The Trust are thrilled to be able to announce Dominic Matteo as our latest honorary member. Dominic spent 4 years at Leeds United from 2000 - 2004 making over 140 appearances for the Whites. He was an integral part of the O’Leary side that finished 3rd in the Premier League and went on to reach the semi-finals of the Champions league. He remains an incredibly popular figure among Leeds fans as the no-nonsense heart of the defence, forming formidable partnerships with the likes of Lucas Radebe and Rio Ferdinand and of course, for that goal in the San Siro.
More recently Leeds fans joined football fans across the country in wishing Dom well as he overcame treatment for a brain tumour. Everyone within the football family was delighted with the news that he’s now been given the all clear.
We caught up with Dom (digitally, from at least 2 meters away) to present him with his Honorary award and to hear his take on days that seem like yesterday.
Thank you very much for speaking with us Dom, it’s an absolute pleasure to meet you, albeit digitally. How are you holding up during this lockdown?
Yeah not too bad, nothing’s really changed too much since what happened to me with my illness. In the lockdown situation I can get out for a little bit of a walk but not too far and not too close to anyone. You just have to get on with stuff. It’s tough for everyone all over the place and I’m just trying to keep my spirits high, especially around the family.
Obviously it’s been a really difficult six months. I know even just from social media that everyone was really pulling for you Dom, there was such a sense of togetherness, everyone rallying around you. I don’t know whether you picked up on that?
I think there’s a lot of things I’ll take out of what happened to me. One of them is the friends, family, wife, everyone who’ve really been there for me, day in, day out, week in, week out. Everyone at St James’ and LGI hospitals who looked after me, from the nurses up to the oncologists. It was such a difficult ride at first because I didn’t realise I was poorly, it was sudden and you don’t expect to be taken ill like that so quickly. I’m lucky to be alive and just so thankful of the amazing support around me. I keep mentioning the doctors and nurses because, basically, they saved my life, whichever way I look at it or talk about it, that’s the truth.
My wife’s picked up from there and she’s leading the line for me, as they say in football terms, and it’s been a real team effort with the kids. They’ve tried to chip in for me because nothing was easy for quite a period. I think the toughest part for me was my children. At that point one of them was six years old, and ok he knew I wasn’t well but things were getting worse for me at one point and my ten-year-old was really worried about his dad and it was a difficult conversation to have. Until you actually experience that first hand yourself, it’s difficult to explain and it still haunts me to this day thinking about that. That was the toughest thing for me as a dad, knowing just how much you love them, care for them and don’t want anything to upset them. I’ve realised now that I’ve wasted a lot of time in my life and I won’t do that again. I’ve learnt that from it.
To coin a phrase, it’s almost a blessing in disguise to make you re-evaluate and get a new lease of life. We’re really happy to hear that you’re recovering, I’m sure you’ve got a little way to go but it sounds like you’ve got excellent support. I know there’s so much more involved with your rehabilitation but from what I’ve read it seems you have got this incredibly positive frame of mind and I just wondered where that came from?
It’s a combination of everything. A positive wife, who’s had to be the positive one in different periods of my life, but also in general I’ve re-grouped because I’ve had to. It shows what you can achieve with a positive mental attitude. I was always someone in football that just got on with it, played the game, went for a beer with the lads and that was the kind of way I lived my life. Obviously when something happens that changes everything, you just change your whole views. My diet and everything is completely different, I can’t believe some of the stuff I’m eating nowadays. I spoke with Razor Ruddock, who’s one of my close friends and was always there for me, and when you think about the diet that me and him used to have! Nowadays I’m a vegan mostly with a plant-based diet. I’ve got to do that now and maintain it.
