Max Mata shows his affection to the Sligo Rovers fans. Ryan Byrne/INPHO

'I'm not from here but there is a very welcoming culture in this country'

Premier Division top scorer Max Mata explains his surge in form under manager John Russell at Sligo Rovers.

MAX MATA FINDS himself at a stage in life where all is well.

Not just because he is scoring goals.

That helps, of course, and the Sligo Rovers striker is currently top of the charts with eight in the League of Ireland Premier Division.

His hot streak isn’t the sole reason for finding a sense of peace.

“Being happy as a person will help you as a footballer. You are only on the pitch for a couple of hours a day so you have to find a way to be happy,” he reasons.

Even before finding the net three times in five games this month, Mata had already done enough to earn a recall to the New Zealand squad for the first time since 2019.

He travelled home in March for a double header of friendlies with China, a chance to also see his family other than around the usual Christmas break.

“It was awesome, back to the homeland. A special one to go back there as we don’t get to play there too often,” he explains.

“The banter, hearing the slang I haven’t heard in a while, it makes you feel a special way. It makes you happy. I didn’t score so that’s not ideal but hopefully I can do enough to become a regular.”

spnew-zealand-auckland-football-nzl-vs-chn Max Mata (centre) in action for New Zealand last month. Xinhua News Agency / PA Images Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

If he can maintain his current form in front of goal Mata will certainly remain in the frame, and tonight’s visit to champions Shamrock Rovers is the latest challenge.

As pointed out by Stats Perform, despite three of the Kiwi’s goals coming from the penalty spot, of all players to have three or more “big chances” in the Premier Division he has a conversion rate of 88.9%. That contrasts with the league average of 49.6%.

Stats always help paint a picture, but the 22-year-old elaborated on some of the colourful changes that lie beneath the black and white of performance.

“I feel a lot more comfortable here in Ireland, being a foreigner but not being treated or feeling like an outsider. Like, I know I am because I am not from here but there is a very welcoming culture in this country.

I feel like people are easy to get on with, they are respectful. I’ve been to places in the world where it is definitely a lot harder to get by and a lot less fun.

“I personally know how it feels to be an outsider and no one is helping out,” Mata adds. “This is a good place to be, everyone is included, nobody is left out. We are teammates and all want the best for each other.

“It also helps that the humour here is very similar to back home. Foul-mouthed humour is normal and you don’t get looked at sideways for it.”

The Sligo squad assembled by boss John Russell is certainly diverse. Mata is not even the only New Zealander, compatriot Nando Pijnaker helping anchor the Bit O’Red defence.

Of the side that helped cruised past UCD last time out, and will likely be involved against Rovers tonight, there were three other nationalities complementing the seven Irish players.

Swede Johan Brannefalk, Englishman Reece Hutchinson and German Fabrice Hartmann also started alongside the two Kiwis.

Among the subs, Estonian Frank Liivak and Stefan Radosavljevic of the Faroe Islands were sprung from the bench, while Lukas Browning Lagerfeldt, born in Drogheda to an Irish father and Swedish mother, was also introduced.

Russell, the 37-year-old who took the reins on a temporary basis last season before impressing to take the job full-time, has been central to his emergence.

john-russell-and-max-mata-after-the-game Lorcan Doherty / INPHO Lorcan Doherty / INPHO / INPHO

“Feeling that trust, it definitely made me a lot more comfortable,” Mata adds. “I will always work hard, that’s a given, but the support and trust from the manager and coaches is important.

“They pin-pointed parts of my game where they wanted more from me, but they also reminded me of what I’m good at and working to my strengths.”

This is where Russell’s influence, and methodology, is paying off.

“The purpose we have is to help them as players,” the Sligo manager insists.

“We are all trying to win, whether it’s the league, the FAI Cup, qualify for Europe. Of course you want that success.

“But no matter what stage you’re at you have to improve your players, you have to work on them with individual plans to help them improve and become better.

“Max is a kid who wants to learn, he is open, ambitious and so far this year he is setting the league alight with the goals and how he is playing. The sky is the limit for him in my eyes.”

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel