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Dublin: 13°C Friday 18 September 2020
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'He was normally so strong, so fit, so successful, such a presence. Now he was broken and helpless'

The story of a moped accident that changed the life of former Premier League striker Matt Jansen.

Former Blackburn striker Matt Jansen.
Former Blackburn striker Matt Jansen.
Image: EMPICS Sport

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from Matt Jansen: The Autobiography.

THROUGH THE HAZE, a few short memories. The man in the next bed looks like he’s auditioning for a part in a Mr Bean film. Everything is in plaster — his arms up here, his legs up there. He starts coughing and sneezing. I flinch. Don’t give me your germs!

Then, the catheter. That was painful.

Then, the wheelchair on the cobbles.

Then, the plane.

Nothing else.

Lucy: I was lying on the floor. I pushed myself up straight away, and felt a pain in my knee and ankle as I got to my feet. Otherwise, I felt fine.

I knew what had happened. I’d seen the taxi, but it had all come together in a flash, and we’d been pitched from the bike before I’d been able to process anything.

I looked up and saw Matt, face down, a few metres away from me.

He was moving, but only in a juddering way. His helmet had come off and it looked like he was out cold. I hurried over to him and saw that he had a really bad cut on his face, around his right eye, the eyelid included.

I suppose this is when I went into some sort of autopilot. I reached down and took hold of his limp arm. ‘Squeeze my hand if you’re all right,’ I said.

He squeezed.

Other things rushed into my mind.

‘Can you feel your legs? Can you feel your legs?’

I don’t remember if he squeezed at that point. But it seemed that he could hear me, even though he wasn’t saying anything.

Rome was busy, and lots of people had stopped around us. Because I could speak the language, I was able to ask someone to call an ambulance. One was on its way, I was told.
Matt wasn’t moving and all I could do was stay with him and wait.

I always felt I was quite good in a crisis and now, instead of going to pieces, something inside me was able to deal practically with what was going on. There was probably a bit of shock involved, too.

The next thing I did, though, can probably be put down to the fact that many people have weird reactions after an accident. When I stood up, I noticed I was barefoot. I had been wearing a smart dress for dinner and some strappy shoes, which Matt had bought me from Prada. I couldn’t see the shoes. I walked around the little crowd of bystanders.

‘Have you seen my Prada shoes? Have you seen them?’

Eventually I found them, all scuffed and wrecked. Matt was in the same position, lying on the cobbles in his suit, and I kept waiting, until eventually a police car arrived. The officers approached the taxi driver, who had stopped after the collision, and took some details from him, before allowing him to drive off.

I was relieved that the ambulance wasn’t far behind. Matt was quickly lifted into it and they took him away. For reasons that weren’t made particularly clear, I wasn’t allowed to go with him. Instead, I was asked to get in the police car.

The car was all plastic in the back, with no upholstery, no door handles and no windows. As the doors closed, I had a burst of hysterical, panicked claustrophobia. I’m in the back of a police car, I haven’t done anything wrong, I can’t get out, my boyfriend is not talking and he’s gone off in an ambulance.

soccer-worthington-cup-final-tottenham-hotspur-v-blackburn-rovers Jansen celebrates winning the League Cup with Andy Cole. Source: EMPICS Sport

What’s going on?!

It was the first time that my mind went haywire, but I calmed as the policemen explained they were taking me back to the hotel, and that I would need to retrieve our passports.

It was, obviously, a short journey. I went into the Hotel Eden and explained to the staff what had happened. They opened the safe and gave me the passports. I then went back to our room, changed into some tracksuit bottoms, a T-shirt and some flipflops, and then I rang Jay.

Rome was an hour ahead of the UK, but it was still going to be much later than you would normally expect a call from abroad — or anywhere, for that matter. Jay had two small children, and I knew he’d be asleep, but he was the one I needed to call. He wasn’t only Matt’s agent, they were friends, and he would be able to relay the news to Matt’s parents.

Jay: My phone kept ringing and ringing. It was nearly 2.00 a.m. in Manchester.
I knew it was Matt, because I had a particular Darth Vader ringtone for him. It was quite funny, but not necessarily at that time of the morning. I remembered that he was in Rome, with his girlfriend, and I had a strong suspicion what would be at the other end of the line the moment I picked up: Matt, drunk, pouring out his feelings. ‘Oh, I love you man, you’re my best mate,’ – that sort of thing. That’s lovely, but maybe not at 2.00 a.m.

Clare, who’d also been woken by the phone, told me to ignore it. But each time the Dark Lord stopped, he started again a few seconds later. The phone was downstairs. On and on and on it went.

I stirred a little more and remembered something else. ‘You know,’ I said, peeling back the covers, ‘I think he’s hired those mopeds today.’

Knowing that Matt doesn’t do anything by halves, I had a picture of him renting the biggest, most powerful and expensive bikes in Rome. I stood up, yawned, went downstairs, found the phone, went for a pee and, standing over the toilet, dialled Matt’s number back.

It wasn’t Matt who answered, but a man with an Italian accent. He said he was a surgeon. ‘You need to come over as soon as possible, because your friend is very ill.’

Oh my God. What the hell?

I was now wide awake. The house phone then started to ring. I picked it up and spoke to Lucy.

‘There’s been an accident. Matt’s in hospital. I don’t quite know what’s happened, but can you please come out straight away?’

My second son, Elliott, had been born days ago, and had been very poorly with jaundice, needing regular blood transfusions. I was jaded and worried, but I knew I had to spring into action.

