Football is full of what-if stories. What if Southgate had scored? What if Gerrard hadn’t slipped? What if Fergie hadn’t been hanging out in Martin Edwards’ office when Leeds called to ask after Denis Irwin?
A common theme in this fans’ fantasy land is injuries – or, more accurately, the absence of them. Michael Owen’s hamstrings, Marco van Basten’s ankle and Ledley King’s knee are all body-parts that have long since entered this butterfly-effect folklore.
The subjects of this wistful conjecture are, for the large part, the usual suspects: Fowler, Woodgate, Wilshere. You’ll be talking for some time, though, before the name Matt Jansen crops up, which is a grand injustice to a footballer who, for a fleeting period around the turn of the millennium, crackled with silky flair and boundless promise.
As was rather more common two decades ago, Jansen burst on to the scene at his hometown club, Carlisle, his glimmering cameos helping them to promotion to the third tier in 1997.
A reputation was snowballing and, in an age when the biggest clubs sourced talent from down the divisions rather than across the continent, a certain Glaswegian was soon on the phone. But foreseeing a career on the bench at Old Trafford, Jansen opted instead for Steve Coppell’s Crystal Palace, who shelled out £1million for the 21-year-old.
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Having cut his teeth amid the mud-sodden barbarity of the late-90s lower leagues Jansen emerged into the top flight not as a grizzled battler but a silky and seemingly weightless forward whose signature move was the whipped finish inside the far post.
Relegated in his inaugural season, Palace’s situation became precarious enough for the club to wave goodbye to their prize asset, his impressive showing quadrupling his value in little over a year as Blackburn parted with £4million to bring Jansen to Lancashire.
Again, relegation struck, but Jansen helped his new club back up in 2001 with a pleasingly divisible tally of 24 goals in 48 matches, and, in his first full season on the Premier League, took to the top flight like he meant business. Roaming freely behind virtuoso poacher Andy Cole and supplied by the no-nonsense wing play of Damien Duff, Jansen would end the 2001-02 season with 16 goals to his name and his reputation as one of England’s more cerebral attacking talents gaining momentum.
It was in the winter months of that season that his freewheeling momentum really picked up, a hat-trick against Arsenal in the League Cup quarter-final hinting at an ability to trouble the very best, before a brace a in the league against the same side – a side who would go on to win the double that season – confirmed a prodigious talent.
The following month saw him drive home the opener against Spurs in a victorious Worthington Cup final, and then in April came what had long seemed inevitable: a call-up to Sven Goran-Eriksson’s England squad.
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With the World Cup nearing, the friendly against Paraguay would be used for the Swede to put the finishing touches on his summer squad – but Jansen fell ill from a bug he caught from his niece and was forced to sit the game out. Darius Vassell, in the side in Jansen’s place, scored his second England goal on the hour via a benevolent deflection.
It was a disappointment but by no means a catastrophe: Jansen was still widely expected to make it onto the plane to Japan and South Korea. Indeed Eriksson was in the stands at Anfield when Blackburn visited on the season’s penultimate weekend, the day before he would announce his World Cup squad.
“Make sure Jansen doesn’t get injured,” the Swede told Graeme Souness before kickoff, “he’ll be on my list tomorrow.” Word quickly got back to Jansen, who celebrated by banging one in at the Kop end to further impress his would-be international boss.
Little did he know that Tord Grip, Eriksson’s trusted consigliere and famed footballing conservative, was on that same afternoon watching Arsenal confirm their title with a 1-0 win at Old Trafford. Impressed with the efforts of an ageing Martin Keown, Grip spent that evening persuading his supervisor that an extra centre-back could make all the difference to England’s chances. Jansen was duly relegated to the standby list; Keown, of course, didn’t get a single minute on the pitch.
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Rather than going to work in the Far East, Jansen holidayed in Rome, and that’s when the real sliding-doors moment happened: driving on the road on a scooter, Jansen was hit by a taxi. The crash left him with a brain haemorrhage, and in a six-day coma.
The consequences were grave enough to put his mooted move to Manchester United in serious perspective (ever the perseverer, Ferguson had triggered his release clause just a few days beforehand). In short, Jansen wasn’t dead, but he could have been. Processes as basic as walking had to be relearned.
He was back playing in four months, but he was nowhere near ready. “I recovered physically, but not mentally,” he later said. “The psychologists and psychiatrists and brain surgeons said I shouldn’t have played for 18 months – if at all. I was playing, but I had psychological problems.”
His health, mental and physical, was stuck in a constant state of oscillation and, truth be told, he never came close to looking like the same player. The instinctive ability that characterised his game the previous year showed itself only in flashes and after his accident, Jansen never started more than nine league games in a season.
After abortive spells at Coventry, Bolton and Wrexham he turned his hand to coaching and has proven a natural fit: his Chorley side have finished 6th to 8th in the National League North, missing out on promotion via the play-offs last time out.
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— @forgottengoals (@forgottengoals) July 17, 2017
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Watching Jansen discuss his experiences is not especially easy. There is clear upset; the pain of having made it to the brink of superstardom, only to have it all snatched away in a moment, is all the more starkly apparent for his remarkable openness and articulacy. The misery of the episode is compounded by how plainly likeable a person he is.
The temptation is to look back on Jansen’s career as a hard-luck story: the nearly-man whose talent was derailed by brutal external forces.
Certainly that’s one way to see it, and in his case the what-might-have-been is always likely to overshadow the what-actually-was. Yet that’s largely because the latter was so dazzling, and perhaps his story’s ultimate lesson, if there is one, is simply how fragile a sportsperson’s career can be. For every one cut short in their prime are a hundred more who never made it that far to begin with.
Jansen’s prime, at least, was enough to leave lasting memories – and, as with all what-if subjects – his place at the table is simply testament to how much he captured the imagination in the first place.
By Alex Hess
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