on a Saturday afternoon when you’re stood alongside your teammates in the tunnel waiting to go out into battle. Nothing beats winning a game and coming in at ten to five and being knackered and hurting but you’ve won. It just makes your whole week worthwhile.”
It is this camaraderie that many sportspeople speak of as being the major obstacle for a happy life post-football and is why Bloomfield’s emphasis on the importance of finding another motivation is so crucial.
“I’ll have to try and replace that buzz with something else,” he says.
“That’s why I think it’s the guys with money who don’t need to go out and work that have issues because they get bored and all they do is play golf and drink. That’s where you can have issues. I think you need to have other things in your life.
“You know, Michael Owen has his horses and his commentary career and other people have their properties – it gives them a reason to get up and go to work. If you don’t, you’ll only miss that buzz even more.”
Owen, however, is in a privileged position – Liverpool, Real Madrid, Manchester United, the 2001 Ballon d’Or – it’s not a bad CV. Yet, although the story is tougher further down the ladder, Bloomfield stresses that the onus should remain on the individual, rather than relying on the PFA’s support network.
“You have to take responsibility for your own life. There could be a time when more money filters down from the top. The money up there at the moment is extortionate and there is an argument that a lot more of that money could filter down to League Two, the National League and grassroots – that would be nice. But it’s about supply and demand. It’s a business decision at the end of the day. The bigger business is the Premier League and it’s what people want to watch so that’s where the money goes. That’s why the money’s there. Maybe there could be more done but, equally, people have to take responsibility for themselves.”
Of course, from a business point of view, he could not be more right. The Premier League is the ultimate cash cow, milking every last penny from every possible source.
That said, Matt Bloomfield understands the game and his industry better than most. As he talks about his own retirement that, all being well, is still a good few years away, he speaks with a degree of confidence but also with the trepidation of a man who’s enjoyed a hugely satisfying career in the game.
“I can’t say I’m looking forward to the day that I become an ex-footballer. I think there’s a massive void that we’ve seen through umpteen examples of people who’ve retired and lost their sense of being.
“Ever since I left school in 2000, I’ve been ‘Matt the footballer’ to my family, to my friends and that’s who you are and what you do. When the day comes that you finish, it must be really tough. But it is a fact of life. People come to the end of their careers and you have to plan for it. I think the key is to keep yourself busy and give yourself something to strive for. Once you don’t have anything to strive for in life, then you’re obviously going to miss what you used to do so much more.”