In part two of our exclusive interview with Matthew Connolly, we start with what went wrong under Paul Trollope, then the revival under Neil Warnock, his injury woes and the tragic passing of his close friend Peter Whittingham.
Paul Trollope joined as Russell’s assistant and eventually replaced him. His time in charge was a bit of a disaster, so what happened there? Was his approach too radical or did the players just not warm to him?
We definitely warmed to him because we already had him as Russell’s assistant and I think a lot of the fans were happy because he was doing well with Wales at the time. He did miss quite a lot of pre-season when he was at the Euro’s, so that may have been a factor. He did try and change things, like the formation with three at the back and we were trying to pass it out more. I guess it just didn’t really work. We had a few chances to win games that we didn’t win and your confidence goes a bit when you have a run like that.
Neil Warnock came in when the club was in a bad place and seemed to have them back on track in no time. You had worked with him before and I’ve heard people talk about how he has everyone onside from the off, so how would you describe The Warnock Effect? What did he say or change when he came in?
I always thought when we were between managers that he would be a great fit for Cardiff. He would get the fans onside, he plays a style of football that gets the crowd going and gets balls in the box. When it finally happened, he pulled me to the side to ask me what was wrong. He thought we had a really good team and shouldn’t be anywhere near where we were in the league. I told him that we didn’t get many days off under Trollope, who made us come in all the time. Warnock is completely different and if you train hard, he’ll give you days to rest and see your family. That was one of the first things he said, that if we work our nuts off, I’ll make sure you get time off. Results immediately started to change.
This period seemed to coincide with your fitness issues. Can you talk me through the problems you’ve had and how they’ve affected your career.
I played under Warnock quite a bit at the start, then the following season I didn’t play at the start because the boys were playing really well. We spoke in January about maybe going out on loan, but he wanted me around the dressing room and I probably only played about four or five games that season in the end. In the summer he asked if I would sign a new deal and I said of course, even though I didn’t really expect to play in the Premier League. I went to see him the following January and said it was probably time I went out on loan and we sorted something with Hull.
I sorted it all out with Nigel Adkins, then when I did my medical, I failed a blood test. I have an internal bleeding issue that I now need medication for. It’s not serious, but I got pretty ill at the time and the loan got cancelled. I got healthy again, then I dislocated my ankle in a reserve game, which needed an operation and a whole summer of rehab. In pre-season, I started running, injured it again, needed another operation and since then It’s not really been great.
Last January, Neil Harris asked if I was OK to go out on loan and I said that I hadn’t trained or played much because of my ankle, so I felt that I needed to try and sort it out.
You’ve played very little in the last couple of years. Being an injured or side-lined player must be pretty rubbish, as they tend to be forgotten. How do you stay motivated and remain involved in some way?
It’s horrible not being involved because you go in every day, you can’t train, but you watch the boys go out there and they’re all having a laugh. Then game is on the weekend and you just sit and watch. You get fans thinking that you’re just taking the money, when it’s far from what you want to be doing. We don’t get injured on purpose and you still go in every day and work your nuts off in the gym or you’re getting treatment. Sometimes things reoccur or just aren’t right.
How is your fitness now? Are you hoping to continue playing? Have you considered retiring?
I’ve not really decided yet. The last few years have been a struggle and Coronavirus has disrupted pre-season. I’ll see what offers I get and make a decision from there, but at the moment I’m at home doing some fitness work.
I just wanted to ouch on the passing of Peter Whittingham, if I may. He was such a wonderful, understated player and the supporters adored him. His death has hit everyone hard and I know you played with him for many years. What are your memories of him, as a player and a person?
He was the best team-mate you could ever ask for. The most down to earth person. He would just come in and train, wouldn’t treat anyone any differently, when he was an absolute superstar as a player. A class person.
I think my first home game was when he scored a hat-trick at Wolves. He put one in the top bins, probably the best goal I had ever seen and he didn’t even celebrate! Then I just realised that he did it every week. When I first joined, there was a space on his table for away trips with David Marshall, so I sat with them and that was for years. We went out quite a bit off the pitch too. We were really close.
Finally, what are your plans for the future? Are you looking to stay in the area beyond your career? Are you looking to remain in football?
To be honest, when I joined Cardiff, I didn’t think I would be there for that long. I didn’t know what to expect. Sometimes I stayed there and other times I used to commute and stay in hotels, which wasn’t ideal looking back. I love the city though. There’s so much to do. You’ve got the town and the countryside, so I wouldn’t rule moving there in the future, but at the moment I’m back in London.
In terms of remaining in football, probably not in a coaching role. Maybe as a scout, but I haven’t really made my mind up yet.