“To this day, I remember getting the call,” says Matty Cash, speaking via video link from Aston Villa’s training ground. These days, he’s a right-back by trade, testing his abilities against some of the game’s most recognised and feared attacking talents. But that hasn’t always been the case.
The phone call Cash describes came from then Dagenham & Redbridge manager John Still, who was looking to bolster his League Two squad for the final months of the 2016/17 season. The Daggers needed a young attacking midfielder, and 17-year-old Cash – a product of the Nottingham Forest Academy - fit the bill.
It was Cash’s father, a friend of Still’s, who helped engineer the move, having already enjoyed some EFL success of his own by helping AFC Wimbledon regain their League status as a coach. The short-term switch ticked all the boxes for Cash junior, with the prospect of first-team football simply too good to turn down.
“I really enjoyed it,” he reminisces. “When John called, he said he’d been to watch me and asked if I’d be interested in playing for him. I was only young, and it was a massive thing for me. I thought it would be a great chance to get experience and Forest’s Head of Academy, Gary Brazil, agreed. I loved every minute of it; I scored a few goals and it was the best time of my life to me at that point.
“It was the back-end of the season and a new manager came in at Forest the following season, so when I returned he took to me immediately and we had a great relationship. I went from being an Under-21s player to playing for the first team and made my debut for Forest at 18. It’s all taken off from there. The fact I was a young lad and it was Dagenham who gave me a chance to play professionally means they’ll always have a place in my heart.”
And take off it did, but not before a generous helping of disappointment. Upon his release from Wycombe as a 15-year-old, Cash turned to selling toys at the Daniel department store in Windsor while trying to reignite his footballing career between shifts. His is a toy story with a happy ending, one which has moulded him both as a player and a person.
He was shaped further after being picked up by Forest, the club at which defending would become his new full-time job.
“I’ve got Sabri Lamouchi to thank for converting me into a full-back,” he adds, laughing. “We played Alfreton in a pre-season friendly after he was appointed and I’d never played at full-back before. We’re talking about last pre-season, so not even that long ago! The assistant manager told me I’d be playing at full-back and the new manager was there watching; after the game, the manager told me I’d be playing there from now on because he thought I could be a good full-back in the modern game.
“That pre-season, he worked closely with me on the defensive side of my game and I relished it, I liked playing there. A lot of people said I couldn’t become a full-back but I became a bit of a fan favourite in that position at Forest, so it worked out well. Thanks to Sabri for putting me there!
“The pathway to get to where I am now has been quite a journey. I was at Wycombe for three years and it came to the point where they were offering scholarships to the players they were keeping on and others would be released. I got released in the end, and that was a kick in the teeth for me, but I’ve turned it around and I’m here today. It’s been some journey.”
Cash’s understanding and appreciation for the men’s game came from following his dad’s AFC Wimbledon side on their journey to League Two. Now an important part of Villa’s top-flight plans, he hasn’t lost that childhood love for football, and to this day his family keep him grounded.
“For me to watch those games and feel what football was like, it was a brilliant thing to witness,” he says. “Wimbledon got promoted to League Two and, at the time, I remember thinking how good it would be to play in League Two, so to be where I am today is a dream come true. It all happened so quickly; I’ve gone with the flow and ended up in the Premier League!
“My dad used to take me to the games so I was in and around it and absolutely loved it – I even tried to nick the players’ boots after games! That experience helped me learn about the men’s football environment and my dad’s knowledge has helped me too. He’s still on to me now, calling me up after games to tell me what I’ve done wrong, but it’s a brilliant thing to have.
“I was really gutted to have pulled my hamstring recently but spoke to my mum and she said ‘look Matty, you’ve got to look at how far you’ve come’, but when you’re in it you just want to keep progressing and doing well. My mum gave me a little talking to and said how well I’d done to get to where I am, and when you hear that from your own mum, you do step back and think about your achievements. There’s still a lot to do, though, and I’m sure I’ll look back at the end of my career.”
Cash enjoyed five successful seasons at the City Ground, being named Player of the Season in 2019/20, before his transfer to Villa Park. Such had been the regularity of his inclusion in the Championship Team of the Week that his Forest team-mates would joke about his parents choosing the line-up.
His Premier League move though saw him follow a well-trodden path, one previously taken by the likes of Tyrone Mings and Jack Grealish before him. Also signing alongside Cash was Ollie Watkins, another player whose journey started in League Two and continually reached new heights.
Mings, Grealish and Watkins have, of course, since gone on to wear the three lions of England. Cash, whose mum is half-Polish, is eligible to play for either country, but faces some tough competition at right-back from the likes of Kyle Walker, Reece James and Kieran Trippier when it comes to Gareth Southgate’s side.
“The right-back position for England… there are so many talented players just in that role and so many of them have played in the EFL. For one, that shows how good the EFL is, to be honest. I’ve come up against so many quality players in the Championship who deserve to be playing in the Premier League. It’s good to have that competition.
“When you look at the likes of Ty, Jack and Ollie, it’s unbelievable for them and I’m really happy for them. That’s the mindset, to want to be an England player, because every young lad grows up wanting to do that. It’s a dream to do that when you’re a kid and so it’s great to see my team-mates in there. For me, it’s a big thing I’d like to do, it would be amazing to say ‘I’ve played for my country’. I’ll take every day as it comes and try to progress because you never know what’s around the corner.
“I signed for Villa when Ollie signed and we had a good connection. We’ve spoken about what we’ve been through and we’ve all been on a similar journey, so it means there’s a chemistry at the club. We all bounce off each other; we’ve got a really good relationship and I think it shows on the pitch.”
Leading the Villa charge from the dugout is Dean Smith, a man who – like many of his players – has used his experience of EFL football to help him. It’s a common theme, and not just in the Midlands.
And while Cash is far from finished on his personal journey, he’s well placed to offer a helping hand to the next generation.
“I think there are a lot of young lads in the EFL with a lot of ability and it’s a good thing to recognise them. As a young player, it gives you confidence,” he concludes.
“I was lucky, because there were a few of us coming through when I was at Forest. We had myself, Joe Worrall and Ryan Yates, and there was a pathway there. The club gave us the opportunity, and that was a big thing.
“Getting released from Wycombe at a young age, that was a massive kick in the teeth, but I kept my head down and worked really hard. If you do that, I think you’ll get to where you deserve to be. For a youngster who’s growing up now, just enjoy your football and work hard, that’s the advice I’d give.”