Matthew George grew up in a football-mad household in Croydon with his two parents and brother before joining Crystal Palace, the team his mother supported, at the age of 14. A scholarship, a professional contract and a serious meniscus injury to his right knee later, he finds himself scrapping for a promotion at Ryman South Division side Lewes in Brighton after joining last summer. At 20-years-old, he is still acclimating to regular first team football as he scored a goal in a 4-0 home thrashing against East Grinstead at the Dripping Pan before being sent off in a 3-1 away victory against South Park in his last two games.
“Obviously, I’m still young and still learning the game really and I am not used to playing every single week as I never used to before. Now that I am, I just have to learn how to manage the game and how to really control it, “said George to LeftBackFootball in an interview.
Joining Lewes from Crystal Palace after a serious injury suffered when he was 19 was always going to be a tough task for the young left back but he praises the way the coaching staff have managed him.
“I feel like they have done well, really because if you knew me before, I was quite prone to injuries but since I’ve been here, I have only had about one and it wasn’t a major one. They have done well with me being able to play every week, week in, week out and keeping me injury free. They give me light sessions in training and stuff as they know when to push me; they know how to handle it really.”
He speaks of his respect for Darren Freeman who is the current Head Coach of Lewes and has played as a skilful winger at the likes of Fulham, Brighton and Hove Albion, Brentford and Gillingham in the Football League.
“It’s good with Darren, obviously he’s been in the game and I respect him because I know he’s been where I want to be. He has played first team football in higher leagues, he has done it all before so having his experience, and his coaching is good backing because everything he says, I know it is the truth because he has done it and he has lived it. I want to be where he was.”
George had options in the Football League but chose to move to Lewes after his agent Russell Beckwith (New Era Corporation) had ties with Freeman and knew he would be in safe hands with regular football. The youngster is encouraged by Freeman but also receives sudden doses of realism with the Freeman-hairdryer treatment which many of his teammates have fallen victim to. Jamie Brotherton was once told to ‘buck up his ideas’ at half-time before going on to score a hat-trick in a 5-2 victory against Cray Wanderers earlier this season.
“Yeah, I have indeed been on the end of one of his hairdryers. When he does it, you can tell he is doing to encourage and he is not shouting at you if you play bad, he is disappointed if you’re not trying your hardest like everyone has a bad game, if he sees you’re not trying that’s when he’ll give you the hairdryer treatment. It is pretty scary but it does put you in check and it does make you work.”
He treasures his relationship with Freeman as he served under Neil Warnock, Tony Pulis and Alan Pardew at Palace while trying to break into the first team, which was not conducive for his career.
“When I was there [Palace], I think we had three different managers and it was hard to make a name. Say a manager would like you then the next week, a different manager would be in and he would not like you. Before Pardew [Alan] came, the foundations were actually quite bad but he really did it up. It was quite surprising for him not to be a manager anymore with what he did for the academy there. I guess that’s the life of a manager really.”
“Neil Warnock was one of my favourites actually; he really involved the academy players. Out of all the managers there, he was the only one who did want to play the young players whereas when Pardew or Pulis were there, they were fighting to stay up so I did not really get a look in. It was quite hard. I really liked Warnock and he liked me too, it was sad when he left.”
George speaks about the toughest player he has had to mark in his fledgling career, as he has to think back to Crystal Palace to make his decision.
“The best player I’ve played against was in Crystal Palace when we trained with the first team and it was Yannick Bolasie. He was always hard as whenever I saw him up against me, ‘I was like damn, and this is going to be a hard session.’ He ran and he was so quick as well, he also had so much energy as I knew it was going to be a tough session marking him.’
He also speaks about how the football at non-league level will help him with the physical side of his game, which he did not quite develop at youth level.
“I found it harder than I thought I would, obviously it is a lot more physical than playing U18s and U21s. That is what really going to improve in my game, my physicality and my fitness. Playing against grown men and running 24/7, it is a lot harder than I thought it would be whereas at Palace, we were a lot more technical, more pass and pass. Here it’s a lot more run for 90 minutes, get your fitness and work for the team.”
Opposition players have not just tested the marauding fullback’s lithe physique but he also speaks about the hazards of facing 17-year-old wunderkind Charlie Coppola in his first training session.
“I was pretty surprised to see Lewes as when I first came, I didn’t know much about the club. I came to see the club had this many good players, I was shocked. I remember my first session and Darren was like ‘Ah, yeah, you’ll be against Charlie Coppola’, in this game as I was left back and he was right wing. I was thinking this would be all right because he is a young one, he had a great session, and I was struggling against him, as he is really good. “
The left back speaks about the help that Freeman, his coaching staff and older players provide the younger players at The Rooks.
“I am now at a first team man’s football club as a lot of people know what they’re doing so you just have to remind yourself. At the same time, Darren helps the younger players and he knows we are still learning with Hammo [James Hammond, 20], Charlie [Coppola] and I. He knows we have to learn and so do the other players like Lloyd Cotton, Brinky [Steve Brinkhurst] as we are the young ones and still learning the sport, they are older and have been through it all. They help us out, coaches and players.”
George has recently earned a new one-year contract and sees winning trophies and gaining promotion with Lewes as the first part of his development plan as a player.
“I’m at Lewes for next season and I really want to win something with them and get promoted this season. Then win something else next year that would be amazing. Moving into the future it’s everyone’s dream to play in the higher leagues, League 1, Championship and Premier League. I would love to get that stage if it is possible, yeah never say never. I just want to push hard and work hard, whatever team, I am at including Lewes now; I just want to work my hardest, play my best and hopefully things work out for me.”