You’re right to mention that the toughest thing when you’ve had a cancer diagnosis is maintaining your wellbeing and that’s so important. You don’t want to go backwards and you’ve got to limit the risks of it coming back. I’m still recovering and it’s still early doors after the operation but I’m very aware about what I’m eating and what I’m drinking. Don’t get me wrong, I like a beer as much as anyone and I will still have one, but I’ve just got to cut down on a lot of stuff. It’s tough at times but you soon get used to it. You have to change your whole lifestyle, it’s a bit of a culture shock but I’ve been given another go at life, I shouldn’t really be here and I’m not going to waste it this time. It’s going to be a busy few months ahead recovering and trying to get back to work. I love talking about football, that’s what I want to do going forward because I’m always a football person. Anyone that knows me knows that’s what I’m all about. It might take a little while to get to where I want to go but I’ll get there, with the determination that I know I have. Also, my football mates have been so crucial to this, the people at Leeds and at Liverpool. I’ve got to mention Eddie Gray, David O’Leary’s been incredible to me, Eirik Bakke, Mark Viduka. Everyone’s sent me lots of nice messages. Robbie Keane’s sent me one recently, Robbie Fowler’s been on the phone to me all the time, Steve McManaman came to see me at Leeds, Jamie Redknapp, Michael Owen. Kenny Dalglish, my hero, the things that he’s said to me were incredibly inspiring and to have a conversation with him, when he’s been through absolutely everything and is one of the greatest guys I’ve ever met, it gives me goose-bumps thinking about it. All of those guys really gave me a massive lift and I think the football world as a whole has been incredible to me. My wife and friends tell me about the social media stuff, which has been incredible and it makes me really emotional because you don’t really think about how many people care about you. Not just because they are famous, it’s because they’re inspiring people and being around them has been a massive help for me. People were a bit shocked when Steve McManaman came to Leeds to visit me in the hospital, a two-times Champions League winner coming to see me, but that’s the way it was and I’m so thankful for those people who did take the time to come and see me. I didn’t think I was going to get that kind of treatment to be honest because I just think of myself as Dom Matteo, I get on with stuff, try and help out as many people as I can but it was really nice to get a little something back from some really good people.
So we obviously can’t hold a conversation with you about Leeds without talking about AC Milan at the San Siro. What’s your memories of that night?
First and foremost, I think about making my debut for Leeds in the first leg, which always then makes me think about the second leg. I didn’t even think I was going to be playing in the first leg but then David O’Leary said you’re going to train and be ready for it. We got the result at Elland Road with the Lee Bowyer goal. Then for me to get the goal in Milan was a poignant moment with my family having Italian links, so it felt strangely right getting that goal. They were the better team, playing the better football, but we somehow again found a way of getting a result. It was an incredible night and there was just something electric about it.
I say the same about Lazio and about Anderlecht, there were certain games that I played in where the atmosphere was just phenomenal. It’s very difficult to describe and I don’t think we’ll ever get scenes like that again. The Leeds fans that night were absolutely mental and were absolutely everywhere. Whenever I speak to someone from Leeds they always seem to have been in Milan; how did you all get there and afford it?!? I only realised when I started travelling abroad with Liverpool and Leeds the amount of stuff that fans have to do to get there. It’s just bonkers how they managed to get the tickets and get to the game. I find it amazing how both Liverpool and Leeds fans always find a way, despite with the time and cost involved.
I take so many positives out of the AC Milan game at the San Siro and it’s always a special place for me. Even though the pitch was always rubbish in places like that – the stadiums weren’t built for it and it was like playing on bogs. But I wouldn’t have changed that because that’s how I liked playing football, with rough and ready pitches. I might struggle to play on the fancy pitches nowadays. The night in the San Siro was the type of game that I look back on and think how lucky I was to be involved.
Be honest, was there anyone when you were lining up in that tunnel at the San Siro that you had a bit of a sideways glance at, like Paulo Maldini maybe?
I think David O’Leary was always the one looking out for the players he liked and he was a big fan of Maldini. I can’t blame him because he was an incredible player. When you talk about players like that, I always forget that I played against them and how good they were, how they played the game with the right attitude. I just love reminiscing and thinking about those players I played against, it’s just incredible, they’re the things that you take with you.
Maldini was a class player.
Apart from that Alan Smith absolutely battered him. I always say I played more with Smithy than against him but he was a right handful. Very tough to play against. Maldini didn’t know what had hit him. But that was the Leeds way and that’s how we got far. I just think Smithy was outstanding. Things go under-rated and things change when players move clubs but I think Smithy was an incredible player for Leeds. I was very close to Smithy and we’ve had many a conversation about what went on. He was in a very tough position to turn that move down, because he was given a massive opportunity to win trophies at a time when Leeds were trying to get rid of him for the money. I know there are mixed views on that but if you ask Smithy he’s a proper Leeds boy and absolutely loved playing for Leeds. In my opinion, he deserves more credit than he got. When all the talk of deferring wages was going around at Leeds, there were quite a few of us who did want to do it to help out and quite a lot that just didn’t. In the end, everyone’s got to make their own choices and make their own minds up and that’s what they did, but for me it was always the right thing to do to defer the wages at that time.
