The Big Interview: Sheffield’s three-time world squash champion, Nick Matthew, aka The Wolf, loving husband, doting dad and maker of ‘girlie’ drinks

Three-time world champion Nick Matthew at Hallamshire Squash Club
Three-time world champion Nick Matthew at Hallamshire Squash Club

The Wolf? Really?

With his big grin, twinkling brown eyes and friendly demeanour, he seems anything but, yet this is the name by which Nick Matthew OBE is known to everyone in the world of squash.

One of the best the world has ever seen

One of the best the world has ever seen

He's engaging company, open and friendly, radiating an easy, natural warmth. His drink bottle has 'Nick' scrawled across it in permanent marker, like a schoolkid's would, so he doesn't lose it.

The Wolf? Really?

Then, on a wall behind where we're talking, I spot the long roll of honour charting the career of the Nether Edge boy who grew up to rule the globe: three times world champion, three times a Commonwealth Games gold medalist, a triple winner of the British Open, national crowns in double figures, triumphant in close to 40 World Tour events.

He won everything there was to win with a single-minded need to achieve and a voracious appetite for battle that saw him conquer opponents who could match him for aptitude but never desire.

Nick with wife Esme and daughter Charlotte

Nick with wife Esme and daughter Charlotte

Yes, the Wolf.

"I wasn't the most talented player," Matthew reflects. "I just had that side to me that eventually I would get there, that I'd learn and figure it out. I've had to work harder than most. It's been as much attitude as it's been talent.

"I was a late developer. I didn't play for England until I was 16. I was always at the bottom end of the squads trying to work my way up. I never won a national junior title, but I've won the senior one 10 times."

Now 38, Matthew retired from tournament competition earlier this year. There are exhibition tours of Britain and America coming up, and he'll never stop playing for enjoyment, but his long-term focus will be on nurturing the next generation through his coaching role with England Squash and his own Nick Matthew Academy.

Now his future lies in helping other players

Now his future lies in helping other players

The sport is in his genes. "My mum and dad both played  - at Queens Tower at the back of Queens Road," he recalls. "I think it's flats now. They were both teachers. My dad was head of PE at High Storrs School, my mum taught English at Wickersley in Rotherham. 

"I got all the stick that comes with being Mr Matthew's son. He didn't help matters by making me captain of the football team and captain of the cricket team!"

"After A-levels, I turned pro. I made a pact with my mum and dad. They wanted me to continue my education. We came to an agreement that I would have three years on tour and see how I was getting on. I never went back."

We meet at Hallamshire Tennis and Squash Club on Ecclesall Road, where his parents first took him when he was nine and where his UK academy - there's a second one in the States - is now based. 

The Matthew clan

The Matthew clan

There are framed photographs and signed shirts everywhere. One catches my eye. It's the jersey he wore when he won his 100th England cap in July 2014.

My favourite is the picture showing him and and James Willstrop seconds after an epic confrontation in the final of the British Open in Manchester in 2009.

Matthew, in white, is laid out on the court in arms-outstretched exhaustion. The red-shirted Willstrop is lent, back to camera, in the left corner, his sagging body held up only by the wall. Two warriors utterly spent. The victor? You can't tell.

The club is Matthew's kingdom. And also his home, where he grew up, to where he's always returned as title followed title on the world stage.

Two stand out more than any other as he reflects on his 20-year career at the top of the sport.

"They're both domestic-based, because when you win something at home you can share it with all your friends and family and sponsors," he says. 

"I won my first World Championships in Saudi Arabia and we were staying in this compound. My coach and physio had to leave and I didn't have my mum or dad there or my wife. The other players had gone home. I was in my hotel room with the trophy on my own thinking: 'Is this is?' 

"When I won the Worlds for the third time, in Manchester, it was a home crowd. It was 2013 and I was wondering if I'd gone past my best years, so to win it was a massive thing. I was 33 then. The ability to do it week in, week out - the grind - gets harder to do at that age. 

"The second one was the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. To win the gold medal there ... that's our Olympics really. I'd carried the flag in the opening ceremony for the whole England team, which was a massive honour. It's something outside of your sport. Athletes vote for who they think should do it.

