Looking Back At: Neil Matthews

I was saddened this week to hear of the premature passing of former City striker Neil Matthews. He was a huge favourite of mine throughout his time at the club. 

I have decided to put together an article looking at his Imps’ career, but before I do, I wanted to give my personal story. Neil, for a while, lived in Wragby on a new development (at the time) called Priory Grange. On occasion, he would have a drink in a Wragby pub, and one night he got talking to my Dad. Dad told him I was a big City fan, and Neil offered to get me two tickets for a game, the Coca-Cola Cup match against Crystal Palace. This was 1994, the game we won 1-0.

I had to go round and get the tickets, and I was a painfully shy 15-year-old. I got one of my friends to come, and we knocked on the door. Neil answered, and I must have seemed like such an ungrateful little sod, as I barely said two words. I was in awe, this was a player who played for Lincoln – I’d had a picture of him (and other players) on my bedroom wall, cut out from programmes. I’m sure I said thank you, and off I went.

At the end of the season, around the time Neil was released, he came and presented the trophies at Wragby Boys end of season do. I won Clubman of the Year (two-time winner, by the way), and there’s a picture somewhere of Neil presenting me with the trophy. I can’t find it now, but I’m pulling a goofy face, acting up for the cameras, and he’s smiling too. He was such a nice bloke, really happy to get involved, probably before it became such a big thing again.

Neil joined the Imps in December 1992, but he’d had a decent career up until that point. Born in Grimsby, he played for his hometown club, as well as having loan spells with Scunthorpe, Halifax and Bolton, before moving to the Shay permanently in 1987. He had three years at Halifax, and during one game, banged in a 25-yard wonder strike. That was against Stockport County, and it was enough to convince Danny Bergara to splash out a club-record £70,000 on him in 1990.

He sustained a hamstring injury during the pre-season and struggled to force himself into the first-team picture immediately, but still hit 14 goals in 31 games. He bagged a brace as they beat Scunthorpe 5-0 on the final day of the 90/91 season, ending a 20-year stay in the basement division.

The promotion meant limited chances, and when Kevin Francis signed, his days at Edgeley Park were numbered. City, pushing for promotion, were hunting some regular goals, and Steve Thompson snapped the striker up on loan.

The 26-year-old was an instant success. He netted on his debut as City were thrashed 5-1 by Rochdale, coming off the bench to do so. He was a sub the following week, Peter Costello and Jason Lee preferred, but he came off the bench again and bagged as we beat Cardiff City 3-2. That still didn’t earn him a sport in the first team, but a third goal in as many games, albeit almost three weeks later due to postponed matches, was enough. He got one as we slumped 3-2 to Shrewsbury, and made his first start as we hosted Doncaster on January 23rd. City won 2-0, Matthews integral in one of Costello’s two goals.

That was enough for the Imps to make the move permanent, with an injury crisis engulfing the club, as I explored in my recent Jason Kabia piece. “Despite the injury situation, we are certainly not throwing in the towel, and we are committed to our promotion campaign,” said Geoff Davey, managing director. “We have decided to buy Neil Matthews from Stockport”. Manager Steve Thompson was delighted with the capture, adding, “he will give us maturity and mobility, and I see him as a 20-goal a-season man.”

Immediately, Neil celebrated his new contract with a brace as we beat Hereford 2-0. He loved a goal against Hereford, five of his Imps strikes were against them, and these were a pair of crackers. His first was a close-range diving header from Kevin Finney’s cross, his second described as ‘pure class’, as he held off two players and curled a finish in past Alan Judge. “Lincoln City may have unearthed a player who can lead their Division Three promotion challenge”, screamed the Echo.

Neil wasn’t done with the goals. He hit three in a week in early March, one each against Chesterfield (1-2), Northampton Town (2-0) and Torquay United (2-2). A 3-0 win against Scarborough later in the month pushed us up to fifth, Neil winning a penalty for the opener, and rounding off the win with the third late on. Sadly, five games without a win put paid to promotion hopes, although our new hero did bag two more goals, away at Gillingham and Cardiff.

He ended the season on 11 league goals from 24 matches, 21 of which were starts. I certainly had a new hero, and it seemed he was set to fulfil Thommo’s prediction of being a 20-goal striker. After all, his strike rate of one every two games (give or take) would have seen him finish on 20.

City started the next season with a new manager – Keith Alexander took over from Thommo and handed Neil the number nine shirt in the first year of us having squad numbers. A pre-season injury kept him out of the first couple of matches, his first start coming on September 11th. His first goal was one he would likely remember – City pushed Premier League Everton all the way in a thrilling encounter at the Bank.

