Matty Cash exclusive: 'I went from working at River Island to playing for Nottingham Forest... now I'm going to the World Cup'
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If everything falls into place, Matty Cash will stand alongside Lionel Messi in Stadium 974 — a temporary venue made from 974 recycled shipping containers — when Poland face Argentina at this winter's World Cup. "I'll have played against the two GOATs this month," the 25-year-old tells SPORTbible, just days after facing Cristiano Ronaldo. "It's unbelievable, really."
This year has been a memorable one for the likeable defender. He's not only established himself as a first-team regular at Premier League outfit Aston Villa, but the Slough-born full-back continues to impress on the international stage after his application for Polish citizenship was officially signed off in October last year.
Unlike the past 12 months, however, Cash's journey hasn't always been smooth sailing. Back in the summer of 2014, when Lionel Messi was gearing up for another record-breaking season after scoring 41 goals in 46 games with Barcelona, a teenage Cash was working five-hour weekend shifts at fashion retailer River Island.
He would often patrol the shop floor on Saturday mornings, helping customers with requests. Sometimes you'd even catch him labelling clothes and other items in the stock room. “Did I think I would become a professional footballer at that point? No way. Not a chance," he says. "Of course I wanted to make it, but I was just at college."
The teenager spent five days-a-week at FAB – an academy in Buckinghamshire that offers a three-year scholarship to players who demonstrate significant football talent. But after his mum, Barbara, told him to go out and earn some extra money, he would go out and get a weekend job at River Island.
In fact, such was his character, Cash decided to take another position as a toy salesman at the Daniel Department Store in Windsor – a role he describes as "hard work" but still, he enjoyed those demanding Sunday shifts.
At 17, his weekends differed from some of his peers who were battling to make it in professional football. But a year later, after an awkward conversation with the River Island store manager, Cash would soon become a fan-favourite at Nottingham Forest after a string of impressive performances at the City Ground.
He was even putting the more experienced members of the first-team "to shame" with his energy in midfield.
Given the fact he was released from Wycombe Wanderers in 2014, when the then-League Two side disbanded their youth teams for financial reasons, Cash's story is one of determination, sacrifice and a willingness to keep on going, even when the chips were down.
On the cusp of this winter's World Cup in Qatar, he wants to tell his story.
“I think for those who might be in a similar situation to me in regards to being released, just work hard at everything you do," Cash says. "Things change so quickly in football. There's so many opportunities. In my opinion, if you're good enough, you'll get another chance."
Each year over 11,000 players in the UK aged between 8-18 years old are released from academy football. To put that into perspective, a total of 0.012% of academy players will ever turn professional, with more than three-quarters being dropped between the ages of 13 and 16.
And that's exactly what happened to Matty Cash, who was told by Wycombe that he wasn't physically ready to make the step up.
"I had a meeting with Richard Dobson and Gareth Ainsworth," he says. "They turned to me and just said, 'Thank you for everything'. I was absolutely gutted. I was only 16 at the time. I knew that I was a late developer. I knew that I wasn't as physically strong as the other lads my age, but I think that was just me as a kid. Some players develop late, some kids develop early."
In the years leading up to his release from Wycombe, Cash wasn't exactly an A* student at school. In his own words, he was always present in the classroom but in reality, he wasn't really there. "It came in one ear and out the other because It wasn't something I was interested in," Cash admits.
In fact, a conversation with his head of year about trying to become a professional footballer springs to mind.
"I said I really want to be a footballer and she laughed about it," he recalls. "She said, 'Matty, you need to focus on other things because becoming a footballer is one in a million.’ Teachers would often say focus on your school work and not your football because becoming a footballer is harder than a lot of other things."
With a lack of qualifications behind him, Cash came away from that difficult meeting with Wycombe with a big decision to make — to either give up football altogether like thousands of others, or fight for another opportunity elsewhere. And that's when FAB Academy stepped in.