The retirement decision

"I'd had knee surgery less than five weeks before the Games and I thought at one time I wasn't going to make it. That was probably the most emotional win. My wife was due with our girl, Charlotte, three weeks after the Games. It was a topsy-turvy time. She's there, massive, and I'm foot up on the sofa icing and asking her to go and get me stuff. I felt like a bit of a diva. To come back and win after that was pretty big."

We're sitting on the floor of one of the courts - the Nick Matthew Championship Court, to be precise - and, wearing a blue sponsored AJ Bell T-shirt and matching shorts, Matthew has just finished a coaching session. He couldn't help taking part in the fitness element at the end and is now devouring a protein bar. 

Hungry like 'The Wolf'.

"It was a nickname given to me by a squash TV commentator, Joey Barrington (son of squash legend Jonah Barrington)," he smiles. "Jonah wrote a famous book where he sort of caricatured all his opponents, giving them monikers associated to how they played. 

"Joey brought that in from his dad. The way that I played, Joey always said I got my teeth stuck into people and wouldn't let go, that I was quite ferocious."

Like the teeth, the tag stuck: "If I walked into a squash club in Norway, say, or Poland, the people in there would go: 'It's the Wolf!'" As a persona, it's a big thing in the squash world. It's how I'm seen. It's funny."

Matthew has taken three months off since retirement but, tanned from a recent holiday, he still appears in prime condition, looking much nearer to 30 than he does 40.

"I'm a few kilos heavier at the moment," he says. "I'm not sure I'll keep exactly to my competition weight. I think there will be one or two beers that might make that hard to achieve.

"I like a beer, a nice lager. But I really like a Moscow Mule. I don't know if you've heard of it. I make them at home. It's vodka, ginger beer and lime. It's quite refreshing. I like it.

"It sounds like a girl's drink to me," I sexistly joke. "It is a bit," he laughs. "I hesitated saying it because it's a bit girlie."

As we chat, we work out that his mum taught me English literature at Wickersley more than 35 years ago. "Small world," he grins. Indeed. Hi, Mrs Matthew. Sorry for all those times I failed to hand in my homework.

Success has brought Matthew a comfortable lifestyle and a home in one of Sheffield's best areas, but he hangs up his racquet with one ambition unfulfilled.

"The worst thing for me has been squash not being an Olympic sport," he says. "When the 2012 Olympics were on in London I think I was ranked No 1 in the world at the time. That doesn't guarantee anything but I would have been right up there with a shot. Home Games ... that would have been something to remember forever. 

"However, I never get too bogged down by the Olympic thing because it's easy to come across as 'glass is half empty'. For me, it's been very much half full.

"The best thing has been the freedom to do what you love for a living. You travel round the world. The training's hard but, flippin' heck, it's better than a lot of the alternatives. I've been able to be my own boss my whole life. Being a sportsman, the training, the endorphins, I think it makes you live life with a bit more zest about you."

Sheffield Wednesday fan with a Sheffield United link

"The rewards are there at the top, although on a lesser scale than in some other sports. We're settled in Dore. We moved there so our little girl can have good schooling. 

"My wife, Esme, is from Cheshire. She moved over because she loves it here. We met through sport. She works at the English Institute of Sport in sports physiology. My England Squash physio introduced me to her. Everything through sport!

"We'd love to have more kids. My wife said there was no way we were having more than one when I was still touring and away all the time. I haven't shown her my calendar for 2019 because I'm busier than ever!"

The day after our interview, it's Matthew's daughter's fourth birthday. One of the most uncompromising competitors squash has ever seen is due back at Hallamshire for a tennis party with a Walt Disney Frozen theme. He shakes his head in mock despair but, actually, he can't wait to indulge his princess.

The Wolf? Really?

As we say our farewells, we pass by that captured moment of British Open brutality. There's a plaque at the side detailing the scores of the contest that took two fine men to their limit and beyond: 8/11, 11/8, 7/11, 11/3, 12/10 in a duel lasting more than two hours.

The Wolf won.

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The making of a legend:

World champion 2010 (Saudi Arabia), 2011 (Holland), 2013 (Manchester).

Commonwealth Games gold medal 2010 singles and doubles (Delhi), singles gold 2014 (Glasgow).

British Open champion 2006, 2009, 20012 (the British Open is known as ’the Wimbledon of squash’ and is second only to the World Championships in terms of prestige).

10 national titles.

35 PSA World Tour titles.