bbefore Arsenal’s Ethan Nwaneri he was Fulham’s Harvey Elliott, and before Elliott he was Fulham’s Matthew Briggs. For 12 years Briggs held the Premier League’s youngest ever captain, feeling the joy of the achievement but also its considerable weight.
“I’m proud to have that title and I wouldn’t give it back for the world,” says the 31-year-old. “But there’s a part of me that wishes I’d slowly progressed up the steps.”
Briggs was aged 16 years and 65 days when he replaced Moritz Volz in Fulham’s 3-1 defeat at Middlesbrough in the final of the 2006-07 season. On Saturday he trained with Lawrie Sanchez’s first team squad for the first time. On Sunday he made Premier League history. On Monday he sat his GCSEs. Or so the fortunes and trappings of Premier League life unfolded or so the young goalie thought.
“It was so surreal,” reflects Briggs, who now plays semi-professionally for Gosport Borough in the Premier League South South while working as a fitness and life coach. “As I ran onto the pitch the Middlesbrough fans started chanting: ‘Who are you? Who are you?’ I loved every minute of it.
“The fans were trying to get into my head but I didn’t let it put me off. I did well when I came forward, also from my position in midfield, and when I looked up after the game I saw my Mum. She traveled up and sat in one of the boxes above the tunnel with the conductors. As I walked back in I looked up and saw I was in tears. That’s when I realized what I had achieved.
“I had my GCSEs the next day and when I walked into the school it was like I was a different person. Everything went silent for a moment, then everyone was running up to me saying: ‘Oh my God, I saw you on Match of the Day last night’ and they started asking for my autograph.
“I was so scared, these were people I saw every day. All kinds of changes towards me. I was no longer a normal person who played football.”
What happened next took a toll on Briggs’ mental well-being. He takes responsibility for a career that serves as a cautionary tale – ultimately making just 13 appearances for Fulham over seven years – although he believes he lacked the guidance he needed after stepping into the spotlight.
He says: “You don’t set out to change but I think it changed me and the people around me. The new acquaintances I made were growing on me and I admit that it changed me a little because I was so young. I thought I was basically on the bees knees and became a bit complacent as the years went on.
“I was the youngest player in the Premier League and I had this huge expectation over my shoulders. The sad thing about it was that I didn’t appear on the next team until two years later. That really affected me mentally.
“Because I was so young I didn’t feel I had the right to knock on the door and ask why I wasn’t involved more. When I made my debut I thought I was going to make it, I was going to be the next James Milner, but when it didn’t happen and I was put back in the youth team I was thinking: ‘ Didn’t I do well? Am I not good enough?’ And no one really gave me any information as to why and that really bothered me. It knocked my confidence.
“I remember that season, playing for the under-18s, I didn’t feel like myself for half the season. Have you seen the movie Space Jam, when the NBA players lose their powers? I felt like that, like I’d lost my ability. I had progressed so quickly – I made my first reserve team game at 14 – and suddenly it was stagnant. I didn’t have my first loan until I was 19. I played one game for Leyton Orient, got man of the match, and then got a call back. Roy Hodgson was the manager at the time and I wanted to back up Paul Konchesky and then Carlos Salcido.”
A Premier League career may not have come but Briggs has had a good journey including spells at Millwall, Colchester United, two clubs in Denmark, representing England from under-16s to under-21 level and an ongoing international career. . Guyana.
“My grandmother was born in Guyana and moved to England,” he says. “She passed away when I was younger so I thought it would be a sign of respect for her and I know she would be proud to see me playing for the country she was born in.
“I was able to travel the world, see beautiful places, represent my country on the international stage and play in major tournaments. It was amazing.”
Briggs now works as an online fitness coach as well as a focus and mindset coach. He is perfectly qualified to advise Ethan Nwaneri after the Arsenal midfielder made his Premier League debut aged 15 years and 181 days against Brentford last Sunday.
“I feel clubs are much more aware of the psychological impact it has on young players now,” says Briggs. “I feel like they take a lot better care of them and I have no doubt that Ethan fully deserved his first time.
“I would just say don’t let it get to your head, keep training hard, keep focus, look after yourself on and off the pitch and stay disciplined. And, if he has anything that’s bothering him mentally or if he’s worried about anything, talk to someone. It will be better for him in the long run.
“And enjoy it. It’s a short career. When I was starting out I thought it would never end and before I knew it I was 31. Enjoy it while it lasts.”