NEIL Matthews knows from experience what it is like to freeze on the big stage.

City’s academy manager is encouraging the first-year pros in the Valley Parade ranks to seize any opportunity that comes their way.

Matthews, a journeyman striker as a player, can remember getting his break with hometown club Grimsby – and how he felt like a rabbit in the headlights at first.

Just turned 18, he got picked to replace top scorer Kevin Drinkell for a game at Portsmouth after scoring twice in the reserves the week before.

“I can’t remember touching the ball in the first half,” admitted Matthews. “It was just so loud and I came in at half-time thinking, ‘it’s just passing me by’.

“We were 1-0 down at the time but then I managed to set up a chance for Paul Wilkinson and another and we got 2-1 up.

“I was buzzing until they brought on Alan Biley, the blond-haired Rod Stewart lookalike, and we lost 3-2. But it was a fantastic experience.”

Matthews was reminded of where it all began when his family recently dug out an essay he had written at school about getting an apprenticeship with the Mariners.

“It was all about how I felt at the time and my journey. It took me back a little bit and put me in the place of the lads that are just starting now in their scholarship.

“It was a very different era but still a fantastic experience.

“Most of the players smoked at the time and I can remember that if you didn’t prepare the kit right, they’d just throw it back at you.

“Some of the things that have changed have been for the better but you still want that appreciation and gratitude for everything you’ve got.”

Matthews was released in his fourth year, when he was struggling with a hamstring injury and played only three games.

So began a career that would take him around the lower divisions, starting at Halifax where he nailed down a regular place in a team including Wayne Allison, Phil Brown, Lee Richardson and Rick Holden.

The Shaymen rejected an offer from West Brom for Matthews, who instead moved on to Stockport as their £70,000 record signing where he forged a strike partnership with giant target man Kevin Francis.

Playing off him, Matthews scored 13 goals in the last 11 games as Stockport clinched promotion from Division Four.

But an operation for a back injury later halted his progress before he eventually went off to Lincoln.

After nearly three seasons there, he needed more surgery but turned down the offer of a testimonial to stay in the game.

Matthews dropped into non-league and scored prolifically, enjoying a successful time with Guiseley where he played in the same team as Greg Abbott.

But concerns about his back remained and he decided to call it a day after leaving Leigh RMI in 2001, hanging up his boots at 34.

His first move into coaching at that stage was simply helping out with the team where his boys were playing. It was not planned.

“A lot of coaches at Bradford in the academy are young and up-and-coming with the potential to have a good career in the game,” he said.

“I just thought about playing when I was that age and struggled to get my head round that at first. But I understand it more now.

“We’re all in youth development to help these players go on and do the best for themselves. I can see the coaches have got a real passion for it.”

Matthews was quickly bitten by the bug and went on courses before moving into academy work at Huddersfield for the first of two spells. He is still close to former Bantams Graham Mitchell and Marc Bridge-Wilkinson from his time there.

Matthews joined City in December 2017, turning down opportunities at Burnley and Blackburn to become the academy head of coaching. When Alan Nevison went to Leeds last summer, he stepped into the management role.

“It’s been an interesting year, to say the least, with everything that’s happened. It’s been a massive learning curve.

“Supporters are obviously the most important thing at any club and they want a winning team they can be proud of.

“We look at what Bradford City supporters would want and the type of players that Stuart (McCall) might look for.

“We do lose players along the way. One went to Man United early on last season and there is a lot of interest in our younger players.

“It’s going to happen and we have to be right by the players. But all I say to Julian (Rhodes) is that I’ll keep making sure there are others coming through.”