The Dream Chaser

  • Sports   Friday, May 13, 2022   Matthew Harris

You’ve got to follow that dream, wherever that dream may lead.

It’s doubtful that Matthew Campbell knew those words came from Elvis Presley, but the St. Michaels soccer star undoubtedly will take them to heart.

Campbell, a Grade 12 student and leader of the Warriors’ senior boys soccer team, isn’t afraid to let his mind wander when it comes to football. The Irish-born Campbell has soccer in his blood, and he has every intention of living out his dream of one day becoming a professional footballer.

There is just the small matter of guiding the Warriors to the promised land first (sorry, Elvis).

A native of Belfast, Campbell came with his family to the area in 2013 when his father (originally from St. Marys) returned home to Canada with his Irish wife and family. Having played soccer since he was only four years old, it became clear very quickly that Campbell wasn’t going to get the competition level he would need to develop had he stuck to playing recreational youth soccer in St. Marys.

“Even back then when I would be the keeper, I would wander up the pitch and try to score goals,” Campbell joked. “My dad took me to London where I joined up with the London Alliance club team to further my development.”

That was only the beginning of the journey for Campbell. Another part came during what he called a ‘euphoric moment’ … during his older sister’s graduation at St. Mike’s. Only a Grade 8 student at the time, young Matthew occupied his time during the commencement ceremony by letting his eyes wander around the gym and taking in all of the Warriors’ championship banners. It was then he noticed a distinct lack of ones in soccer; it was then the next part of his development began.

“It really struck me when I saw that they didn’t have many football (soccer) banners hanging there, and it was then I decided that I wanted to help hang one myself,” he said. “It started off great – in Grade 9, we had an undefeated season going and we beat Listowel in extra time during the finals. And I thought to myself at that time, ‘if this is how good it feels to win Huron-Perth, how will it feel when we win OFSAA?’.”

A blindingly bright future was just ahead of Campbell and the Warriors. Surely they would continue to develop and Campbell would have his wish come true, seeing a banner go up that he helped put there.

Funny how pandemics get in the way of best laid plans.

Two years later and Warriors head coach John Corsaut is hoping to see Campbell accomplish this part of the dream. The coach and player have known each other for a while (they’re neighbours, after all), but they’re reuniting on the pitch for the first time since Corsaut coached Campbell in his freshman year with the Warriors.

The things that were evident about Campbell back then – an outstanding sense of his game in general, rock-solid positioning, and the ability to see a play develop before it does – have been augmented by a little more seasoning and maturity in Corsaut’s opinion.

“The thing that has changed about Matthew the most is his leadership skills – he’s a very encouraging player in that he can critique other teammates but not be critical of them,” Corsaut said. “It’s a natural ability for him. And like a lot of kids who grew up in Canada and would be out shooting pucks all day and all night in hockey, that’s what Matt is like with football. He’s always out there trying to get better.”

Having grown up in Ireland and developed his skills there, the temptation to think that Campbell holds himself above his teammates might be there when they don’t play at his level. Corsaut says that’s a false narrative and, in fact, the exact opposite is true.

“Matt takes his skills and integrates them with the others around him, almost like he’s helping to coach them be in the right place at the right time and they develop along with him,” the coach said. “He always plays with the team, not above them.”

Now with the soccer season underway for the Warriors, Campbell admits that the OFSAA banner dream will be harder to achieve with so little time left to get it. It faded greatly over the last two COVID-plagued years, but the spark that lit the dream never went out. And instead of pining over lost opportunities, Campbell and his fellow Warriors used that time to grow together more off the field. Their closeness has presented itself more this year, and they approach games and results in a far more unified way.

“We know that we’re going to win or lose as a team,” he said. “Soccer is not all about skill alone – you need luck. In a 1-0 game, I can hit the post three times and we lose. If any of my shots go just one inch the other way and goes in, we’re looking at a completely different story. You don’t lose games because you’re the worse team all the time, so you just have to accept the result and move on. That dream of winning at WOSAA and OFSAA is still alive.”

It doesn’t end there.

As Campbell said when asked about the second part of his story, a dream without a plan is just a wish.

That second part of the story is this: during this past March break, Campbell headed back to Ireland to chase after the professional side of the football dream. He put his plan in motion well before then, sending out at least 350 emails to clubs and organizations across Europe. Teams in Germany, Spain, Ireland and more got Campbell’s highlight reels and video clips. He was searching for a chance to keep the dream going, looking for a tryout.

Out of those 350 emails, Campbell had about 20 responses. Of those, seven showed interest. So when it came time to book a trip, he punched his ticket for Ireland – with his parent’s blessings. During his two-week stay on the Emerald Isle, Campbell worked his butt off for as many as five teams and was asked back by two of them.

“I need to decide who I’m going into preseason with – Ards FC or Dundela FC,” he said. “It’s going to be about me getting out there and showing that I can play at that level. Depending on how things go, I’ll come back and talk with my family about what happens next. I’ve talked with players from the Canadian Professional League, and the consensus from those conversations was to try playing in Europe while I’m young. I know the odds of me making it are incredible, but I’ve been able to raise my level every time. I’ve always played against bigger, older kids and I know I can adapt my game to whatever it needs to be.”

A preseason with one of those clubs might last between 6-10 games plus training sessions in between. While acknowledging the odds he’s facing, Campbell believes his goal is within reach.

“My aim in going over there is to impress in every match and be a great teammate as well,” he said. “I’ve been very good at contributing energy – Mr. Corsaut will tell you I’m a bit loud, but that’s always been a strength.”

And while Corsaut did admit that it’s not hard to figure out where Campbell is on the pitch based simply on tracing the loudest voice out there, he was on Campbell’s side when talking about facing down the odds.

“He wants to keep playing, and I think it’s within his reach to make his dream happen,” he said.

Since he was young, Campbell admits he’s been dreaming about this very thing. Well, that and being a pterodactyl. But one seems a little more likely at this point, and Campbell’s not going to stop dreaming about it.

“I have to be a dreamer because in my head, I know that this isn’t normal,” he said. “It’s crazy to think that I can do all of this, but I’ve done it to this point. I’ve been writing notes to myself since I was a kid, and I would write ones about being a professional footballer for Manchester United. It’s that element of it being unrealistic that keeps it interesting for me, and the minute you stop dreaming life gets a little more boring.”