Creative Soccer Culture

England Cerebral Palsy Captain Matt Crossen Talks His Remarkable Journey To The Top

Life can often throw obstacles in our path, and while they can be challenging to overcome, these obstacles can often be the making of us, guiding the direction our journey takes. And one individual for whom this couldn’t be more true is captain of the England Cerebral Palsy team, Matt Crossen.

At 23, Matt Crossen, a promising young footballer, suffered a stroke, which led to his Cerebal Palsy. It was a moment that totally transformed his life; a moment that could well have been the event that ended his participation in the game. But Crossen chose to overcome that obstacle, and now he proudly pulls on the Three Lions shirt as the captain of England, something he never would have dreamed possible before. 

Following the introduction of Flyease – Nike’s revolutionary new technology – the game has become even more accessible, and we caught up with Crossen to talk about the positive impact Flyease will have on the game, as well as discussing his incredible journey to being England captain.

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One place to start that’s ridiculous off the bat, but that also sets the tone for you as a player – that goal you scored for England against ROI. Can you talk us through that?

I was cutting in from the wing and I remember that I had my head up and I could see one of the lads in the box. I wanted to take it on my left foot but thought to myself I shouldn’t. All I was thinking about was “don’t use your left foot” and I hit it and it ended up nicely in the top corner. That catapulted my career really. I think England had an idea I could be good but from that point it catapulted me into the main focus for England. That was a great tournament and a huge moment for me.

When you did something outrageous like that on the pitch, did you know it was going to be the start of something special?

Not straight away. Through that tournament though I could feel things happening, I was playing better and it started to gather momentum. It was like a rolling stone basically, through the tournament I was getting more confident. 

Now when I turn up for training with England and for our games, I don’t worry about how I’m going to play. My confidence is that high because of the players I have played with at England. Even against the likes of Russia and Ukraine, two strong sides, it’s drilled into us at England. That self belief is huge. In the past with England in general there’s not been all that much optimism but times have changed massively and now every team goes into a tournament with huge belief. We have full confidence in everything we do and me as the captain, I need to make sure it stays that way.

That injection of flair, it tells people a little about your character – how would you describe yourself as a player?

I’m box to box really. I do like the odd trick here and there but I try and keep them to a minimum and only when I have to. I like to think of myself as the engine room who keeps things ticking over. I let the good players do the fancy stuff and I’ll manage it all on the pitch behind the scenes.

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When I suffered a stroke in 2013 I said it was the best thing that's ever happened to me. Every day I think about what happened of course, but it’s allowed me to explore life in a completely new way"

We all had a moment when football grabbed us and took hold. Do you remember when you fell in love with football?

I went to watch Middlesbrough reserves as a kid and I was obsessed with how they could keep hold of the ball in tight areas, the little one-twos that they were doing and that kind of thing. My grandad took me to it and that’s where I fell in love with the game. I didn’t start off playing football, I was watching my younger brother play football first and I watched him for a couple of games and soon thought I wanted to try that too. It was watching Middlesbrough reserves that got me into it all though. There were chances for me to go places but we had a good side that I played with as a kid on a Sunday. We played against academies all over the country.

How big is football for the whole family?

It’s big. My brother used to play for Middlesbrough but he suffered a leg break which was unfortunate. My grandad has been huge. He would come to every home and away game and now every England camp I come to, he asks if I want a lift down. He has a wonder around St George’s Park. They all love it – especially what I do with England. They’re proud as punch and they all want to experience it with me. I think their obsession for England is as strong as mine. My fiancé as well, she’s learning more and more about football all the time too. She wasn’t into that side of things but it’s catching her excitement too. We’ve been watching the Spurs documentary which has captivated us both.

In a similar way, your life, you see football behind the scenes – it must be nice to take your family on that journey with you…

Ah yeah it’s lovely. It’s dream-like stuff for me. It’s what I’ve always wanted since I was a kid. To play football regularly and for my country too. I look at it that when I suffered my stroke in 2013, it was actually the best thing to ever happen to me. I wouldn’t have played for England or captain my country. It’s fantastic for me and my family and we can’t wait for the next tournament. Me and my family will all be on the bandwagon.

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You look back at your stroke with a super positive outlook from what could have been deemed a negative. Has that always been the approach for you?

Yeah it has. Don’t get me wrong, I think about it every day. There’s not one day that’s gone by since 2013 that I’ve not thought about what happened to me. I just keep that to myself. We have the best of the best with England and they keep me fighting fit and healthy. We have diet plans, the greatest facilities, strong training regimes and my family get brought into it too. England always look out for us. I came from a family with a positive outlook on everything. It’s never got to the point where I’ve thought “I can’t do this or that”, even the few days directly after it. My first response was, I just need to get out and on my feet. If I can walk, I’ll be able to run, if I can run, I’ll be able to play football and that’s how I worked it out.

