*This interview was conducted for, and originally featured on, sport.co.uk*
What does Dominic Matteo, a man who's passions include football and having a few beers with his mates, do when he retires from football? Simple. Buy a bar. But the former Liverpool, Leeds and Scotland defender is quick to steer clear of any ideas we may get that this was the business venture of a man turning to the bottle having hung up his boots. “I thought I would give a little bit back to the city,” he tells me.
'Rock Bar' is located on the trendy Call Lane in Leeds' city centre and it becomes abundantly clear through the course of our conversation that this is a city that still holds a special place in Matteo's heart. But it is not his first love and that is where we begin our conversation.
A life-long Liverpool fan, he signed for the Reds as a “young boy” and spent eight years at Anfield as a pro. He reminisces about what it was like to be come through the ranks at the club at the same time as other prestigious young talents such as Fowler, Owen and Gerrard.
“It was amazing to watch them mature as players and to see them go on to do what they have all done. The good thing about it is that are all great lads. Every single one of them is a good lad off the field and they all deserve everything they've got.”
The end of his time at Liverpool is not a subject of such positivity, however. “The thing about leaving Liverpool is that I never wanted to leave,” he explains. “I thought the season before I left I was one of the better players in the team and I thought I deserved my place in the team for the following season. Gerard Houllier made it difficult for me because he told me he was bringing someone in who was going to play my position. He didn't really give me too much of an option.”
“A couple of days earlier I had signed a new five year deal, I was on top of the world. I was delighted to be at Liverpool. I thought I was maturing and getting better as a player and getting stronger as a person. I just thought this is it now, I didn't see myself leaving. But football changes very, very fast sometimes and that's what happened unfortunately.”
His assessment of his relationship with Houllier is one that is frank, honest and somewhat cathartic. “Me and Gerard, we didn't have the worst relationship in the world but we didn't have the best either. I think there is a way of dealing with players. I had been at that club since I was young boy and he was trying to tell me things about Liverpool, I knew a lot more then he ever would. But I respect what he did there and the trophies he won.”
“I never have any resentment for anyone in football. I know it is a difficult job in whatever you do. Whether you are playing or managing, I know how tough it is and decisions have to be made. Sometimes, if that effects you, you have to be man enough to accept it and I did and I went on my.”
And so we move back to Leeds. Matteo joined David O'Leary's young Leeds side in the summer of 2000, on the back of a season in which they unexpectedly qualified for the Champions League. We waste little time in moving on to what was, quite probably, the defining moment of his playing career. On the night of the 8th November 2000 Matteo scored a near-post, glancing header from corner against AC Milan at the San Siro. It was the goal that booked Leeds' place in the knock-out stage of club football's most coveted competition.
“For me personally, because I have an Italian background through my father, I think that night in Milan was special. There was a lot, a lot of Leeds fans who made the trip over. People I meet around Leeds still tell me to this day that it was one of the best nights they have had in football. I have met people who broke their arms and broke their legs in their celebrations when the goal went in.”
“I think anyone who played in that Leeds team and who experienced what we did after that game, the sing-song with the fans on the pitch. Things like that don't happen that much any more in football and it was a great moment for me and a great moment for the team.”
Matteo remains a fan favourite at Elland Road not just for that goal but, as the man himself recognises, because “Leeds fans always knew that they were always going to get 100% out of me.” Yet, like his time at Liverpool, things did not come to a ceremonious end at Leeds. Their all-too-well-documented fall from grace still baffles football fans today.
Unfortunately he was apprehensive, no, reluctant, to shed too much light on the issue. “I don't want to go too far into it because in the book I have coming out I will be going into it in more detail.” He pauses before offering some brief insight into those turbulent times. “I don't think we were any more aware than a lot of people were. Obviously we knew there were problems because it was well publicised but we didn't know how bad the stuff was a lot of the time.”
Again, on the subject of his decision of whether to play for England or Scotland, Matteo refuses to be loose-lipped due to his pending book release. Despite having played for England Under-21s, England B and being in England squads, Matteo was eventually capped by Scotland in 2000. All he says is “I was brought up Scottish, I was brought up supporting Scotland so as far as I'm concerned I'm Scottish,” and he leaves it at that.
On that succinct sentence we move from past to present. We touch upon the prominent issue of respect in the game, or rather the apparent lack of it. “I think towards the end of my career I saw it appearing more. Now it's everywhere because there are more cameras and there is more people looking out for it. I don't remember it being talked about like this when I was playing. When I was playing, you would have a couple of words with the referee every now and again after a bad decision and that would be it finished with, and that's how I used be.”
“The referees have a hard enough job as it is without getting more grief but the thing is that sometimes the players don't think the referees are getting some of the easy decision right and that's what frustrates them and managers the most.”
It is a topic that neither of us are overly enthused to discuss much further and so the conversation swiftly moves on to the current situations at Liverpool and Leeds. On Liverpool's turn around under Kenny Dalglish he says “Kenny has given everyone a lift. He is Mr. Liverpool, he is a legend at the club, we all love. I think all the players really respect him as a person as well as a manager and I think you can see that they all really want to play for him. He has done a fantastic job since he has come in. I think if you spoke to any of the players or you hear what they are saying then you'd know that they want him to get the job.”
“If you look at the performance against Man City, there were a few youngsters in the team, it's good to see Kenny giving young lads a chance. That has always been the Liverpool way and we haven't had that for a few years so it's good to see them back in the squad.”
He is particularly impressed by their new striker partnership of the “classy” Suarez and “raw” Carroll who have come in to replace the “sulking” Fernando Torres.
The focus then switches back to Leeds once again. The club, who sit in sixth in the Championship table, just inside the play-off places, are making an unlikely push for back-to-back promotions. “I did think they might have a chance of the play-offs,” he says. “I have been a little surprised by how some of the players at the club have performed, though. A few have done better than what I had thought. People like [Max] Gradel, I had doubts if he could step up to this higher level and perform in the Championship. He always had looked a little bit raw but I think this year he has matured a lot and turned into a good player.”
He laughs to himself before continuing, “Leeds haven't got the best record in the play-offs, we all know that. I don't fear for Leeds in any of their home games at all. Against anyone at home they have got a chance. But away from home they conceded a lot of goals and they have been quite sloppy. In the play-offs they certainly do need a bit of luck and they haven't had that but maybe this could be their year.”
Throughout the conversation his children play in the background. He urges them to go and play with their mother while we continue to 'talk football'. They serves an apt reminder as to how this is a man who has seemed to make the transition into retirement with relative ease. Between being a father and owning his bar, Matteo also has his book coming out at the end of summer and he writes a column for the Yorkshire Evening Post.
“I do like the media-side of things,” he tells me. “I like talking about football and watching games. It is definitely an option so I am not ruling that out.” He breaks to make the point though, “You know what, I have had a pretty serious back injury over the past few months so once that has cleared up I would like to go back and finish my coaching badges just so I've got them.”
“I think, at the moment, defending in the country is not great as a whole. Maybe I could get into that side of it, some kind of a defensive coach. I don't know if someone would need something like that but I just sometimes see defenders making wrong decisions like not getting tight enough to people. We have all done that ourselves but when you see it and you have been there you can try and help someone out, especially at a young age.”
Thoughts, comments and opinions please...