Matz Sels not fazed by drop from international squad to Under-23 football at Newcastle - Peter Beardsley
On a cold, wet, wintry night at the quiet, unassuming surroundings of Whitley Park, Benton, an internationally recognised goalkeeper, more used to rubbing shoulders with Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, taps mud off his boots on the goalposts before fielding yet another cross from an 18-year-old youth team rookie.
The time is 12 noon. The date February 28, a potentially season-defining one for Newcastle United.
While the majority of the first-team squad have travelled to the south coast to take on current Championship leaders Brighton & Hove Albion, one player, signed as part of the multi-million pound Rafalution last summer, remains on Tyneside.
Instead of playing a part in United’s dramatic Amex Stadium victory in front of the Sky Sports cameras, Matz Sels, with his family forming part of the 200-strong crowd, puts in a solid, if unspectacular 90 minutes, keeping a clean sheet to boost his own confidence, but due to the focus being elsewhere, with very few of those who matter at the club to witness it.
When United bagged the signing of Sels from June for around £4million from KAA Gent, many felt they’d pulled off something of a coup.
Rafa Benitez had managed to convince the most impressive young keeper in Belgium, a star in the Champions League just a year previous, that St James’s Park and the Championship was the next best step in his career, instead of heading for Premier League West Ham United or Middlesbrough.
It’s fair to say things have not turned out how Sels or United would have wanted.
Two more reserve appearances later and Sels is now getting the football he craves but at a level he has not operated at regularly since he was in his teens.
Under these circumstances it would be easy for a player who has been in Belgium squads and played in Europe’s premier competition to down tools, unhappy with the hand he has been dealt.
But Sels has done nothing of the sort.
In fact, according to the Magpies’ Under-23 coach Peter Beardsley he has been a shining example of professionalism, despite his own personal gloom.
“Matz Sels has been brilliant with us,” said Beardsley.
“It can be really difficult – he is an international.
“But he has been outstanding as a player and as a man.
“He has loved being with us when he has been asked.”
In fairness Sels is not the only United keeper to have gone from first-team regular to reserve-team stand in. Current incumbent of the gloves Karl Darlow did his stint last year, Rob Elliot has done so this, also.
“The good thing is that we are really lucky with the three keepers that we have now,” Beardsley continued.
“Karl Darlow was with us last season and he was outstanding as a person. He was great with the lads and had a great attitude.
“Robbie Elliot has done the same with us this season, so too has Matz.
“You have to credit the manager for that.
“He has told the players that from time to time they might have to come and play in the reserves.
“To be fair to all three of them it would be easy to switch off when you drop down but none of them have done that.
“It is not my decision. The manager has three good goalkeepers at the club now and that is not even counting Tim Krul or Freddie Woodman out on loan at the moment.
“That is not a bad place for the manager to be.”
Beardsley believes United boss Benitez has an embarrassment of riches in the department.
And even though the club have options, the youth team boss believes that Sels must be ready to play at any given moment, because as the Magpies found last season, injury can strike at any given point.
“It is an embarrassment of riches, to a point,” he said.
“You just never know.
“Tim and Robbie got bad injuries and then Karl got the chance to play unexpectedly.
“You have to have them. You have to have three.
“You have to have cover and we have good cover.
“The manager would know better than me who the No 1 would be.”