Special feature on a former Don
For those supporters who missed it in Saturday’s matchday programme, we published a special feature about a former Dons scholar who had to get his life back on track after a near-death experience.
This article is now republished below and the picture above shows Matt Cunnington (right) with his father Mark and a book called The Fear.
Matt Cunnington is now pursuing an alternative career, but he had an extraordinary football apprenticeship and this is now chronicled in a new book that has a happy ending with AFC Wimbledon.
When he was 13 years old and a Brighton & Hove Albion youth player, Matt Cunnington suffered a cardiac arrest. A recently published book called The Fear, written by Matt’s father Mark, describes how it required six attempts by medics with a defibrillator to start his heart again. Though Matt made a full recovery, his chances of making it with his local professional club had suffered.
A second chance was provided by the AFC Wimbledon Academy after Matt had impressed Head of Coaching Mark Robinson at trials days. Current Dons first-team squad members Tom Beere and Chace Jacquart came through trials at the same time as Matt, who started his scholarship as a promising left-back with Wimbledon.
“I don’t remember anything about when I had my cardiac arrest, apart from waking up in hospital one day,” Matt said. “It was very tough to get back on track after that and when I started playing football again at Brighton I was not allowed to play for more than 15 minutes. Though I made a full recovery and tests showed that I was fine to continue playing football, Brighton eventually said that I was five or 10 per cent away from earning a scholarship.
“I attended trials with Mark at Wimbledon, it was fierce competition, but I felt I did really well. There were only a few scholarship places up for grabs and it meant so much to me when I was offered one. However, I had to wait to see if AFC Wimbledon got into the Football League as starting a full-time scholarship depended upon the club going up. Tom Beere and Chace Jacquart were in the same situation as me. I remember refreshing website pages constantly when the penalty shoot-out was going on at Manchester. It gave me a real buzz when Wimbledon won and I could see the size of the achievement for the club by the reaction on Twitter.”
The Fear is a fictional version of the events which surrounded Matt’s near-death experience. His father Mark writes about a traumatic time for the Cunnington family as Matt’s grandparents were struggling with dementia when he suffered the cardiac arrest. The family’s problems provide the background to the book’s storyline about a young footballer trying to make his way in football.
Matt was ultimately unable to progress into the first-team alongside Tom Beere, but he is very thankful for the opportunity Wimbledon provided him with. His scholarship with AFC Wimbledon included academic studies at South Thames College (Merton campus) in Morden and that is currently helping him in his career path.
Thousands of young footballers around the country struggle to pick up the pieces every year after being released by clubs, but Matt planned for such an eventuality and he is currently studying for a degree in Sports Performance at Bath University. A move into coaching or Sports Science are possible long-term goals for Matt.
“It was difficult at the time when I was released by Wimbledon because your mind is set on becoming a footballer,” added Matt. “When you get told you are not going to do that then it’s hard to take. Mark and David Walsh (former Head of Education) drummed into us about having back-up options. In my first year I did not really think about other options, but in the second year I started to put plans into place. If I had not listened to Mark and David, then I would not be where I am today.
“Even though nothing came from it in terms of becoming a footballer at AFC Wimbledon, there was an educational pathway and I learned so much that is standing me in good stead now. I lived away from home so I grew up a lot and I also met lots of good people. Jason Moriarty is so good at what he does in his role as the club’s Sports Scientist and Mark Robinson is a great coach. It all made it worthwhile doing my scholarship.
“It would be great to be a Sports and Conditioning Coach. I’m keeping my options open and I’ve done an upgrade on the FA level two coaching qualification that I gained at Wimbledon. I’ve coached at summer camps at the Southern Association Football Academy (SAFA) after getting in touch with Jim Colston, who I got picked up by for Brighton years ago. I really enjoyed the coaching and it’s something I could do after my degree.”
Matt admits it’s a little strange to be featured in a book, albeit under a fictional name, but his father’s efforts could also lead to a meeting with ex-Bolton Wanderers professional Fabrice Muamba. Fabrice, of course, suffered a cardiac arrest on the pitch when he was playing for Bolton against Spurs at White Hart Lane in March, 2012. Since retiring, he has fulfilled various ambassadorial roles and The FA are aiming to arrange a meeting with Fabrice interviewing Matt about his experiences.
“It’s been a bit weird reading it all and thinking back to what happened, but I think it’s a quality book. It would be great to meet Fabrice because he’s someone who went through what I did, but at a higher level. Fabrice was unable to carry on playing, but he did not dwell on it and he was an inspiration. It would be good to find out what motivates him.
“I’m still playing football for Bath University and it’s a high standard. I’ve played against players who were at Aldershot and Gillingham when I was at Wimbledon. I met a goalkeeper who recalled playing against Wimbledon and Tom Beere scoring a penalty past him. I have great memories of my time at Wimbledon. The fans were brilliant and I can remember them offering great support at our FA Youth Cup matches.”
Speaking about his inspiration for writing The Fear, Mark Cunnington said: “Once Matt made his remarkable recovery from his cardiac arrest, I knew that I would want to write his story. At the time Matt returned to football, both my parents were suffering from dementia and the plot for the book started to formulate in my mind.
“Within the pages of the book, I have been completely honest in what I felt at the time of Matt’s arrest, his subsequent recovery and in dealing with my parents’ horrid affliction. Coping with the shock of Matt’s near-death experience and my parents’ mental problems placed a great strain on myself and my wife.
“It put something as unimportant as football into perspective, yet, in a strange paradoxical way, football started to take on a new meaning. What it became was a symbol for Matt’s life."
You can purchase The Fear for £8.99 at www.triopublishing.co.uk where there is also a link to the Kindle version.