After spotting his undeniable potential, they offered Cash a three-year, full-time course at their campus in Berkshire but in total, he would spend just 12 months at the highly-respected academy after a life-changing 45-minute appearance for the second-year scholars against Nottingham Forest.
At the time, the teenager was only in his first year, so a place in their starting lineup wasn't guaranteed. That being said, the manager promised him some second-half minutes. It was an opportunity he was eager to take with both hands.
Despite not playing the full game, Cash impressed Forest academy coaches Jimmy Gilligan and Gary Brazil, who approached him at full-time. "They asked me a few questions," he says. "And one of them was If I was under contract... I felt like saying 'I'm under contract at River Island!'."
After the full-time whistle, he was told that Forest were going to offer him a trial.
It's fair to say Cash was thrown into the deep end at Forest. In the space of a couple of weeks, the teenager had gone from working weekend shifts in retail to coming up against some of the Championship's best players in first-team training.
"We had two or three training sessions with the [under] 18's and then I trained with the first team on Thursday," he remembers. "Dougie Freedman was the manager at the time. I couldn't believe I was training with the first team. It was amazing. I used to go back to the digs and talk about how quick it was compared to college football. It was such a massive jump. Eventually, you adapt to it but it was a big step up."
After a few sessions at the club's training ground, academy boss Gary Brazil pulled Cash to one side to let him know that he'd be playing in an U18's game away at Colchester. "I was nervous," he remembers. "This was my big chance to make an impression."
Forest would go on to win 4-1 that day. Cash bagged a goal and three assists.
"I had a blinder, to be fair," he laughs. "I was a central midfielder back then. On the coach back home, Gary [Brazil] said we're going to have a meeting with you tomorrow. They offered me a two-year scholarship with a one-year pro. It was unbelievable."
Cash, of course, was still working weekend shifts at the time, so an awkward conversation with his manager at River Island about the upcoming trial followed.
"It wasn't great to be honest," Cash smiles. "He said to me, 'You can't just do that.' I had to explain to him that it was an opportunity of a lifetime. I missed a weekend of work to attend the trial and the weekend after, I went up and said to him, 'I've got to leave.' I didn't end up getting paid for that month."
A couple of weeks later, he went back into the shop to say his goodbyes to everyone. Life would never be the same again. Looking back, he knows that 45-minute appearance against Nottingham Forest for the FAB academy was a turning point, but it wasn't a case of being lucky.
After being released from Wycombe, he wanted to prove his worth. Football, after all, was everything.
“Within the space of two weeks, I'd gone from working in River Island to playing in the Nottingham Forest academy," he says. "And don't get me wrong, you've still got a hell of a lot to do to get to the Premier League from there. You see the special talents like Phil Foden who come through academies and are just naturally unbelievable at football but honestly, there was still a long way to go."
Things would come full circle when Wycombe, a club he spent the majority of his youth career with, asked Nottingham Forest if they could take Cash on a season-long loan ahead of the 2016/17 campaign. “It went from me being released at the club to them wanting me on loan," he says. "It's crazy when you think about it.”
But instead of returning to Adams Park, he would join then-League Two side Dagenham and Redbridge.
More than 1,100 minutes later and the teenager had impressed onlookers. In fact, parent club Forest were so convinced by his performances that recently-appointed manager at the time Philippe Montanier called Cash into his office during the summer break to announce his plans.
"He pulled me in and said, 'Matty, you're going to be with us.' I started the first game and it went from there.”
Cash would become a key player at the City Ground during his four-year stay. In total, he would make 141 appearances for the club before Premier League outfit Aston Villa came knocking with a £16m bid. It was too good to turn down.
He penned a five-year deal at Villa Park and the rest is, well, history. Villa boss-at-the-time Dean Smith described Cash as "one of "brightest young prospects" in England when the transfer was announced – a big statement all things considered.
But he stepped up to the mark and stamped down his place in their first-team squad, especially under Steven Gerrard, who was sacked in October after 11 months in charge. Cash knows how important the former Liverpool midfielder was during that short - but crucial - period in his career.