What are your memories of the O’Leary days, what was he like to work with and what are the things that stand out for you from that time?
You know what, it feels like it all happened yesterday. I was very close to David and I know there are some mixed opinions around him, I loved working with him coaching me and helping me with my heading. He was a good coach who learnt his trade under George Graham and decided to step up. I think a few people maybe question when he did finish at Leeds that he was maybe a bit harshly done by. I think there’s probably a lot of truth in that. If you think about where we were at that point, we weren’t in a bad position and I don’t think he deserved to be got rid of so quickly. What he’d done for the club up until that point was excellent and I think the development was going the right way.
It certainly didn’t get any better after he left
No it didn’t. He had a brilliant upbringing with his 20 years at Arsenal under George Graham and, for me, he didn’t quite get the treatment he deserved at Leeds at the end. The results were quite good, I think he did alright and he was under-rated in my opinion.
Looking back, obviously Leeds didn’t win any honours during that time but if things had turned out differently, what do you think that team would have been capable of?
There would definitely have been a trophy somewhere, I do believe that. But I think with the amount of quality players that we lost and who they were replaced with, it was just such a difficult transitional period. I witnessed the same at Liverpool when I was an apprentice there, they were winning the double and all of a sudden they had a tough period afterwards. I still feel that Leeds could have been a bit kinder to David because he was still a young manager. I was thinking this could be a manager who could be around for 10 or 20 years. David was very single-minded in what he did and had belief in certain players and coaches around him, like Roy Aitken, and I was surprised it didn’t work out better.
When the David O’Leary team clicked so well, it was wonderful to watch. In any good team, just like the 1989-90 and 1991-92 league championship teams, they all seem to enjoy it and they were all clearly friends off the pitch as well. Do you need that friendship?
I would agree that team spirit is a massive thing at any club. Just look at the teams that are doing brilliantly now, Manchester City and Liverpool, because they do everything the right way. When Leeds were doing so well, every game just came so easily and everything felt right, even when we changed the team. There were even games where I was so unfit but David O’Leary kept picking me. I think the Lazio game, where we’d already qualified, Rio and others got a rest. I thought “hold on a minute, why does everyone else get a rest?” but David just felt that I had to play because I think he thought a lot of me. I wanted to play at centre back and I thought that me and Rio had the best partnership at the club because we had a great connection, we were both trying to play the game the right way. I think at times I was a little bit unlucky that I didn’t get more games at centre back because I had to play left or centre midfield. I didn’t mind that but throughout my career I always wanted to play centre back or sweeper because that’s what I was. I do feel Leeds got the best out of me, I was happy to be left alone at centre back rather being a utility player, but that’s probably because David O’Leary trusted me and when a player has that connection with a manager you can go far. All the Leeds players had a massive connection and you’ve got to give the manager credit for that.
Would you say Rio Ferdinand is one of the best you’ve played with?
Rio just made everything look so easy. He was a brilliant footballer and was always going to play at the highest level. Again, when I was poorly, Rio was on the phone to me and sent me some lovely messages, he really is a class act. He absolutely loved his time at Leeds because of the unbelievable team spirit at that point. We used to go out a bit as a team on nights out but I don’t think it was ever too much. If we got a good result on a Saturday, we’d all go out and celebrate and I still think that’s alright now to a certain degree. If you got beat though you should be at home, because you should be gutted that you didn’t get a result, that’s how I see it.
All of that team were different in their own way. Mark Viduka would come out for a couple of beers and a fag and get himself off home, whereas others like me would be out for the duration. I kind of knew what everyone did, like Smithy wasn’t a drinker whereas me, Rio, Michael Duberry and Gary Kelly would go for a couple of pints of Guinness. It wasn’t a drinking culture, that was over-exaggerated, especially when we were playing Champions League games as well as the premier league. It’s a lot of games to get through. I think sometimes, especially when you got a Champions League result away from home, you can’t sleep anyway so you’re just doing something normal.
