'Dynamic', 'hungry' and 'a great left foot' - Matt Penney has 'unfulfilled potential'
- Credit: ITFC
Matt Penney became Ipswich Town's sixth summer signing this week. STUART WATSON looks at the 23-year-old's journey to this point.
Chesterfield-born Matt Penney joined Sheffield Wednesday at the age of eight.
Impressing for the Under-23s in the first half of 2016/17, a side that would ultimately go on to win the Professional Development League Two title, he attracted mid-season interest.
On January transfer deadline day he signed for promotion-chasing League One club Bradford City on loan.
Bantams head of recruitment, Greg Abbott, said: "Matt has a great left foot on him. He is a threat on set-pieces and also has bags of pace."
Penney made just one appearance for the West Yorkshire club though, coming on for the last half hour of a 1-0 win at Rochdale, as Stuart McCall's men finished fifth and lost to Millwall in the Play-Off Final.
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The teenager made another January deadline day switch in 2018, this time joining promotion-chasing League Two side Mansfield Town on loan.
Boss Steve Evans said: "Matt plays very stylishly in either wide area after being developed at Wednesday for the attacking full-back position.
“The lad is young, very talented and previous Wednesday manager Carlos Carvalhal stated that he was more than ready to make a great impression at first team level.
“We are grateful to Sheffield Wednesday for selecting our approach for Matt in preference to at least six or seven League One and Two clubs."
Again, Penney found game time limited. He made just two sub appearances for the Stags under Evans, before fading from the picture once David Flitcroft took charge in in early March.
Penney returned to Sheffield Wednesday and was soon thrown into the first team by Dutch boss Jos Luhukay.
Three games into the season, he made his Owls debut as a 63rd minute substitute in a 2-0 win at Sunderland in the Carabao Cup.
Less than a week later he was handed his first start in a 2-1 home win versus Millwall and kept his place for a 2-1 win against Ipswich Town (Lucas Joao scored twice and Toto Nsiala was controversially dismissed).
Penney was subsequently named Wednesday's Player of the Month for September after some impressive displays.
The Sheffield Star reported that Penney 'produced one immaculate challenge to stop Tom Ince in his tracks' during a 2-2 draw with Stoke, 'shackled Albert Adomah brilliantly and bombed forward at every available opportunity' during a 2-1 win at Aston Villa. He was also described as 'a lovely, balanced runner with a good engine' after a 1-1 home draw with Leeds.
“He has been fantastic in that left back position," said Luhukay. “He plays with no fear, he is not afraid and he is a very good player for us. I am so happy with him."
His and the team's formed dipped though. There was a 4-0 chastening at home to Norwich City. Penney was then subbed at half-time of a 1-0 win against Bolton in late November.
That proved to be his last appearance of the season, a freak shoulder injury sustained in training requiring an operation that sidelined him until April.
It meant he was never able to show new boss Steve Bruce, who replaced Luhaky in January, what he could do.
“Pre-season is going to be massive for me,” he said, upon returning to fitness. "I am confident in myself. My aim is to play as many games as I possibly can and show the fans and the gaffer what I can do.”
HEADING TO HAMBURG
What happened next took Penney by surprise. With the 2019/20 season underway, and him not in the Owls squad for the opening four matches, he got a call from his former boss Luhukay.
The Dutchman was now in charge of cult German second-tier club St Pauli and asked if he'd be interested in joining him.
"It was a bit of a weird one," he said in an interview with The Athletic. "I was thinking about a couple of clubs and whether I should or shouldn’t go.
“I’ve always said that I’d love to go and play in Spain, Germany or Italy, to experience their culture and how they play and their environment. I think it was two weeks before the end of the window that Jos rang me and said, ‘Listen, I want you to come over. You’ll fit the profile and there’s a whole different vibe, so I think you’ll love it’.
“I just jumped at it. I thought; ‘What’s the worst that can happen? It’ll give me valuable experience’. I fancied my chances of playing and it was about stepping out of my comfort zone. I didn’t speak the language, didn’t know anyone over there and in the long run that was perfect for me. I’d advise any youngsters to do it, not just for learning on the pitch but off it and growing as a player and person.”
It was a rocky start. First, there was a two bookings dismissal on debut against Holstein Kiel. Then came a muscle strain which set him back slightly.
