Sedgley Park’s Matt Riley will be writing a number of blog posts for ncarugby.com as one of the club’s longest serving players discusses his journey in the game. (Photo Credit: Gareth Lyons)
Following on from Matt’s opening two blogs, the Sedgley Park man takes us through his journey in the National Leagues…
In 2008, I was told by Sale that my contract wouldn’t be renewed. I’d loved my time at Sale. I met some unbelievable friends for life and went further than I ever thought was possible, but deep down, I think I knew I wasn’t good enough to be a Premiership regular.
I left with no regrets and no bitterness – only wonderful memories and some great friendships.
There were a few options for me at the time. I had an agent like everyone else, but there were no real concrete offers that I fancied. I had been with my girlfriend for over a year and she had a settled job with the airline, Monarch, and lived just down the road from my parents in Widnes.
I wanted to stay near to her so I decided to sign for Sedgley Tigers! Sale had sent me on loan for two years and I had loved my time there so it felt like the right choice.
There was a good mix of youth, but also some lads who had experience of playing at the top level and even ex-internationals like Andy Craig and Phil Jones! I learnt a lot from these lads.
Sedge were still in National One (what is now the Championship) at this point and training was only Tuesday and Thursday nights so I could get a job in the real world as well. That experience was something new to me.
I started working on a building site, but I had never really planned for life after full time rugby so it took a bit of adjusting to. I didn’t realise how good I had it at Sale until I was fitting gym sessions around a 10-hour shift and trying to make meals to take to work after been used to having them ready for me after each session.
The transition from full time professional to part time semi pro can be very daunting. You get used to seeing the same people six days a week. It was like a big family then boom, fresh start – you don’t see most of them again. That makes me sad, but I suppose that’s life and people move on.
One thing that did upset me the most when I left Sale was two lads who I played with in the academy took their own lives not too long after leaving the full-time pro-environment. I’ll never forget the phone calls telling me.
You’d never guess anything was wrong. Two talented, clever lads who were the life and soul of the party. This was a long time before mental health awareness and their deaths hit me hard, but now we are seeing more done around mental health which is positive.
The National League journey
National One was still a great level of rugby because it had a mixture of pro + semi pro teams. You had teams like Leeds, Exeter and even Northampton in there for spells. Northampton rocking up at Park Lane with Carlos Spencer + Bruce Reheina was a great experience for us, but they must have been thinking what the hell are we doing here!
During the 2008/09 season, National One wanted to trim the league down to 12 teams instead of 16 and re-name it the Championship so midway through the season, they decided to announce that five clubs would be getting relegated instead of the usual two and one side would be getting promoted.
We finished fourth from bottom and unfortunately, we were relegated into National One. In truth, it was probably not a bad thing for the club as we would never have had the finances or ambition to challenge for promotion to the Premiership.
I had a tough choice to make when relegation was confirmed…..
My girlfriend had just found out we were expecting our first child. I had options to stay in the Championship on a lot more money that Sedgley where offering, but I loved playing at Park Lane. I had made lots of friends and I enjoyed training and playing there.
I felt a loyalty to Sedge to stay and help the club stabilise in the new National One and try to get us back up. We had four years in National One from 2009/10 to eventual relegation in the 2012/13 season.
Just before the 2009/10 season, I got a job working at a distribution centre near my house in Widnes loading wagons… it was permanent nights!
A young truck against Carlos Spencer and Bruce Reheina 🐯🏉 pic.twitter.com/7T5F6IT9vm
— Matthew Riley (@sedgleytruck) April 18, 2020
Our first son, Jackson, was born in November 2009. I would work all night and stay up and help Niki with Jackson – the positives were that I got to spend lots of time with them. The negatives – it wasn’t quality time as I never really slept. I was constantly drained! I’d work, be up most of the day, go to training at Sedgley, drive to work! Repeat!
Playing on a Saturday was crazy as I’d work after training on a Thursday, be up most of Friday napping for small periods, work Friday night then drive straight to Sedgley if we were playing away in London. I’d then get the bus to London and back playing a game against Ealing then drive straight to work from Sedgley and do a night shift Saturday night. I’d literally get home Sunday morning and collapse!
I did this for 6 years… I look back now and think what an idiot! It took some getting used to. I’d be having my tea at 3am Saturday morning in work and my breakfast at 11am before the game!
By the end of Sedge’s time in National One, our final season at that level was the toughest. It all started so well with new coach Clive Griffiths taking over and my brother, Andy, joining from the Wids. We made a promising start to the season. Clive left to join Doncaster after only seven games and his predecessors Rich Senior + Dave Peet followed soon after.
Myself and a couple of the experienced players were left to try and pick up the pieces. Apart from our playing responsibilities, we now had to try to run training sessions, keep lads motivated and pick a side for the Saturday.