It’s a trait of elite athletes to describe their journey as something so easy. When you’re involved with England, it’s always going to be the highest of demands. Can you tell us about the standards that are set at the very top of the game?

With anything, you have to be determined and focused. It’s drilled into us at the England camps, from the top down. Andy Smith, our coach and Jeff Davis who leads it all, the level they set is fantastic. It makes every player feel at home when they’re at St George’s Park. You could be a new lad coming to training for the first time or an experienced pro, it’s always so accommodating and it’s a level playing field that’s right at the top.

Similarly, for me, the amount of messages I’ve had since the FlyEase Nike Phantom GT boots have come out has been incredible. My inbox on twitter has been flooded. Same on Instagram. It’s all from teams and from parents who love the idea of the boot. I’m getting all the questions about when they’re going to go on sale and all that kind of stuff. It’s the role model side of things – there’s not one player on our team who doesn’t love the opportunity to be there for people and to help others out. I would say that’s the main part of it apart from the playing side of things. It’s being part of a big family with England. It’s incredibly special. The way we get on with each other and things like that is so huge. Disability sides have role models just like mainstream football does. We’re fortunate enough to be part of that.

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When you think back to being 23 and having your stroke, then getting these kind of messages now, what’s that like?

It’s indescribable. The replies I’m able to give people now are the messages I would have loved as a kid. For me as a kid, I would be wanting to send messages to the likes of Mendieta, Juninho and icons for me like that. For me now to get messages from people either congratulating me or wishing me good luck in the game, it’s huge. I’m speechless with it a lot of the time.

I know how to handle it but at the same time, I’m a human being and the thought goes through your head “why are they asking me, what have I done to deserve this? I’m just an ordinary lad who got the chance to play for his country”. That’s how I’ve always seen myself and I always will. I was just fortunate enough, to have had a stroke. It gave me the chance. I’m an ordinary lad, just living his dream.

When you think back to big tournaments as a kid, watching England as a fan, can you set the scene for us – what did they look like for you?

The best memory I’ve got from a tournament when I was growing up was Michael Owen against Argentina. That for me, whenever we go into tournaments now, is what I’m thinking about. Even at training and stuff like that, I think about those Brazilian adverts in the airport and in the dressing room, that goes a long way for us.

When you go to a tournament, it isn’t about luxury and fancy stuff, it’s about focus, joy and excitement around football. I think that Michael Owen goal captures all of that so I’m always thinking about that one as motivation when at a tournament with England now. There’s a lad in the team that will ask me each tournament whether I’ve been thinking about that goal. It’s weird but it's always like a ritual for me.

Talking about memories and the sentimental side. Can you remember getting your first pair of boots?

Yeah I can. David Beckham was  a huge icon for me so I would be pulling the tongue down as far as I could on a pair of accelerators like a lot of people in my league back then. My second pair were  a pair of Total 90s and from there it was that first grey and red Mercurial. I’d love to have them now – I can’t find them anywhere. They were the most comfortable boots I’ve ever worn. I wore them all the way up to last year when I went for the Tiempo and now I’ve got the Phantom GT.

There’s always a boot that lives long in legacy and history, do you feel like the Phantom GT has that history maker element to them?

The video I’ve posted has sparked so many comments for me. I’ve worn them in the mainstream games I’ve played in and a lot of the other players want a pair. They’ve all said it’s miles easier to get the boots on. Obviously in the dressing room before a game you always hear players banging their boots on the floor trying to get their feet in. They’ve all been asking to get a pair so that they can try them on. It’s huge. There’s lads I know, international players, who have messaged me if I’d recommend them. The answer for me has been 100% yes.

I think it’s been a long time coming and it’s been needed for a while. I know it’s for all disability sports but for our game specifically, for CP football, it will catapult a lot of players. You’ll get more players playing full stop. You’ll get players who perhaps didn’t have the confidence to put a boot on in a dressing room in front of people who now have no barrier. There’s going to be so many players out there dying to have these.

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It’s freedom, it really is. It’s freedom for a lot of disabled athletes. Whether it’s kids or elite athletes this boot is freedom for 90% of athletes with disabilities. I can’t stress it enough, this gives so many people independence that they have never experienced before"

Mainstream football will take that confidence element inside a dressing room for granted. It may not even cross players’ minds that there’s people out there whose confidence has taken a hit because they’re being forced to tie laces – just how liberating is this boot?

