The Big Interview: Non-league hero Matt Roney on life as a Sheffield FC legend after 12 years and over 500 games
He has over 500 games on his CV, a place in non-league football folklore and a lifetime of memories, but one Saturday afternoon last summer, before the football season began, convinced Matt Roney that his race is not run just yet.
“I was with the missus in the new Ikea in Sheffield, and then we went to Meadowhall,” Roney smiles, “and I was thinking: ‘yeah, I’m not ready for this yet’.
“I’d much rather be on the bus for eight hours, down to Spalding or somewhere to play another game.
“Football has always been my life and it’s the craic with the lads, too. With my day job, I’m at 100mph all the time trying to make sure things are getting done.
“But at football, I can sort of switch off from everything. Whether it’s kicking a ball around in the park with my nephews, playing Sunday League or in front of nearly 20,000 at Bramall Lane, I can’t get enough of the game.”
But the game almost had enough of him, when Roney experienced the double blow of being released by Sheffield Wednesday during the Halcyon days of the Premier League, and then failing to make the grade across the city at his boyhood club United.
A speculative spell at Hull City came to nothing, and Roney tumbled into non-league football. But while many would have considered that the end of their journey, it was merely the start of his.
A spell at Hallam earned a step back up the ladder to Buxton, but the commute proved too much. In 2006, a fresh-faced, long-haired 22-year-old, he moved to Sheffield FC, the world’s oldest football club.
Twelve years and almost 500 games later, much of the hair may have gone. But Roney remains.
“I love it,” he smiles. “It’s real, non-league football. Everyone there has jobs - I don’t have a free minute in the day, most of the times - and then combine it with training and games through the week.
“Twelve years is a long time to play for one side, at any level, but especially in semi-pro football where most players would jump ship every season for an extra 30 or 40 quid in their pockets.
“I’ve been asked a lot why I’ve never moved, and the simple answer I give is, ‘why would I?’
“Sheffield FC is a special club. The world’s first, which no-one can take away from us. And the trips we’ve been on around the world? Wow. My first was to Hong Kong, then we went to India and a few years ago, I scored in the San Siro on an end-of-season tour.
“Stuff like that doesn’t happen to players in non-league, and it’s because we’re privileged enough to play for a special club. Sheffield Club. The first club.”
We meet on a busy midweek afternoon on Sheffield’s bustling Ecclesall Road and Roney runs late, after first politely phoning to apologise. Combining his Club commitments with a job in property, he admits he frequently can’t resist getting ‘hands-on’ and speckles of white paint on his toned arms render any explanation unnecessary this time.
A typical day can see him anywhere in the country, working long hours renovating properties for landlords, juggling training and games with Club with his partner of seven years, Caroline and their dog, Bentley.
As he speaks, there’s a flutter of activity by the door and in walks Sheffield United’s Scouse ‘car-school’ of Mark Duffy, John Lundstram and Jack O’Connell, fresh from a half-day of training.
“It’s not a bad life, is it?” Roney smiles.
“These lads, the pros, have done their training for the day, come and get a Costa and then what do they do? Go home, put their feet up and prepare for tomorrow’s game. But that’s the difference between us and them, I guess.
“The day before a game I’ll usually be working until around seven, go to the gym and have a swim and use the sauna, do a few hours in the morning and then get on the bus to Stamford away or wherever.
“It is what it is, I guess. But I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
He means it, too. So often, players who came so close to making it, after sacrificing much of their childhood as part of a top club’s academy, are consumed by bitterness when their dreams are dashed. But not Roney.
“I’d gone from being the best player at school and walking past players, to Sheffield Boys which was a bit harder, and then making the jump to Wednesday,” he remembers.
“And I never thought I was top of the tree, or going to make it as such. So when I got released, I got my head down and did a couple of courses, learned a trade so I had something to fall back on.
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“I have regrets, of course - we’ve never made the first round of the FA Cup despite getting very close more than once - but if you’d have said to me 15 years ago that I’d go down in Sheffield Club history after playing more than 500 games, and played all over the world, then I’d have snatched your hand off.
“So I’m happy. And I still get the same buzz as I did when I was 21 when I score a goal in training, so as long as that’s still there then I’ll continue for a while yet - I hope.”
In official, competitive football, Roney stands just 25 games short of the magic 500 mark, which he eclipses comfortably if friendlies are included.
“In terms of competitive games the next best is probably over 100 behind,” Andy Dixon, Club’s historian and statistician, says.
“A goalkeeper called Henry Bolsover (who played between 1894 and 1907) has over 350 appearances (255 confirmed and the rest estimated).
“So Matt is miles ahead. As everyone knows, Club has had people who shaped the very rules of the game and several players who later played for England, but Matt deserves to be mentioned alongside each and every one of the club’s greats.
“He is an absolute legend of Sheffield FC - and still runs around more than kids half his age when he pulls the Club shirt on.”
Remarkably, Roney still vividly remembers his Club debut - a man of the match display in a Sheffield & Hallamshire Cup game at home to Hollinsend Amateurs, which they won 3-0 - but it is 2007’s game against Inter Milan, at Bramall Lane to celebrate Club’s 150th birthday, which sticks in his mind.
“That was something special,” he smiles.
“I look back at pictures now and think, did that really happen? Marco Materazzi had won the World Cup the year before and a young Marco Balotelli played and scored two.
“Pele was the guest of honour and we were all introduced to him before kick-off.
“In the end, we lost 5-2 but the atmosphere, in front of almost 20,000, was unreal.
“A few years later, I played and scored at the San Siro in a game against Italy’s oldest club. We’ve been invited to Qatar and Argentina, too, to play their oldest clubs.
“There’s been some remarkable memories, but as I say, it’s a remarkable club.”
Inevitably, conversation eventually turns towards the future.
Roney, now a player-coach under Mark Shaw, hasn’t played since a Senior Cup tie against Frickley in November and admits the proposition of moving into coaching does tempt him.
“I think Caroline has had enough now,” he admits with a grin. “She’s copping for a different story every week - it’s never straightforward at Club.
“She’s seen it all as I have and I imagine it is quite hard for the wife or girlfriend of a non-league player because there isn’t any downtime.
“On a typical day I’m running round like a blue-a**ed fly chasing jobs for a deadline so I might see her for ten minutes before training, then I’m back at half nine and my tea’s on the table.
“Things might change when kids come along, but in my mind I’m still a young 30-year-old and I want to live life while I can.”
Then, there’s the matter of a well-earned testimonial to arrange.
“My dream is a pre-season game against Sheffield United at the Coach and Horses,” Roney admits.
“A sell-out friendly. Chris Wilder was going to bring a side in the last international break but I said ‘let’s not risk anything - let’s do it properly’.
“I’ve got it all planned in my head - the Blades will be in the Premier League by then and will kick-off pre-season in the sunshine against us.
“That would be the cherry on top of everything I’ve achieved. If that happened and the manager came to me and said Rones, I think it’s time to call it a day, then that would do for me.”