We inevitably were relegated into National Two North.
Although this was a tough year, it was at this point I realised I wanted to play for Sedge for the rest of my career – I was still only 26 so it was a pretty big call to make.
I didn’t tell anyone, but I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I’d racked up a few games with them, been relegated once, received quite a few good beatings – The worst been a 93-6 loss at Northampton, although we did take a 3-0 lead – but in Sedge, I found somewhere that I enjoyed going to. It meant something to play for them!
The club is run by good people and they looked after me and my family and that counted for a lot. I understand why people move clubs. Some want more game time. Some lads want a change of scenery if they’re not enjoying it and some move for more money, but for me, I had plenty of offers each year from clubs I don’t need to mention. They all offered more money than I was on at Sedge, some with the incentive of playing in higher leagues!
For me, I just couldn’t imagine myself rocking up to training at another club, buying into a new culture. I wanted to help create one at Sedge.
Our time in National Two North and representing Lancs
In National Two North, we found a level where we could compete with most teams. It was nice to finally start putting some big scores on sides and start putting some winning sequences together instead of being on the wrong end of them.
Rugby sometimes does a full circle and with Sedge, getting to play with my younger brother Andy, week in week out is a dream come true after both learning our trade at Halton Hornets.
That full circle also applies to a coach we had a few years ago. Dean Schofield took over the reins at Sedge from 2015 – 2017. Schoey was a Sale regular and a captain when I’d been there as a kid! I think if you asked Schoey he really enjoyed his time at Sedge!
It was a great transition for him to come out of the full- time rugby bubble that he’d been involved in in his successful playing career!
Most lads that finish rugby say it’s the lads and the craic that they miss the most! Schoey could continue that with Sedge whilst also transitioning into work. We had a good few years under him.
At the start of the 2017/18 season, I was made captain of the club for the second time after a great four years under the guidance of Juan Crous when fellow Widnesian Matt Bebbington joined as head coach. It was a huge honour that I gladly accepted.
Bebbs instilled an attacking brand of rugby into us and challenged us to strike to score from anywhere on the field. He challenged me on a weekly basis, and I learnt so much from him in his two years at the club.
As a captain I try to lead by example on the field but also off it. For me, I turn up early, don’t miss training and video analysis, help organise socials – little things that hopefully make a big difference!
As captain I will toss the coin before a game, will generally make the last speech before we leave the dressing room and will make the key decisions in a game, but if I didn’t have the responsibility, I would still want to set a good example.
I’m far from a perfect leader – my head and my heart are in the right place and I will always put the team before myself. There are things I’m learning now at 33 and I think leadership is a never-ending journey striving to always be better.
During Sedge’s time in National Two North, we have finished second in the league twice – which earns you a play-off game against the team finishing second in National Two South. We lost both games against Old Albanian in 2016 and Chinnor (2018), respectively.
It’s always been a burning desire to win a league title with Sedgley. I’m certainly not getting any younger. We have an exciting coaching set up and the squad we are assembling has a great blend of youth and experience.
There are quite a few lads that have played here a while and it would be great for us to win something together. The standard of the league gets tougher every season, so we realise it’s going to take a huge 10-month challenge to achieve our goal.
If we were to win a league with Sedge, it would probably go up there with the the honour of representing Lancashire in the County Championship and winning five finals at Twickenham. In 2010, aged 23, I was lucky enough to captain the side to the biggest ever winning margin in the County Championship final, beating Gloucestershire 36-6.
Mark Nelson, whom it all started with when he spotted me playing in Ireland as a 17-year-old, does an amazing job every season in bringing together a bunch of players from different clubs around the North-West and creating a culture where lads want to play for each other. The whole experience for Lancashire was just a reminder of why I play and love the game.
You play against these lads in tough North-West derbies throughout your club season, then next minute, you’re fighting for the same cause in a Lancashire shirt, There are so many lads I’ve never played club rugby with but became friends with through Lancs!
When I started out on loan with Sedge in 2006, little did I know what I’d still be here in 2020 having also represented Lancashire. If I could start my career again, I wouldn’t change a thing. I am lucky enough to have made 361 league appearances to date for Sedge as well as cup games + friendlies, scoring over 100 tries.
Sedgley is full of good people. Not just the players and staff, but the unsung heroes in the background who make the club what it is… Far too many to mention!
The people I have met through Sedgley and the memories we have created over the years will stay with me a lifetime – and hopefully there’s still more to come.
I have been lucky with injuries, yes, I’ve had lots of niggles but managed to play through most of them, however, the next part and the main reason why I wanted to write this blog is to talk about the 2019/20 season and my struggle with an injury that would ultimately leave me on the sidelines for most of it!