Trust me, from the CP squads from the kids to the elite level, it’s huge. All those players that come into the dressing room and need someone else to tie their laces, it’s huge. For them, not to ask anyone for that help because of these boots, the mentality completely flips. Instead of having to rely on someone in the dressing room, that fear or anxiety isn’t there any more. Instead, players can focus on the game and playing football. It’s just massive. It’s absolutely huge. The fact that mainstream players want this boot as well, this boot will go far in history. If you like a pair of boots then you’re going to like these, especially with a pink Swoosh. I could see that grab the eye of a lot of the lads in training. It’s a cliche to say but they are a game changer for disability sports.

With the way the world is now, it’s nice to be talking about a game changer. Does it feel like we’re about to shift into a new place for CP football?

I think we are. With the boots in mind, if you love football, you want to get out there as soon as you can and play when you get a new pair. Lockdown or no lockdown, you’ll have people out in the garden with these in no time. Imagine all the kids that haven’t been able to play during lockdown and they now get to play and also with new boots. For people who can’t tie their laces in CP football, they don’t have to think twice now thanks to these boots, they can get out there and start playing immediately. They don’t need to rely on parents or friends to tie up their laces any more.

How have things developed over the years for the CP game, can you feel it growing?

I know a few lads that run kids teams and I know there’s a lot more growing interest. The CP teams have just started training again post lockdown and the teams are packed which is so great to see. I remember in the 2015 World Championships, and you’d have four or five people coming down from clubs to watch. Now there’s loads and the talent pathway is huge. More people have become aware of it and those who might have felt embarrassed about it in the past, aren’t any more. Now there’s more confidence and it’s so encouraging. I get messages from players in our Under-23s squad asking me what it’s like in the first team and that hunger to be the best is really there too.

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It all goes back to access and with products like this as well it is encouraging for players. It makes players want to get outside and just play…

Exactly. It’s freedom, it really is. It’s freedom for a lot of disabled athletes. Whether it’s kids or elite athletes this boot is freedom for 90% of athletes with disabilities. I can’t stress it enough, this gives so many people their independence and their freedom. What’s more this isn’t just about disabilities - mainstream players I know who play at high levels want these too. It’s a leveller.

Going back to your personal journey, where did your positive character come from because your outlook is infectiously optimistic?

My grandad has been a huge influence on me. I’ve always thought about things a lot and when I’ve not been picked for teams or not got a job, whatever that may be, and my grandad has always reinforced to me the thinking of “dust yourself down, don’t worry about that, we’ll be alright” and in general, in life, if something doesn’t go right, his attitude is always forward thinking and positive. He always says, “don’t worry, everything will be rock on”. It sticks with me. My fiancé is the same, she has the same mentality as my grandad. Having people like that around me brings that out in my game.

With England, it’s a calming reassurance and that translates into my game and into my role as a captain. I’m not a barking captain, I’m probably one of the worst when it comes to practical jokes and things like that. I want the lads in the dressing room to feel at home. That’s how people get the best out of me. It’s all about feeling comfortable so I try to pass that on to others as well. No one wants to come into a dressing room where they’re getting barked at for no reason. As you go through a tournament it heats up but I’m a steady head in that environment. I do like a practical joke though.

Do you ever feel any pressure?

I definitely do for England, but that is also motivation. I love playing for England so much and I think the pressure side is just part of the game. It’s all about how you handle it. We have a great psychologist who works with the England squad and he keeps everyone’s feet on the ground. I thin pressure is a good thing because it lets you know you’re in a game. It makes you feel more aware of what’s going on.

When I think about what happened to me and my personal situation, I don’t think there’s any point walking around with your head down all day. If you constantly think “why did this happen to me?” You can’t dwell on it and it has to be about little victories. If you can do x, you can do y. That’s the way I’ve always looked at it. Any set back I have, it’s all about little victories to get you where you want to get to. If you can get to point A, you can get to point B and it just keeps going.

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What is point Z for you? Where would you like to take the sport?

I’d love to see CP football being broadcast. Like it was in the Paralympics. Having CP mascots and those kinds of things. In the way Women’s football has shot to the top and is getting so much more exposure - it’s fantastic. It shows what having that visual reference out there does. The more people see these things, the more interest they gain. It would be the same for CP football if we got more coverage. There’s lads in my mainstream team who had no idea about CP football but when popular names started shouting about it and retweeting it, they couldn’t get enough. Point Z would be having the CP game parallel to where the women’s game is right now. Us winning the world cup would be ideal, especially if I’m captain.

Photography by Joe Hunt
Styling by Sam Carder

The Nike Phantom GT Academy Flyease is available at


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