AFL legend Leigh Matthews on regrets over his career

Matthews has evaded any major health concerns since retiring.

Through all his triumphs on the field, the 71-year-old admits there were times in his career he regrets – his intense focus on becoming the best often limiting time with his family.

Leigh Matthews is calling on more Australians to take part in the national bowel cancer screening test.Credit: Priyanka Gupte

Since stepping away from the AFL’s inner circle in 2008, when his time with the Lions came to an end, Matthews has sought to ensure no more family moments were missed.

“I’ve got grandkids getting into adulthood. They’re family things that come with the generations,” Matthews said.

“I look back on the early part of my life, when you’re in the professional development part of your life, playing or coaching, it tends to become the centre of your existence.


“Sport is physical, mental, emotional – every part of you is involved. It’s only a game, we know that, but from the time I was 12 to my mid-50s, every winter weekend of my life was away, and your emotional state is on the line.

“I look back at that and sometimes say I went too far, I was too physical, I was too ruthless.

“But the other part is you change one thing and everything changes.”

Transitioning to a new life

Matthews’ focus on life after football came rapidly, a luxury not afforded to many.

Upon taking the field for the final time, the champion coach signed on as an assistant with Collingwood, before quickly taking the head mantle in his first campaign.

Leigh Matthews during his days coaching the Brisbane Lions.

Leigh Matthews during his days coaching the Brisbane Lions.Credit: Vince Caligiuri

He famously spearheaded the Magpies to the 1990 title, before arriving in Brisbane to help orchestrate the club’s early-2000s dynasty.

Four grand finals in four years, reaping three straight flags. A quartet of AFL premierships as a coach, following four VFL triumphs as a player.


Those numbers would be the envy of thousands who have graced the game.

“I’ve been involved in 12 grand finals, and won eight of them … it’s only eight in 40 years, so it’s not as if it happens a lot,” Matthews said.

“I played my last games as a 33-year-old, so you’re still very young in your life, and I guess I was fortunate enough to have been offered a non-playing role at a football club.

“You’re at a very young part of your life, what you wanted to do as a kid was play, but that’s going to end for most in their 30s.

“The ability to go and do something else was important. If I hadn’t had that opportunity and the playing part was taken away it [would have been] difficult.”

Many athletes struggle to comprehend life away from elite sport, succumbing to spirals into depression and mental illness.

These concerns formed part of the Rugby League Players Association’s demands when debating a new NRL collective bargaining agreement, as they pursued a strengthened Past Player and Transition program.

Matthews admits he was fortunate.

He had immediately found his next calling, and in the years to come would be afforded the chance to make up for the time he lost with his loved ones.

It has made him so eager to be involved in a health campaign of Get2It’s magnitude.

“Some of my biggest life moments have happened off the footy field,” Matthews said.

“I had something else significant to go to, which was the coaching part, which is I guess the closest you can get to the emotional commitment you can get.

“I think it’s one of those things – you grow up as a junior or teenager wanting to be a player, I did anyway, it finishes early in your life and when you finish playing football you’re hoping you still have 50 or 60 years left to be lived.

“But the thing you wanted to do that was the focus of your life is finished.”

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