To make over 100 appearances for the same club is not something many footballers achieve in the modern day game – but, at the age of 21, Portsmouth’s Matt Clarke added that milestone to his ever-expanding CV in the 2017/18 season.
The centre-back picked up seven individual awards, including Players’ Player of the Season and Player of the Season, following in the footsteps of Pompey legends such as Alan Knight, Mark Hateley, Noel Blake, Paul Walsh, Alan McLoughlin, Peter Crouch, Linvoy Primus and David James.
“Individual awards are always nice as it shows the progression,” said Matt.
“When you get voted by your team-mates it’s great. They train with you every day and we travel up and down the country together so there’s no hiding place and they know what I’m like so I took a lot of pride in picking up that award.”
Despite not quite reaching the play-offs after an eighth placed finish, something Matt says was “disappointing”, the defender also received the honour of wearing the armband during the campaign, pulling it on for the first time in a 2-1 at Fleetwood in February.
“It shows the gaffer (Kenny Jackett) believes in me and that I’m on the right path,” he said.
“Injuries to the captain and vice captain dictated that at the time but I’ll take the fact he trusted me to have that role as a real positive.”
Matt was just 21 years, four months and 30 days old when he led the side out for the first time with more senior pros overlooked for the role.
But, due to his consistent and mature performances since originally signing for the club on loan in 2015, he had the full support of his team-mates.
“I was the third or fourth youngest in the squad but when the gaffer asked me I thought ‘why not?’ It made sense in a way as I’d been playing all the minutes and been playing well.
“Although I’m only 21 they know what I’m about; I’ve played a lot of games, I’m mature and I don’t really get flustered.
“In a way I seem to play more like a senior pro, so a few of my team-mates saw it coming even before I did and they reacted well to it.”
Matt reached a century of matches for the Hampshire side in the 2-1 victory at MK Dons in February – a match in which he headed home the equaliser before Connor Chaplin’s stoppage time winner.
And just like that “great day”, the Suffolk-born professional’s development in his three-years on the south coast has yet to fully sink in.
“When I went to Portsmouth on loan for a year, if you’d told me I would’ve made been here for three seasons, played over 100 games and been captain, I wouldn’t have believed you.
“A lot of players go through their careers without doing that as there’s a lot of chopping and changing at clubs. So for me to get settled at Portsmouth, play the games I have, and hopefully go on to play a lot more, is great.”
Settled is a word that, after a few turbulent years, seems to represent Portsmouth Football Club as a whole in 2018.
And despite falling slightly short this term, they did anything but in 2016/17 when the club and the defender started their march back up the league ladder by winning the League Two title.
“The manager (Paul Cook) and players all came to the club with the sole aim of winning promotion so there was a lot of expectation.
“In the first-year we got to the play-offs but weren’t quite good enough so to get automatic promotion with three games to go and then to win the league out of nowhere was something the club deserved.
“It has been through some hard times but the fans have always stuck with the club and the staff work so tirelessly.”
Following promotion, not all players can handle the step-up but Matt, who can also play as a left-back or a defensive midfielder, has the belief in his ability that has seen him receive an array of accolades so early in his career.
“I think there’s a bigger gulf in the quality from bottom to top in League One, with the top-six teams having a lot of quality.
“When you play against those sides, it makes you realise why they’ve been in the Championship in recent years.
“Personally I back myself in any division. If someone said to me ‘can you play in the Championship next season?’ I don’t see why not. I embrace any challenge, like to test myself and I’m always confident in my ability to perform.
“In League One you do get the chance to play some football and play on better pitches, with more teams playing out from the back. That’s something I’ve had to adapt to, learnt and I feel like I’ve done that.”
“Skillequal has been good to me. Kev (Giess) has always been there for me, right from when I signed with them as a schoolboy. Since then they’ve done a number of contracts and helped me with a house and a car when I moved away from Ipswich. They’ve allowed me to concentrate on my football and I really can’t speak highly enough of them.”
Despite seemingly taking to the third-tier like a duck to water, the selfless leader acknowledges that he’s improved his distribution with more teams “playing out from the back”, compared to the “hustle and bustle” of League Two.
The challenge of adapting to new surroundings though is something the 21-year-old has always met head-on since taking the decision to leave Championship side Ipswich Town – the club he had been with since U7s – in 2015.
“When you’re in a Championship squad you can feel like you’re a good player and can get a false sense of security because when you go down to League Two and are thrown into the deep end you realise how much quality there is.
“I was in and around the squad (at Ipswich), travelling to almost every game, trained every day and came on five times but I don’t think I deserved a run so, for me, it was about finding someone who would give me a chance.
“Portsmouth then got in contact and I had to come down to train for a week and, after two trial matches, I haven’t looked back.
“I needed to play because until you’ve played 15-20 games you don’t really know what being a footballer is all about.”
Matt certainly got that run he was looking for in the blue of Portsmouth, playing 33 times in all competitions in his first season, 36 in the second and 46 in the most recent campaign.
That means he’s had the pleasure of playing in front of some of the country’s most loyal fans on numerous occasions at Fratton Park – something that’s not lost on him.
“Every league game I’ve played there’s been between 14,000 and a sell-out which, when you think about it, is remarkable, especially when we were in League Two.
“It’s not just the atmosphere at home, it’s the away support as well. I remember we took 600 to Carlisle and 6,000 to MK Dons.
“You really have to take your hat of to them because we get great support both home and away. You don’t see other teams’ fans doing what they’re doing.”
Now the long, hard campaign has come to a close, it’s important to recharge the batteries before reporting for pre-season at the end of June.
Having just returned from a little golfing trip to Portugal, Matt has outlined his plans for the rest of his time away from the pitch.
“I’ll keep my gym work up because it’s something I enjoy and makes me feel good but, other than that, I’ll just relax and play a bit of golf.
“I enjoy playing that so hopefully I’ll get my handicap (15) decreased and when the season starts I’ll get my football head back on.“
In February, Matt, who supported Chelsea growing up, was rewarded for his fine form with a new contract until the summer of 2020.
But despite penning fresh terms, Matt is not one to rest on his achievements and is focussed on continuing his and the Pompey’s upward curve.
“The aim is to keep doing what I’m doing and keep improving.
“I’m just loving my football week-in-week-out, I’m getting the game time that I need and I’m at a club who believe in me.
“Hopefully next season we can push for promotion.”
Having already, at 21, reached 100-plus games, captained the club, cleaned up at the end of season awards and won the League Two title, you’d be brave to bet against Matt adding that to his CV this time next year.