Are you still in touch with any of the lads now Dom?
Yeah I speak to quite a lot of the boys. Obviously because of what’s happened to me I’ve got to see more people of late. Eirik Bakke has always been my best mate and we’ve been really close. Lucas Radebe’s been on the phone and I’ve been close with him since his wife died a few years ago and I went out to the funeral in Johannesburg. I think Lucas doesn’t forget things like that and it meant he thought about me as well. I certainly think the world of him and his wife before she passed away.
There seemed to be a massive togetherness with it being such a young team. Who would you say was the biggest loss to the dressing room out of all the players who moved on?
That’s difficult to say. Personally, I just tried to get on with things as best I could. It was a difficult period with different managers in charge and it just seemed that it was no longer the Leeds United way. We seemed slow off the mark in making the correct decisions for the club and were suddenly making bad decisions. Don’t get me wrong, I was part of that team that got relegated and I’m not shirking away from that. I was stood in those rooms, speaking out about what was happening, why it was happening and what could have been done differently. It was really a mixture of players wanting to do different things. I think some players might have been towards the end of their career thinking this was their last pay cheque but they’ll see out the contract even if they weren’t playing. I couldn’t have done that. At Leeds, they wouldn’t even let me stay, and I was shocked when Blackburn came in and Leeds let me go so quickly.
Was there not a possibility to stay at Leeds?
I asked but that was off the cards. When it’s off the cards it’s done. I think there was a lot of players on a lot more money than I was ever on and that didn’t want to go, because maybe they couldn’t have got the same contract somewhere else. I didn’t know what other players earnt and I was never interested in money. But you can’t blame those players, because they wanted to sort their finances out and get their family safe. That’s what sometimes happens in football. The PFA have helped me out and they were also in a difficult position at the time, it was just confusing at the time and no-one actually knew where we were going to end up. It was a new situation for the PFA as well and everyone was just learning on their feet.
Is it safe to say that you wished you’d have been able to stay at Leeds for a bit longer, as you might have done at Liverpool too?
They are the two clubs that mean something to me and are close to my heart. Being greedy, I’d have liked to have played a bit longer for both of them. That’s the truth. I loved playing for Liverpool and Leeds. It’s very unusual in football but it just felt right and I was buzzing to play for both of those clubs and was really happy at both of them. They were the perfect clubs for me. Even the way the two clubs were run, the way they played, so many characters and good people I was around, I was very lucky.
Would you have fancied playing under either Bielsa or Klopp?
They’re both brilliant coaches. I’ve been very fortunate and privileged over the last few years to watch Klopp’s development for Liverpool. The job they’ve been doing there is incredible and they just keep improving. Even when the football isn’t brilliant, they still know how to win and that’s the key. I think that with all the great clubs over the years who have had success, like the great Leeds team in the 1970’s, no matter how they just knew how to do it and get it over the line. That’s the one thing that Leeds have to learn now going forward. We’ve struggled to get over the line. Now let’s make sure we do it and make sure we stay there.
Everyone’s thinking about Leeds being potentially promoted but behind closed doors, which wouldn’t be ideal but I think it’s fairly accurate to say that we’d prefer that than missing out on promotion altogether. What’s your thoughts on how things should be re-started?
Probably behind closed doors and get the games finished as soon as possible with only a few days training between each match. There’s no magic wand at the moment, I think it’s just common sense but we’ve also got to think about the players. For them to get so close to people would be so difficult to manage and logistically it’s a lot bigger than people think and may take more time to get going. But let’s then give the Leeds fans a night to remember later because they certainly deserve that, and so do Liverpool. Those two clubs winning their leagues would be the perfect present for me. I’ve had a tough time of it over the last few months and I didn’t get to see too many games because I was recovering, but when I did get to see Leeds and Liverpool play, those were the type of things that kept me going. It’s so much more than just the football, you miss the mate you go to the match and have a pint with, everyone’s got their routine on matchday.
You don’t realise how much you miss it until it’s gone, I think everyone will really value that when we get to come back to the grounds.
