So Gianluca Nani has broken out the ceremonial club scarf to welcome Watford’s first signing since the August deadline day. Having risen through the academy ranks at Fulham, Matthew Briggs joins with his career in need of a boost. Potential that needs to start translating into discernible quality. He joins Watford until the end of the season.
The Wandsworth-born youngster, who turns 22 on Wednesday, holds a place in the record books after taking over from James Vaughan – that most heinous of characters – as the youngest player ever to take part in a Premier League match. In coming on as a late substitution in the last game of the season, with the Cottagers already 3-1 down at Middlesbrough, at the age of 16 years and 65 days, he smashed the Huddersfield striker’s record by 206 days. However, one needs only to look at his predecessor’s career trajectory to see that breaking into the first team at such a young age does not cement success, and Briggs has only made ten league appearences for the senior side since that day almost six years ago.
Indeed, following that early taste of the professional game on the last day of the 06/07 season, it was not until January 2010 that he set foot on a competitive pitch again. By that time he had joined Leyton Orient of League One on a one-month loan, though his debut – a 2-0 win over Yeovil at Brisbane Road – was to be his only run-out for the Os.
He returned to Craven Cottage and, at the age of 19, made his full debut the following August in a second round Carling Cup tie by the river as Port Vale came to the Big Smoke. Deployed at his favoured left-back he watched as his side cantered to a 4-0 half time lead; the first coming from Zoltan Gera nodding in his cross. He was withdrawn after 55 minutes, with former Vicarage Road legend Stephen Kelly taking his place, but he had made his comeback. The lofty defender may have only made three further starts that campaign, but they all came against formidable opposition.
In November, with the Mexican Carlos Salcido, Fulham’s first choice left-back, out with an ankle injury, Briggs was thrust into the line-up for a West London derby at Stamford Bridge. Replaced by Gera after 79 minutes with his side chasing the game, Briggs received positive reports: ‘He looked calm and assured as Fulham repelled Chelsea’s flowing attacks’. Damien Duff was preferred on the left for the next match, but it wasn’t long before he was back in action, at the Emirates against top-of-the-table Arsenal (it seems so long ago…). The glowing reports were nowhere to be seen on this occasion. As the Guardian said the following day: ‘The snow had melted in London but Arsenal were threatening an avalanche of goals. Arshavin and Marouane Chamakh both went close and Nasri was tormenting the left-back Matthew Briggs so much that Hughes withdrew the 19-year-old after 28 minutes. “It was a bit too much for him,” Hughes explained.’
It was decided after the game that it would be a good time to address the growing pains that are common in massive young footballers like the 6ft 2 Briggs and after undergoing surgery on both legs he was out of contention for a number of months, returning only for the return fixture against Arsenal, another end-of-season dead rubber that ended up 2-2.
Whilst injured, Briggs watched his side qualify for the Europa League, a tournament that he would play a large role in the following season. With the European involvement cluttering up the fixture list, Briggs appeared in every game of the 2011/12 continental campaign, making 12 appearences before the side failed to progress from the Group Stage after an agonising last minute equaliser in the final game against Odense snatched away vital points. It was that competition that saw Briggs’ only senior goal to date, a 20-yard screamer in the Second qualifying round at Northern Irish side Crusaders.
The following season (2011/12), after making a couple of appearences in the first half of the season, he moved to Peterborough in February on a one-month loan deal. This month brought Briggs regular first team football for the first time in his career, starting five straight games for Posh at left-back. Briggs told the BBC that he hoped to extend his deal until the end of the season, so eager was he to get a further taste of first-team football, but it wasn’t to be. In the same interview he stated that he based his game on that of Gareth Bale. He returned to Craven Cottage and was an unused substitute on four occasions during the remainder of the season.
This season, with Briggs now a seasoned face at the Fulham training ground, if not on the pitch, despite still only being 21, he has made three starts, either side of a November loan to the lower end of the Championship table – this time with Bristol City. During his month with the Robins he played every minute of four games. During those four games, the team amassed a total of zero points, scoring once and conceding seven.
It would have been very hard to impress in a side in as negatively charged as Derek McInnes’, but the fans were far from impressed with a player thought to hold a lot of potential. One observer that I asked had the following to say: ‘Very strong and quite quick for his size, and can be a cracking defender, but his positioning is awful and wingers will get past him often. You’ll be shouting “get back to left back, you daft [expletive removed]” more often than not’.
Briggs is highly thought of, however, as evidenced by his selection for every England year group from the under-16s upwards.
Initially, it seemed that Zola/Nani had got Briggs in to push Daniel Pudil for the left wing-back spot. He is reportedly a player that likes to get forward and has played virtually all of his senior football on the left side of defence. In addition, there were strong rumours that the men in charge of recruitment were having a good look at the youngster earlier in the season – with his chance of breaking through at Fulham seemingly running out. Pudil’s is the only place in the team that hasn’t had a lot of competition all season long, and lately we have seen a dip in form from the Czech that may be linked to this lack of a positional rival.
Zola has moved to state, however, that Briggs comes in as cover for our diminishing force of centre-halves. With Tommie Hoban shuttling between Hertfordshire and an unconfirmed location in Italy for treatment on his injury, Fitz Hall out again and Neuton nowhere to be seen, what once seemed to be the strongest part of the squad in terms of depth is now worryingly thin, to the extent that the afroed Academy captain Jorrel Johnson was part of the squad that travelled to Birmingham.
Briggs certainly has the physique to be a centre back, and the positioning problems stated above might be more permissible in a back three. It seems that he has yet to combine his impressive physical traits with an ability to stay switched on for a full 90 minutes. That will come with playing football however, and it’s a lot easier to improve when playing with a winning team that with one fighting for their lives at the bottom of the league. There’s certainly a lot of potential there, and who knows, if he starts to show that he can make the step up, he may be a Watford player next year.