Matty Longstaff exclusive: 'Football can change so quickly. I've gone from being at the top to the bottom… I want to make a name for myself again'
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It is 9:04pm on the evening of October 4th, 2023, and a collective gasp of anticipation echoes around a crowded executive box in the upper Milburn Stand. For what feels like the umpteenth time, several members of the Longstaff family are on their feet.
Kieran Trippier has just delivered a perfectly-weighted through ball to boyhood Newcastle fan Sean Longstaff, who looks up to see the giant 6ft 4in frame of Gianluigi Donnarumma. As he pulls back his right boot, the majority of those inside St James’ Park are already in dreamland.
Others are just thankful they’ve got to experience such a historic moment.
"There were a few fights about who would get in the box before kick-off," says a smiling Matty Longstaff, who is speaking to SPORTbible from his home in Newcastle. "It ended up being me, my sister, my grandparents, my cousin, my aunt and my best pal... I managed to squeeze him in."
Sean's father, David, and his mother, Michelle, were also in attendance as the unmistakable sound of folding plastic seats travelled around the stadium like a Mexican wave. Standing a stone's throw away from their son as he confronted the Leazes End, they could only watch with bated breath.
Soon, the noise around St James' would travel far and wide. The boy from North Shields had done it.
"Our box erupted after he scored," says Matty. "That feeling was so surreal. I remember thinking, 'I've got a brother who has just scored in the Champions League. How unbelievable is that?' To see Sean out there was unreal. He's flying at the minute."
As we sit down for a lengthy chat, it has been five days since the Magpies secured their first Champions League win in over 20 years and emotions are still high.
In fact, Matty is grinning from ear to ear as he speaks about a special night on Tyneside. "It was different from any game I’ve been to," he beams. "I've never seen anything like that atmosphere before. My mam shed a few tears after full-time. We just felt so proud."
Many have credited the much-improved Sean for turning around Newcastle's fortunes of late. Eddie Howe even feels the midfielder is good enough to earn an England call-up after he scored his second goal of the campaign in front of Gareth Southgate.
But four years ago, on the afternoon of October 6th, 2019, it was his younger sibling who was being touted for big things.
Still only 19, the fresh-faced Matty Longstaff produced a game-winning performance on his Premier League debut against Manchester United, as a perfectly-struck effort in the 72nd minute handed the Magpies a crucial win to lift Newcastle out of the bottom three.
Following a hard-fought 1-0 win, he climbed the hundred or so steps of the Milburn Stand to meet his family at the executive box. Clutching a well-earned Player of the Match award — a trophy handed to him by Sean in a live TV interview on Sky — he was on cloud nine.
"It's a feeling I'll never be able to recreate again," says Matty, who remains visibly moved by the events that day, four years on. "I've scored goals since but that moment was surreal. It was almost like a movie. It's hard to describe because so many things are going through my head."
Three months earlier, the youngest Longstaff brother thought he was only included in Newcastle's squad for their pre-season trip to China "to make up the numbers" after spending months in the U23's but his performances in the Premier League Asia Trophy left an impression.
In fact, manager Steve Bruce said at the time: "When I came in and joined the group in China, I was watching training and I said, 'Who's this little ginger one in the middle of the pitch?' He's full of enthusiasm and full of life. He plays the game with a smile like only a local Geordie can. He's been terrific, absolutely terrific."
Both brothers would continue to play in Newcastle's remaining pre-season campaign and, after a midfielder position was freed up when Jack Colback was surprisingly left out, Matty was handed a place in their 25-man Premier League squad.
As he looks back at that sliding doors moment, Matty says he was "lucky" to get his chance but that humble statement downplays almost a decade of blood, sweat and tears. Take Sean's interview after his winner against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side, when he opened up about his brother's journey.
“He was turned away by Newcastle when he was 10 or 11, but he fought back," he said. "I was in the car with him when he was rejected on the way home, and he was crying. That night, he said ‘Nobody’s going to be able to do this to me again’.
“He's worked so hard. He probably does work harder than me. I look at him, and if I could work as hard as he does, I don’t know where I could get to. His work-rate, everything he does off the pitch, is better than me. It felt like everything had been building to that moment he scored."
Sean said he felt "pure happiness” after his brother found the net, and even wanted to cry on the pitch that day.
"He'd seen first-hand the work we put in from a young age," Matty says about those comments. "In every off-season, we ran each other to the ground. I always say we were lucky to grow up with each other because we’re so competitive. If we were doing a running session, for example, and one was ahead of the other, there would end up being an argument.
"We worked so hard growing up, so to get that opportunity to play together was so special."
Eight months after his Premier League debut, a number of clubs expressed an interest in signing Matty, who was still on a £850-a-week development contract. Marseille and Inter Milan were reportedly keen, as were Udinese, who made their intentions clear with a concrete offer.
"Out of nowhere, you suddenly become this hot thing and everyone's talking about you, making offers or seeing whether you’re interested," he says. "It was a weird one, really. I went from playing U23's football to having clubs from all around the world trying to sign me."
He ended his breakthrough season with a very respectable three goals in 15 appearances. During the summer of 2020, a decision had to be made.
"A few teams were sniffing around," Matty remembers. "Udinese was a deal that got offered but again, it was a weird one. At the end of that season, there was COVID. The world just stopped. You never really knew what was going to happen. I was in the middle of negotiating contracts. My heart was at Newcastle, though.