Penney soon found his feet though and made 14 starts and four sub appearances for the club, facing the likes of Hamburg, Hannover and Stuttgart as they successfully beat the drop.
St Pauli have a world renowned fan scene based around left-wing politics, are closely associated to the punk music scene and have adopted the skull and crossbones as an unofficial emblem. Their Millerntor-Stadion is based in the dock area of Hamburg near the famous Reeperbahn.
“I’ll be honest, I didn’t know much about the club before I went," said Penney. "I’d done a little bit of research but when I got there and the first home game was a near 30,000 sell-out, it was an eye-opener.
"You don’t realise how followed St Pauli are until you play for them and all sorts of people get in touch, congratulating you and asking about you. That was really when I was like; ‘Wow, this club is a really big club and is really well known worldwide’.”
DERBY DAY HERO
Penney wrote himself into St Pauli folklore on February 2, 2020 when scoring the clincher in a 2-0 win at fierce city rivals Hamburg.
After his fine finish from outside the box he ran to the corner flag and stood, arms folded, in a confident celebration pose as a capacity crowd of 57,000 were stunned into silence.
"It was a surreal experience to score my first senior goal in a game that meant so much to the fans and the manager, it’s one of those experiences that I’ll never forget," he reflected.
“I was on FaceTime the night before to my little brother and we were playing FIFA and he scored and I think he ended up winning. He was on to me for losing and he celebrated with that celebration and said; 'If you score tomorrow, you’ve got to do it’. I said, ‘OK’, thinking that I wouldn’t score and obviously it’s come back to bite me."
Penney's time in Germany ended with him worrying about his mum working back home as an intensive care nurse during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic.
He returned with a new manager to impress in Garry Monk heading into the delayed 2020/21 campaign.
Monk said: "Potential-wise, when I look at the profile of Matt, the characteristics of him, he’s what we’re after – young, hungry and dynamic. He has the technical ability as well.”
Penney came on in Carabao Cup opener, a 0-0 draw at Walsall, putting in what The Athletic described as 'a surging performance at left wing-back to scoop the man of the match award'.
He subsequently started the Owls' opening two Championship games - 2-0 win at Cardiff and 0-0 home draw with Watford.
Monk was soon sacked and his replacement, Tony Pulis, didn't fancy Penney. Pulis only lasted 10 games though and Penney returned to the side in late January under the caretaker management of his former U23s boss Neil Thompson.
After four successive starts, Penney was dropped after a 4-1 loss at Millwall. Yorkshire Live reported: '"We have seen fleeting glimpses of Penney's attacking prowess since he burst onto scene over two years ago, however, he has struggled for consistency and still not fulfilled his undoubted potential."
"I had a chat with him in terms of where I want him to be," said Thompson. "He's an intelligent boy and he knows what his body is telling him.
"I think he was looking a wee bit tired and, sometimes when that happens, mistakes occur and you don't play to your limit.
"Matt has got a lot of talent. He has got to refocus and be ready for his next chance."
Penney soon got another four game run in the side, but the Owls lost all those matches and shipped three goals at both Brentford and Luton. That's when Darren Moore was appointed and, from that point on, winger Adam Reach and right-back Liam Palmer were preferred in the left-back or left wing-back roles.
Wednesday went on to suffer a last day of the season relegation down to League One and Penney was one of 10 senior players released.
FITNESS AND FANS
Ipswich Town boss Paul Cook bemoaned the fact that his players weren't able to sustain double training session when he first arrived at Portman Road in March.
Penney looks a player who will be able to cover the sort of ground that Cook demands from his full-backs.
Looking back on his time in Germany, he said: "They only play once a week so the training was a lot longer and there were a lot of double sessions. So, in terms of that, training was sometimes tougher than the match days."
Town's new US-based owners have also made it clear they want to supporters to feel reconnected with the club over the coming season.
Again, that's something that Penney sounds like he could play a part in.
“At St Pauli there were a lot of social events. It’s more of a family.
“In my eyes, (connecting with fans) is massive. I’m only young now, but the next generation coming through need to be inspired and need to have people to look up to.
"A little thing like sending a signed shirt to a kid takes two minutes out of my day but it’ll make his Christmas. I do believe massively in little bits like that. Giving something back and putting smiles on people’s faces is the least I can do. The position that I am in is a privileged position so to give that, for me, should be second nature.”