Matthew Briggs: What happened to the Premier League's once-youngest player?

Matthew Briggs (right) shakes hands with Didier Drogba
Matthew Briggs only played 13 league games at Fulham in seven years

When Fulham midfielder Harvey Elliott became the youngest ever Premier League player last month, it could have sparked an intriguing quiz question.

Who was the previous record holder, and what happened to him?

You would be forgiven if you did not remember the name Matthew Briggs. He held the title for 12 years, having also made his top-flight debut in a Fulham shirt, aged 16 years and 68 days.

Now 28, Briggs has been through setbacks, self-doubt and a spell working on a building site - spending last season with Essex-based Isthmian League Division One North side Maldon & Tiptree - but, in a great twist, is playing in a major international tournament this summer.

BBC Sport sat down with the defender, who wants to climb back through the leagues and hopes a documentary on his story will help other young players learn from his mistakes.

'I had mates asking for my autograph'

Matthew Briggs

It was Sunday, 13 May 2007 when Briggs replaced Moritz Volz in the 77th minute of Fulham's 3-1 defeat at Middlesbrough, taking the mantle of the Premier League's youngest player from Aaron Lennon.

The next day, the Londoner was back at school, taking his GCSE exams.

"I had mates asking me for my autograph, and I was saying 'shut up'," he joked.

"As time went on, people started to talk about you and you start to realise the greatness of what it is you've done."

Briggs was making headlines but went straight back into the Fulham youth team, not to start another first-team game for more than two and a half years.

"That knocked my confidence straight away and I don't think I ever came back from that, to be honest," Briggs said.

"As I was a big boy for my age I feel they treated me like I was already a man, and I was still very young mentally - I was still a kid and I needed that nurturing, support and guidance which I didn't really get."

The left-back was still representing England at youth level, though, helping them reach the final of the European Under-19 Championship in 2009 alongside players such as Kyle Walker and Danny Welbeck.

Briggs' performances in the tournament drew interest from his boyhood club Manchester United.

He recalled: "There were talks with my agent but Fulham had already lost Chris Smalling, Louis Saha and Edwin van der Sar to United, so they set an asking price of something stupid and they weren't going to pay that for me when I hadn't done anything in the game yet.

"I did feel bitter about it. I always used to say if they'd let me go my life might have been different now, but I've learned to realise you can't change the past."

Matthew Briggs (right) jostles with Theo Walcott
Matthew Briggs tussled with the stars of the Premier League. such as England forward Theo Walcott

Loan spells at clubs including Peterborough and Watford followed over the coming seasons, while he had racked up 29 appearances - including 10 Europa League starts - for Fulham as he headed towards the end of his contract at Craven Cottage.

"I had a three-year contract offer on the table from Fulham, but then Martin Jol got sacked," Briggs said.

"I got a bad groin injury that kept me out for the whole year and then obviously he got the sack, which killed me."

How did Briggs end up at Maldon & Tiptree?

After 13 years at Fulham, Briggs was released at the age of 23, moving to Championship side Millwall. It took some getting used to after playing in a white shirt since he was at primary school.

"I was actually driving into Millwall one morning and found myself on the way to Fulham, thinking 'where am I going?'" Briggs said.

In January of his first season at The Den, Briggs was loaned out to Colchester - a move which would turn permanent - where he played the most regular professional football of his career to date.

He played 59 times for the U's in League One and League Two before moving on to Chesterfield for the 2017-18 campaign, where off-field matters made things tough.

"I was driving from Colchester to Chesterfield - about a 10-hour round-trip - every day," said Briggs, who was taking care of his seriously-ill partner.

"I was leaving at 4am to get to training for 8.30am, and getting back home at 7pm."

After leaving the Spireites in December 2017, Briggs effectively spent the rest of the season out of the game, and approached this season without a club.

But Wayne Brown, a former coach at Colchester, invited him to join eighth-tier semi-professional side Maldon & Tiptree and, despite his Premier League upbringing, Briggs had no qualms about saying yes.

"My mindset was 'I've got to prove everyone wrong'," he said.

"I've got to have a consistent season, be consistent in my performance and show everybody I've still got it and shouldn't be at this level."

Though the Essex club were beaten in a play-off final, Briggs scooped their player of the year award and chipped in with a number of goals from full-back.

"It's only this season at Maldon & Tiptree that all the doubts have gone - I've enjoyed my season, the best season I've ever had," he added.

"I've thoroughly enjoyed my football - no pressure, no stress, just expressing myself."

Next season? Briggs would like to climb back up the leagues and build towards a career back in the professional game, but he has bigger fish to fry first…

Matthew Briggs heads the ball
Matthew Briggs played the whole 90 minutes for Guyana against the USA, who are ranked 30th in the world

An unexpected international comeback

Having played through the England age groups up to the under-21s, Briggs had come to terms with the fact he was unlikely to ever represent the senior side.

But he was handed an unexpected international lifeline in 2015 by Guyana, who he is qualified to represent through his grandmother.

"Guyana have a few names who can play for them and I thought, you know what, this could be decent," Briggs said.

"If we get everybody together we can make a decent team."

Those players include former Crystal Palace and Bolton midfielder Neil Danns, ex-Reading forward Callum Harriott and Newport winger Keanu Marsh-Brown.

Having last played for them more than four years ago, Briggs is part of Guyana's 23-man squad for this summer's Gold Cup - and he started their 4-0 defeat on Wednesday against a USA side featuring Chelsea's £58m forward Christian Pulisic.

He said: "This time last year I was working on a building site and to have changed all this around, to then be playing in a big tournament like the Gold Cup means everything to me."

The culmination of that turnaround has helped Briggs reflect on how far he has come over the past 12 months, even if it meant dropping down to the lowest level of football he has played.

"I was so depressed about it [working on a building site] and my uncle said to me, 'Listen, just come and work', so I did and, to be fair, I take my hat off to the construction industry because I learned a lot," said Briggs.

"I learned how to put walls up, build blocks and do all that. I learned some life skills.

"I thought, 'Is this what my life has come to?' No disrespect to the construction industry but playing at 16 in the Premier League to then working a construction job, it's made me more hungry to turn it back around."

'Don't feel entitled like I did'

Matthew Briggs
Matthew Briggs has been playing in the Isthmian League with Maldon & Tiptree

Having gone through such a rollercoaster over the past 12 years, how does Briggs reflect on once being the Premier League's youngest player?

"I don't really think I dealt with it particularly well - from that day [his debut], that's when everything started going downhill and the pressure just got to me, I guess," he said.

"It's hard for me to look back at it because I used to think I'd failed - I used to hate having that title - but now I look at it as something to be proud of.

"Having it for 12 years, I can always say I was the youngest Premier League player and not a lot of people can say that."

And what about the successor to his throne, 16-year-old Elliott? What advice can Briggs offer the protege from his own experiences?

"Don't feel entitled like I did because you made your debut at 16 - you've got to keep proving and showing why they put you there in the first place," he said.

"Be proud of yourself but don't become complacent - don't think you've made it and if you come back next season and you're not in the team, it doesn't mean you're not good enough.

"You just have to keep working hard and keep proving that you're deserving."

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