"After what I'd just done, there was no way I wanted to leave but Udinese made an offer. We spoke to them but with the pandemic and everything going on, it was a strange time. I spoke to other teams but when your heart is with a club, and you're still so young, I just didn't see beyond Newcastle. You think it's going stay like that."
Longstaff was eventually handed a two-year deal and the number 4 shirt, although a series of factors – including fitness issues and lack of form – would crucially hamper his progress.
Now, the 23-year-old is a free agent after being released from his contract this summer. So what happened? And what does the future hold for a player who is itching to make a name for himself again? “I'm really motivated to get back,” he says. “I want to be a top player.”
Matty Longstaff is recalling a recent conversation with one of his former Newcastle teammates, Matt Ritchie.
"We were saying how football can change so quickly," he says. "You go from being at the top to the bottom. I guess me and Sean have both experienced that. When Sean first came through at Newcastle, he was flying. He was being talked about everywhere and then suddenly he was at the bottom and that was similar to me.
"I came through, did really well and then I was sent out on loan before ending up down at the bottom. It's football. It's just one of those things. You have your highs and lows. When I was breaking through, I was at the top and at the minute, I'm probably at the bottom with the injury and things but I guess when you're there, there's only one place you can go."
It's been a difficult period for the midfielder, who has spent time on loan at Aberdeen, Mansfield and more recently Colchester United. He took a step down to play in League Two last summer but once again, injuries hampered any real progress.
After a hamstring issue put him out of action for several weeks during the months of October and November, Longstaff was stretchered off in a 1-0 win at Gillingham on Boxing Day, with scans later confirming an anterior cruciate ligament injury in his knee.
The midfielder's loan spell was cut short as he returned to his parent club in January, but Eddie Howe and his coaching staff continue to go above and beyond for the academy product. Despite his contract ending at the end of June, he has been a constant presence at their Benton training facility.
"The club have been unbelievable with me throughout," he says. "They have allowed me to stay around the place to do all my rehab, which means I've got top physios looking after me every day. If I need extra help on the pitch, the staff will always be there.
"They'll often ask how I'm getting on mentally, as well, and still treat me like I'm one of their players. It just shows how good they are as human beings. They've all played the game and had injuries. They know what it's like."
Longstaff has also built relationships as a result of his injury. For example, he's become close friends with Newcastle defender Emil Krafth, who was just coming back from his ACL troubles when Longstaff returned from the loan spell at Colchester.
"I think I spoke to Emil nearly every day about my knee," he says.
"We’d talk about how his knee felt and then compare the two. He was texting me all the time, and just checking in. There are so many things that go through your head when you suffer an injury like an ACL so when l was having a bad day, there was someone like Emil who would reassure me."
Soon, the conversation turns to his release. Newcastle's sporting director Dan Ashworth, who commenced his role in June 2022 following a spell at Brighton, had an open and honest chat with Matty last year, in which harsh truths were laid out on the table.
"I was actually still going in through the off-season to do gym work with my brother and a few of the other lads," Longstaff explains. "I pretty much sat down with Dan Ashworth, who had just come in at the time.
“We spoke about where Newcastle were and where they’d be going, as well as the players they had in my position, and I'm not stupid. They'd just signed Bruno [Guimaraes], who for me is one of the best midfielders in the world. I watch him train. I watch him play games. And you try and replicate the stuff he does because he's that good. You almost know it's coming once they start signing big players."
Matty continued: "He said we already have a lot of players in your position and think it would be best that you move on. Like I said before, you're a bit gutted but realistically I knew it was coming. I'd been out on loan to Aberdeen and Mansfield. It's not what you want to hear but I knew players there at the time were ahead of me in the pecking order, like Bruno. I needed to move on to play more games."
Does he think he could have played a role at Newcastle this season? "Nah. I wouldn't say that," Matty nods. "You’ve just got to look at the squad they've got, and the players are flying at the minute. To be fair, I'm just more of a fan now, who watches the games. I wouldn't say that I could impact the team in any way."
Last year, when he had a year left on his deal at St James' Park, talks around a permanent move elsewhere were in motion. "When I did end up getting released, it didn't come as much of a surprise because I knew the summer before I was trying to move," he says. "It's one of them."
He took a step down in the hope of playing regular first-team football but once again, injuries limited his game-time. Now, after months of gruelling rehab work in the gym and beyond, the end is finally in sight.
"Things are going really well at the moment. I've been back out on the grass in these last two weeks," he says. "Hopefully, I'll be fully fit in January. The last couple of months especially have been really positive. I'm in a good frame of mind. If everything goes to plan, I'm hoping to be back in January or February time."
When all is said and done, Longstaff's love and appreciation for Newcastle United shines through as he looks back at his time at St James' Park. It didn't end like both parties might have anticipated when he opened his account against Manchester United that day.
But to represent his boyhood club once, never mind 20 times, was enough.
"It's a club that I've grown up supporting and, although I was obviously devastated it came to an end, I managed to live the dream," he smiles. "If you ask any kid in Newcastle that they’d one day play 20 games for Newcastle United, then they would snap your hand off.
"At the minute, I get to watch my brother do it every week, whether that be in the league or Champions League. Seeing where the club is going... I'm just so proud. There are a lot of footballers out there who don't get to play for their hometown club and I was one of the fortunate ones. Getting the chance is going to live with me forever. I'll cherish that moment."
After everything he's been through, Matty is desperate to make an impact elsewhere and prove his worth. For now, though, he will continue to support his brother from the Milburn Stand.
"I know that I'm going to end up elsewhere," he says ahead of Saturday's game against Crystal Palace. "Hopefully, I can go on and make a name for myself again."