The Big Interview: Matt Hamshaw on rejecting Manchester United, his Sheffield Wednesday career and his love for Rotherham United
Alex Ferguson sat in a modest family home in a former Rotherham pit village talking the kind of money the Hamshaws could only dream of.
The Manchester United manager wanted to sign Matt, the eldest Hamsaw son, who was attracting the attention of a host of clubs.
Ferguson had driven across the Pennines and was at Sharpfield Avenue, Rawmarsh, talking about a contract. Big bucks, schoolboy terms, an apprenticeship, then a five-year professional deal.
“No thanks,” said 13-year-old Matt. Family came first. He was happy where he was.
Fergie’s loss turned out to be Sheffield Wednesday’s gain. The teenager would eventually choose them, coming close to a Premier League outing at 16, making his debut at 17 and staying at Hillsborough for seven years.
“No regrets,” says Hamshaw, now 36 and first-team coach at the club that has always been his heart, Rotherham United. “I’d had a week in Manchester and I stayed in a hotel. I played a game and scored five. We beat Celtic 9-0. Alex came to speak to my mum and dad. I wasn’t tempted. I was a bit of a home boy.”
Materially, the Hamshaws didn’t have much. Dad Phil was a miner, mum Bev was a cleaner. Phil used to smuggle his son under the turnstiles at Millmoor so they could watch the Millers together. What they did have was standards. Family came first.
“Dad got cheques offered at the side of the pitch back then,” Hamshaw Junior recollects. “Leeds United offered my dad one. He didn’t take it. My mum and dad, they gave me everything and I had a great childhood, but they didn’t have a lot. My dad was on a pittance, my mum was on a pittance, yet they turned down a lot of money to let me decide.
“My dad is a mad Millers fan. I always wanted to play for them and he always wanted me to. I nearly signed when Mick Harford was manager but he didn’t even know what flank I played on. It killed me because I know how much it would have meant to my old man. There isn’t a prouder parent now that I’m at the club. His chest is puffed out like a peacock!”
Hamshaw is a father himself these days and his respect for his upbringing underpins our conversation as we get together at Rotherham’s training complex only a stone’s throw from where he was brought up.
A quick, direct winger, he opted for David Pleat’s Owls when he was 15 and soon made his mark.
“I was an England youth international from under-15s to 20s,” he says. “I was a little bit cocksure. I’d never experienced any pitfalls. I nearly made my debut as a 16-year-old in the Premier League when I was 16. Benito Carbone walked out of the dressing room at Southampton and I was put on the bench. Danny Wilson was manager and was going to put me on at 1-0 down but we scored and I stayed off.”
“My first appearance came in the Championship at Grimsby in August 2000. Paul Jewell was boss. We won 1-0 and I played really well. It was surreal. I was Sky TV Man of the Match on my home debut the week after in a 1-1 draw with Blackburn.”
Hamshaw played plenty of first-team football in the following two seasons before his rise came to a shattering halt on Boxing Day 2002. Hillsborough, a 2-0 win over Nottingham Forest, 69th minute, cruciate damage.
“It hit me hard,” he says. “I was 19 or 20. Nothing bad had ever happened to me before. I thought I was going to play forever. I asked how long I’d be out, would it be six or eight weeks? I had no concept of injuries. I had no idea this was a career-threatening one.”
On his first day back in full training, the same ligaments went again. He cried after surgery and, not for the first or last time in his life, turned to his loved ones.
“I was ready to pack it in,” he confides. “My wife and family came together and just said: ‘Come on, you can do this.’
Sat reminiscing in a quiet room at Roundwood makes him reflect on his circumstances now.
He still lives locally, in Elsecar, is married to childhood sweetheart Kerry and dotes on daughters Isabella, 10, and eight-year-old Ava.
“When I think back to the injuries and how happy my wife and kids make me today, I just think ‘wow’,” he reveals. “At this stage in your life, you get a new respect for your own parents and the job they did bringing you up.