“Me and the old gaffer had a really good relationship," he says. "He would pull me in the office and we'd often text or chat over the phone. We had a really good working relationship. He was always honest with me. When I had a bad game or if I thought I could improve on something, he'd just tell me straight.
"Sometimes you wouldn't want to hear it and sometimes you would. I remember when he first arrived and I started playing well. I scored a few goals. I just started playing with confidence. When you know a manager likes you, you start playing with a lot more confidence.”
That run of form for Villa would earn him a well-deserved call-up to the Poland national squad – a quite remarkable turn of events considering he had never stepped foot in the country until last year.
Cash qualifies for Poland through his mother, Barbara, who married Wolverhampton-born Stuart Cash, a former professional footballer who also played as a full-back, In fact, he spent time at Matty's former youth club Wycombe for a brief period during a 12-year career.
Gareth Southgate was said to be keeping tabs on Cash as he flourished at Aston Villa but it was always Poland for the 25-year-old. He had been tracked by selectors for three years and every performance was monitored in the build-up to his first call-up.
“It was a decision that me and my family had thought about for years, to be honest with you," he tells us, months after being labelled 'the Polish Cafu' by fans. "The opportunity to go and play on the international stage was massive for me and my career.”
Family is a running theme throughout our chat. Stuart Cash, who knows football "inside out", according to his son, will ring Matty every day for a lowdown on training and the games ahead. He'll even send voice notes as to how he wants Cash to play.
"He’ll say, ‘Matty, make sure you overlap today, get loads of crosses in.’ It just shows much he cares and how passionate he is for me to do well," the Villa full-back says. "My mum is the same, but she hasn't been watching the games recently because we've got the World Cup coming up. She looks away from it because she doesn't want me to get injured!"
After featuring in seven games for Poland since his debut against Andorra in November, Cash will try and help his side progress in this winter's World Cup alongside the likes of Arkadiusz Milik, Wojciech Szczesny and Barcelona forward Robert Lewandowski; one of the most decorated players in this winter's tournament.
"I remember my first training session with Poland,” he says. “We were doing a five-man box drill and I was put in a group with Lewandowski. I was like, oh my word, I'm actually training with Lewandowski here. He's another GOAT isn't he.
“It was a great moment but I was like, I've got to crack on with this. I can't just stand there staring at Lewa. I've got to cross balls in for him so he can score some goals!"
Cash goes on: “Lewa’s standards are so high. I always speak to him about little things and learn from him. We've spoken about how he lives off the pitch and what he does to maintain his levels.
"And let me just say, by the way. We've got a boy in the Poland squad called Piotr Zielinski, who plays for Napoli. He's out of this world. He's our number 10 and then Lewandowski plays up front. Those two link up really well. We've got a really good team, to be honest.”
You can hear the excitement in Cash's voice when he speaks about the World Cup. He's already spoken to Villa teammate Emi Martinez about getting a match-worn Lionel Messi shirt after he comes up against the seven-time Ballon d'Or winner in Doha.
But expectations are higher than ever for this talented Poland side. With the likes of Lewandowski and Zielinski in their 26-man squad, Czeslaw Michniewicz's men have a good chance of progressing in Group C alongside Argentina, Mexico and Saudi Arabia.
Away from the international stage and the ambitious Cash knows he's come a long way since the days of working in a toy shop, but he wants to continue improving beyond this winter's tournament.
“I just want to be the best I can be, whether that be in training or a game," he says. "Everything I do, I want to do it to the best of my ability. I think as you get older, you want to prove to yourself that you're good enough to be here. The more Premier League and international games you play, the more experience you get.
"I just wake up every day and do my best. I think that's all you can do."
The 25-year-old certainly has lofty ambitions. In his own words, "football is a crazy game, so you never know what'll happen in the future."
He adds: "I want to help take Aston Villa to where we should be, which is into the Premier League top six and into Europe. With the size of this club and the ambition of our owners, we are definitely going in the right direction.
"I want to be a part of it. I've always said the club's more than big enough to compete at the highest level."