If you asked around for thoughts on Paul Jewell’s most important signing for Latics a number of names are likely to crop up. John Filan’s role in the rise of the club is likely to get him a mention or two and Jason Roberts will be well remembered as the missing link between first and second flight football. For me the honour goes to the man who joined a club struggling to make a mark in the Second Division and stuck with us all the way to this year’s relegation battle.
In between, Matt Jackson has been a credit to himself and the club, both on and off the pitch. In a time where fans have had to get used to aspiring millionaires without a care for the club, Jacko has been a bastion of honesty and professionalism. A Mr Reliable, but so much more with it.
Jackson had started his career at Luton before joining Everton as a young lad. Part of their last good side he was part of the team that won the 1985(?) FA cup but (to no end of bitterness on the blue side of Merseyside) didn’t get to ply their trade in Europe. As time went by and opportunities less, Matt took his chances and moved to Norwich.
Matt joined the Latics in 2001. Paul Jewell was struggling to impose himself on a squad who clearly felt they had the upper hand. He was in desperate need of his own men in the dressing room and Jackson was one of the first steps in that process, unless of course you want to include Peter Kennedy.
His initial loan move was, at first, treated with some suspicion. Fans so recently troubled by the signings of ‘big’ players (the likes of McLoughlin, Peron and Redfearn) stepping down a division for the challenge didn’t want to get bitten twice. Still in the days where Latics had a reputation for paying over the odds, here was another player who could quite easily be here for nothing more than a quick buck.
They couldn’t be more wrong. Instead of an inconsistent mercenary we got a player who always knew what he was doing and always did it calmly. Clearly playing below his level, Jackson’s influence grew over that first season ultimately forming part of a back five that was surely one of the best out of the top flight.
Following De Zeeuw’s departure in the summer of 2002, Jackson was able to take up a regular place in the centre of defence. Joining Jason de Vos in a partnership that would concede only concede 25 league goals on the way to the Championship.
Some wondered whether the step up would be too much for an aging Jackson, but yet again he proved the doubters wrong. Leading the back four to another great season, where only a lack of fire power saw Latics lose out on promotion. No such problems the following year with Roberts filling the void and Matt wearing the armband Latics should have won the League but in the end had to make do with automatic promotion.
Take another look at the pictures after the Reading game, the pride and the joy on Jackson’s face is obvious. A man who joined the club at a crossroads and had played a major part in steering it in to the ‘promised land’. Did he love the club? I don’t think any player truly does any more, but at that moment he looked bloody close to it, but it was a love that could have gone sour.
With a year left on his contract and his 33 year old legs visibly slowing, the prospects for the first year in the Premiership weren’t great for the club captain. The signings of De Zeeuw of Henchoz pushed him to third place in the experience stakes but did he spit his dummy? Did he go seeking “first team football opportunities elsewhere”?
Not Matt Jackson, he knuckled down and waited on his chance. In the end he got 36 of them and whilst it might not have all been a bed of roses (think Liverpool at home this season) he’s spent more time on the good guys list than not. Over the course of the last nine months he’s been far from being our worst defender and at times has been the best option at the back.
Off the pitch Matt comes across as a quiet and generous man. The sort of footballer who perhaps should make the headlines but never does. The recent reading programme for kids being just one example of his efforts in the community. Efforts that at Latics in particular seem the exception and not the norm these days.
Away from ‘official duties’ he comes across as an unassuming sort of chap. Not that comfortable with the limelight but not one to shun the public. On the morning that he signed for Watford, a chance meeting at Wigan Northwestern led to a brief but pleasant and honest conversation about his and the club’s future. Much of what I took from it was read between the lines, so I won’t repeat it here, but it’s nice to say there was no bitterness and worrying that there were no surprises.
My only other (almost) personal experience with Jacko came some years back as he was breaking into the Everton team. His then girlfriend (and for all I know now wife) lived across the road from the house I would have lived in had I bothered to stay and do a second year at Hull Uni. On the occasions he came to visit, reports were that he came across as a genuine and quiet guy, unexpectedly nice for a footballer. More importantly, and despite hardly drinking himself, got the ale in.
Again, like De Zeeuw before him, my regret at his departure is probably down to the nostalgia of a football fan yearning for the days where you could actually respect the players turning out for your club. Of course he’s coming to the end of his career and of course Hutching would have been daft to offer him more than a one year deal, but you can’t help wondering if he could have done more to keep Jacko at the club.
We’re now short on experience and in the absence of ‘Ary have now lost the other genuine leader in the squad. As they say, “you can’t buy experience” but it seems that Latics are prepared to give it away, but that is for another day, once we know who the manager has brought in to replace the likes of Jackson.
For now, good luck and good bye to Matt Jackson. You’ll be missed.