“It’s only when you have kids that you realise the influence your own mum and dad have had on you.”
He has a younger brother and sister - Alex, who works in the steel industry, and Katie, employed by Sheffield University. “We’re unbelievably close go each other and to our mum and dad,” he says. “I was raised right, with proper values. 100 per cent.
“Me and Kerry have been together since school - Rawmarsh Comprehensive. Kerry is head of PE there now. She’s been a rock. She’s always been there for me, I’ve always been there for her.”
Hamshaw came back a second time for Wednesday - “a bit less pace, to be honest. I felt it” - missed out on the League One Play-off Final victory in 2005 and was released by manager Paul Sturrock two days later.
“I did my hamstring in the semi-final second leg and had daily injections for 10 days leading up to final,” he recollects. “But Sturrock was massive on fitness and made me do 15 x 100 metres in under 13 seconds two days before the final. The hamstring went on the 10th. I was devastated. It would have been the biggest game of my career.
“Leaving was hard. It wasn’t the fact I’d been released, but you’re seeing laundry ladies, the kitman, the bootman, coffee ladies ... people you’ve had a relationship with. They’re hugging you and are upset for you. Then you have to tell your wife you’re being released. You feel almost like a failure.”
Interest from Manchester United must have seemed long in the past as he spent the rest of his career at Stockport County, Mansfield Town, Notts County and Macclesfield Town, but it was an achievement in itself that he managed more than 350 pro appearances despite the double cruciate blow.
Tragedy had struck during his time at Mansfield, when he and Kerry lost a son during birth. It gave him a sense of perspective as he started to fall out of love with the game at Macclesfield and then in non-league before reigniting his passion as a coach with the Millers.
He’d done plenty of voluntary kids coaching in schools and with Rotherham during his playing days. From 2012, he honed his craft full time with the youth teams and reserves. Last season, Kenny Jackett called him up to help with the first team, then he was kept on by Paul Warne who knows “a good human being” when he sees one.
“Last year was really difficult when we were relegated from the Championship, but I learned masses,” Hamshaw says. “They were dark days. We had some players here who shouldn’t have been here, some players who were on too much money, some whose attitudes stunk.
This term, Rotherham are right in the League One promotion mix. “We wanted to restore the pride in the badge,” he goes on. “We wanted to rebuild something that meant something to people.”
When I arrive at 10.30am, the training HQ is a seething mass of players already in their kit, the hubbub and laughter at full volume as they wait in the main room for Warne to begin the Monday-morning debrief after the last-minute win over Doncaster Rovers two days earlier.
Hamshaw ushers us into the calmer sanctum of the management team’s changing room. Warne pops in and offers a handshake, goalkeeping coach Mike Pollitt bounces through the door and chats warmly before leaving us to it.
The Millers, like the Hamshaws, are a bonded bunch.
“Last year was a massive test of character,” Hamshaw goes on. “But I think things happen in your life that test you and make you stronger. I had my double knees. Then we lost our little boy, which was tough in a different way to football.
“I was 25. Mansfield were brilliant to me. The manager, Billy Dearden, gave me as much time off as I needed. Fans sent me flowers. I’ll never forget that. I got through it with the support of my family and my club.
“I think it was even worse for my wife. I didn’t really feel it until nine months after because you’re strong for everyone else.
“It was devastating time in my life but it shaped me into the man I am today, in terms of experience and dealing with things. I have basic, old-school values. Manners and things like that are important.”
In the summer he heads off to France with the likes of Steven Gerrard and Peter Schmeichel to earn his UEFA Pro Licence, the sport’s top coaching qualification, and he’s also busy with a management course.
Does he want to be a boss one day? Maybe. He’s not sure. With Warne’s Millers, with his family all around him, this self-confessed ‘home boy’ has found his home.
Alex Ferguson couldn’t make him leave Rotherham. Phil Hamshaw wants him to never leave Rotherham.
And as Phil’s son, Matthew Thomas Hamshaw, says: “It’s a big thing to make your dad proud.”