But, as he gears up for the biggest game of his burgeoning career so far against Juventus on Tuesday night, Celtic’s talented Welsh full-back has revealed he once turned down the opportunity to try and make it in his country’s national sport instead.
Matthews attended school at Penyrheol Comprehensive in Gorseinon, the town to the north of Swansea which produced former Welsh rugby captains Norman Gale and Richard Moriarty. It also counts Leigh Halfpenny, the current Welsh and British Lions star, among its alumni.
While at school, Matthews played with both round and oval ball to a standard sufficient to attract the attention of professional clubs. “I played rugby for South Wales as a kid and I could have gone on trial for the Ospreys,” said the 21-year-old. “I just enjoyed football more. I played rugby with all my mates but I was more into my football. I used to play in the same team as Eli Walker, who was called into the Wales Six Nations squad this week, and also with Leigh Halfpenny as well when I was at school. I played as an outside centre.”
So does Matthews believe he could have been lining up for Wales against France in the Stade de France today had he made a different choice a few years ago? “I don’t think I was that good, to be honest,” he said. “It’s maybe helpful to have a background in more than one sport but it was always going to be football for me. I only played rugby for the fun of it. Football has always been my passion.”
Matthews has been fully vindicated in his decision, emerging this season as one of the most impressive performers for Celtic in their admirable Champions League campaign which reaches the last 16 stage against Juventus on Tuesday. He was named the Clydesdale Bank SPL Young Player of the Month for January yesterday, recognition of consistently excellent form which also saw him score a double in the 4-1 home win over Kilmarnock.
“I have enjoyed this month and have scored a couple of goals so I am happy with that and hopefully I can keep it going,” he added. “I am just taking it one game at a time but if I can score another couple of goals I will be happy. This is the most I have scored in a season already, so I am happy but another couple would be brilliant. I like to attack and you want to score goals but I am a defender first, so that’s my job. I didn’t score many when I was younger and this has been my best season as a professional. I think modern-day full backs have to be as good going forward as they are at defending. If you can score a couple of goals it is brilliant for the team but I am happy with the assists as well.”
With Celtic taking a 15-point lead at the top of the SPL into today’s away game against Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Matthews is firmly on course for further silverware with the club. He now believes he has confounded the sceptics, including his former Cardiff City manager Dave Jones, who believed his decision to move to Celtic rather than an English club was a mistake. “I have had no contact with him [Jones] since I moved but I think I made the right choice to come here,” added Matthews. “I have improved as a player, so it has been the right move for me. I think I’ve proved some people wrong down there. Some people thought this was a bad move for me but it is a massive club and I have enjoyed every minute of it.
“I can’t complain. I’ve played most of the games and I think I am improving every game, so hopefully that can continue and I can keep it going.”
Inverness midfielder Ross Draper, meanwhile, has targeted a top-three finish in the SPL as the Highlanders seek to confound their critics again. Caley Thistle lost three games in eight days – including two cup ties against Hearts and Kilmarnock – before turning their attentions to Celtic today.
But Draper is determined to show the doubters this season’s promise will not evaporate on the back of one week, and said: “People are entitled to their opinion but we had a new team coming together. I think we have shown 20 games later, they are eating their own words. We have shown what we can do as a team that’s used to each other.
“People are entitled to their opinions but it’s nice to prove them wrong sometimes. The Celtic game at home was early doors, we hadn’t moulded together as a team. We don’t read too much into that game.”