And let’s just hope that everyone comes back as nicer people as well. That’s not meant in a bad way but we’ve got an opportunity here. Although the Leeds fans have been impeccable this season, the amount that we’ve had both home and away. They never moaned, they kept going every single game, so going forward let’s hope we get what we deserve now and get this title in the bag and get us back in the Premier League. It would be the best couple of days ever because if Leeds and Liverpool win it, I would be the happiest man alive.
I think Leeds and Liverpool fans should meet up and have one big doo, maybe meet halfway and have it in Manchester, I’m sure they’d enjoy that.
You know what, that would be the best party ever. Let’s hope it can be sorted as soon as possible!
So what plans do you have now for the future, would you ever look to get into coaching or anything like that?
To be honest I’ve really loved being involved with Sky Soccer Saturday and working for Liverpool over the last few months. They’ve been two great jobs. It’s been about three or four times a week and that’s perfect for me. I’m really happy with it and really enjoying watching loads of teams. I’ve been watching a lot more football over the last three years and going to a lot more games and it has helped me appreciate football a lot more. I’m watching games differently. I like to go to a game and be totally fixated on what’s going on. Too many people go to the games and it’s all about a prawn sandwich and something to drink. When I’m working and watching a game I have to be totally on top of it, otherwise I can’t get the same results.
I imagine there is a lot of preparation and that’s the reason why some people make good pundits and others don’t.
I generally think I’m a work in progress with all that, especially because of what’s happened to me, I’m still learning a lot of stuff. All I think about at the moment is getting back to watching football and being back involved, I love it. I was stupid to come away from the game, because I had opportunities after playing but I wanted a break from football. That’s my biggest regret now. We all love our football but I enjoyed not just watching Leeds and Liverpool but all the different teams right the way through. The one thing you can say about the Championship is that it’s probably one of the best leagues to be involved with, because there’s so much going on. I think it’s the most exciting league, probably the best to watch to be honest. When I was away from football, I lost that commitment to watching it, now I’m doing it again for my work and I just want to keep doing it. I don’t know what’s around the corner, I’m just going day to day at the moment but there’s lots I want to do and want to achieve.
It sounds like this is a real second chance for you?
I think you’re right, it is. You don’t get those in life often and I’m so thankful for that. My wife and everyone thought I was gone but I’m a lot tougher than people think. I stuck around, I’m still here, still talking, still got more work to do but I’m on the positive now and I just need to keep that going. Sometimes you can find yourself in a position where you can help people, and when I get better and stronger, I’d love to get more involved in doing that; to help other people with sport. Definitely the people that helped me in my recovery, I’ll always remember them. Hopefully I’ll get to see some games at Elland Road too, that would be the dream.
On the subject of how much the NHS does on a day-to-day basis with an illness like cancer, life stops for you immediately but the NHS staff just get on with it and help sort it out for you. They’re doing the same now for people suffering with coronavirus. I just wonder what you think makes the NHS staff so special in that way?
I love the roll-the-sleeves-up attitude they have. I’ve always liked that kind of thing. When you think about where I’m from, growing up in Liverpool and then living in Leeds now, that’s very much what we’re all about. We stick together as a unit and that’s what I draw upon. When I see the NHS and the amazing job they’re doing day in, day out, there’s not enough superlatives to describe to them how thankful I am. We don’t know the half of it, what goes on in the NHS, doing all kinds of jobs, some of which are not nice, but they just get on with it. I think that’s the great thing about the NHS – no matter what job they do, they all play a massive role in helping us get back to where we need to be with our health.
Well said. You’ve clearly got a lot of incredibly supportive people around you to support you on your road to full recovery with your family, friends and team-mates. We want to let you know that you’ve also got a lot of fans who never forget, like Leeds fans with that goal in Milan, and we’re all really pulling for you. Just take it day by day and know that you’ll always find a lot of support and a lot of love in Leeds.
Thanks guys it means a lot, more than I’ll ever be able to say.
The trust would like to thank Dom and his family for taking the time to speak to us, it was wonderful to hear his sheer positivity in the face of his current challenge. We’re sure all our members will join us in wishing Dom all the very best on his continued journey to recovery and a big congratulations on his honorary membership award. MOT
Special Thanks to Andrew Varley for the photos of Dom.
If you'd like to purchase copies of the photos, visit: leedsunitedpictures.com