He had a chance to extend the Imps’ early 1-0 lead, with Jason Kearney making a save. Kearney’s slip, with Everton leading 3-1, saw Neil slot home from a tight angle, and not long after, we made it 3-3, only for a late Paul Rideout goal to give them the win.

Whilst Neil wasn’t as prolific in his second season, he did still manage seven league goals, in a side that often flattered to deceive. There was a brace against Hereford, naturally, as well as a winner against Wycombe in a thriller in October. He scored as we beat Gillingham and Colchester, and managed a winner against Darlington in the AWS Sheild to set up a quarter-final encounter with Chester City.

Man of the Match, again, against Hereford

The issue wasn’t with the player, but the team. An early promotion charge soon tumbled away, and the goal he scored against Colchester, securing a 2-0 win, came in front of 1,631 supporters. That was a full Football League match, with ten days gap on either side of other home games. City were struggling, but my then-favourite striker ploughed on.

The draw with Scarborough on April 9th secured our safety and, naturally, Neil scored. From David Ridings’ corner, he powered what was described as a ‘superb header’ past their keeper on eight minutes. 60 seconds later, he could have added a second, drawing a super save from their keeper again after Ridings turned provider.

City were safe, but Keith Alexander was not, and in the summer, Neil got his third Imps manager in as many seasons. Sam Ellis had a very different idea about how he wanted to play, and that meant virtually no football for Neil at all. He was on the bench for the first two matches, then disappeared from view until October.

He returned against Hereford, and scored, obviously, as we won 3-0. His goal was a ‘super looping header’ from Dean West’s cross, and his overall display was described as ‘dominant’. Sam Ellis, who hadn’t picked Matthews all season, said he wouldn’t judge the striker on one game, good or bad.

The response? A second goal in as many games as City went down 2-1 at home to Barnet, which would be his final goal in City colours. However, a week later, he was in the thick of it at Fulham – with City trailing 1-0, and having seen a Fulham penalty saved, Neil went down under the challenge of keeper Jim Stannard. Some felt it was soft, but not the referee, penalty and a red card. City levelled through Gary Bannister, but in a hot-tempered match, Terry Hurlock and Steve Foley were both sent off.

Sadly, Ellis preferred Gary Bannister and Tony Daws to Neil, with Phil Daley also coming in, and a loan deal was agreed with Bury. Oddly, Bury were in the top three of our division, chasing promotion, and not only did Neil make the one-month move there, but he scored on his debut, a Boxing Day draw with Wigan. City lost their festive fixture 2-0.

The move was not popular – Neil had scored regularly for the reserves, whilst Daley (4), Bannister (3), Daws (2) and David Johnson (1) were hardly setting the world on fire. Johnson was transfer-listed, and letters to the Echo pondered why the two players were out of favour.

A month later, after three games for the Shakers, Neil returned, but starts were hard to come by, as were goals. He started 11 games before the season’s finale but didn’t bag another goal.

In FA Cup action against Huddersfield

Sadly, and I didn’t realise this until today, he didn’t even play in the game he got me tickets for. David Johnson scored the only goal of that game, but Neil wasn’t in the squad. He did play in FA Cup games against Huddersfield and Hull, both big games that we won, but was out on loan when we played Palace, losing 5-1. He had a great chance to give us the lead against Hull, sidefooting wide with the goal gaping, and he impressed as we beat Huddersfield 1-0, a game which saw Neil Warnock sent off.

Despite the cup heroics, it wasn’t an easy time to be a City fan, and it felt like an era was coming to an end. It was – Ellis only lasted a couple of matches into the following season. By then, Neil had been released, alongside five others. I remember chatting to Paul Smith, another of the players released at the time, and he believed he could have played more for the club after. Could Neil? Almost certainly, he didn’t get the chances afforded to some of the other squad players in his final season.

After playing for the Imps, Neil moved to Dagenham for a short while, then back up here to play for Gainsborough Trinity, where he appeared alongside Jason Kabia, returning from his Maltese adventure. He later played for Guiseley, Leigh RMI and Chorley, before a back injury, first noticed at Sincil Bank, ended his playing career.

He joined the staff at Huddersfield’s youth academy and became Bradford’s academy manager in 2017. He remained there until his passing last week, at the age of 56.

It goes without saying whilst this article is a couple of days late, our thoughts are with Neil’s family, friends and colleagues.