Lucy: I burst into tears when Jay answered the phone, but then tried to compose myself and tell him what had happened. He seemed quite calm and rational, and tried to reassure me. He said he would make arrangements to fly out as soon as possible.
After the call ended, other thoughts rushed through my mind. Would we have to pay for the scooter? Where on earth is the hospital? And how am I supposed to get there?

I had no money on me because Matt had all our cash in the suit he was wearing. I arranged a taxi and told the driver everything that had happened. I was quite breathless as I told him in my clearest Italian about the police putting me in the car with no door handles, and the fact I had no money because my boyfriend was in hospital, and… I didn’t need to explain much more. He took me straight to the hospital. I think he felt sorry for me.

mj

The entrance, to the rear of the building, was very dark and dingy, with the walls tiled like an old butcher’s shop where you’d see meat hanging from hooks. As I walked up a ramp and then moved through the reception area, it was very quiet and seemed low on staff, presumably because it was so late at night.

I quickly found his ward. It was a really basic, crappy room, with six beds set out in two rows of three. I saw that Matt was in the middle bed of one of the threes.

He was on his back and strapped up to some sort of machine. As I got closer to him, I noticed they had stitched the cut above his eye, and there were tubes here and there. But what really shocked me, to the point that the memory still upsets me now, is that he was also shaking, as though he was having a small fit.

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Seeing him like that was very difficult to bear. He was normally so strong, so fit, so successful, such a presence. Now he was broken and helpless.

I looked up and took in the room. Either side of Matt were two older men, who at first glance didn’t seem to have a great deal wrong with them. I also noticed that all of Matt’s things had been placed in a box, along with his lovely suit, which was ruined.

I wasn’t sure what to do, where to sit or where to go. I took a few deep breaths and tried to rationalise the situation, but that just led me into a state of denial. I started telling myself that what had happened wasn’t really bad, was it?

I snapped back into crisis management mode and tried to find someone to speak to. There was a woman at a desk in the waiting area. I started asking her questions.
‘Where’s the doctor? How are Matt’s legs? He’s a footballer, it’s very important.’

I noticed another man hanging around the reception area. He looked quite greasy and I saw that he was carrying a notepad and pen. He walked towards me and muttered an introduction, before launching into a load of questions.

Maybe that’s how some journalists worked out there. Perhaps he waited around the A&E department to catch a juicy story. He must have overheard me talking to the receptionist, because he kept asking about ‘Matt’ and could I explain more about him being a footballer? When I realised what he was after, I recoiled, and answered ‘no’ to all his questions. Eventually he left.

blackburn-v-leicester Graeme Souness was managing Blackburn at the time. Source: PA

The rest of the night passed in a fog, but some things are still vivid. Back in the ward, I saw there was a cheap and tatty-looking wheelie-bed near to Matt. I was exhausted, so I climbed on to it with the idea of getting a few hours’ sleep. Then I felt something . . .
The old guy from the next bed had leaned across and grabbed my bum.

At that point I nearly lost my senses.

This has to be a piss-take, I thought. How could it possibly get any worse? My boyfriend is lying here in an awful state, I don’t know what’s going to happen, and now I’ve got this old perv trying to grope me. It was like some sort of hideous nightmare. I got up off the bed, because there was no way I was going to risk lying there all night, but I couldn’t tell you where I went or what I did after that.

I knew, though, that Jay would soon be on his way.

Jay: The room was truly awful. It had basic, concrete floors, paint was peeling off the walls and there was no air conditioning, so it stank.

Hospital staff were bustling in and out of the ward, bringing food for the other patients, but Matt was still unconscious. I wasn’t sure what to expect but for someone who had been in a serious accident, he didn’t look battered and bruised. I noticed a grazed knee and a scab on his head. Otherwise, you would never have known the extent of his injuries.

The doctors eventually took Lucy and me aside and explained his condition. The brain, they said, is enclosed in fluid inside the skull. When you are propelled forward and strike a stationary object, it results in your brain moving backwards in that fluid. It’s a kind of cushion, and any damage depends on the nature and force of the collision.

In Matt’s case, his accident had resulted in loads of little dots appearing on his brain. The doctor said they were multiple, tiny haemorrhages. He also said that things could have been much worse.

Had he suffered a full-on, larger brain haemorrhage, he would have died.

Lucy: By the time Jay got there, Matt had stopped moving and shaking. He was just flat out, in a coma. As time went by, and the doctors started telling us a little more, we realised we had to occupy ourselves somehow. I’d been checked out myself – a few cuts and bruises, but otherwise fine – and so we went back to the Hotel Eden for something to eat.

We ordered room service, picked at the food without any great appetite, and returned to the hospital. We remained in this routine for a couple of days, feeling very sombre.
I was also tense because it still wasn’t clear if or when Matt would be out of the woods. You can’t help but fear the worst when you hear the words ‘brain injury’ and I had this pent-up feeling that he might wake up as someone completely different.

The medical people eventually called us back in. They told Jay and me that his brain had been scanned again, and the blood had come out, which was good news. They said the words we wanted to hear: that he was going to be okay, also repeating their opinion that, if he hadn’t been wearing a helmet, he probably wouldn’t have survived.

The tension must have just burst out of me at that point, because I started crying and, for a while, I couldn’t stop. I cried because I knew he would eventually be waking up as Matt.

Matt Jansen: The Autobiography is published by Polaris Publishing. More info here.

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