Joe Mattock believes his patience at Sheffield Wednesday is finally being rewarded.
The 24-year-old left-back – tipped for the top as a teenager when snapped up by West Brom for £1.2m from Leicester City – has struggled at Hillsborough since arriving over two years ago.
Brought in by former manager Dave Jones, Mattock had to play second fiddle to regular left-back Reda Johnson.
The Benin international was a huge favourite with Wednesday fans, scoring an amazing 18 goals in 70 league starts which sometimes glossed over his shortcomings as a defender.
But injury-hit Johnson did not play for the second half of last season, meaning new Owls head coach Stuart Gray put his faith in Mattock.
The Leicester-born defender impressed Gray enough for him to allow Johnson to leave over the summer, and the Owls look a far tighter defensive unit this season.
They came so close to recording a fourth successive clean sheet, only to concede a ‘95th-minute’ equaliser to Millwall on Tuesday night, and Mattock has been integral in that success as part of a new-look back five.
Now Mattock hopes to cement the left-back spot as his own, and kick-start a career which has meandered with loan spells at Sheffield United, Portsmouth and Brighton, since that big-money move to the Baggies in 2009.
“It’s hard work (not being in the team), mentally as well as physically,” said Mattock, a former England Under-21 international.
“When I first came I was working hard on the training pitch, but wasn’t really in favour.
“You just have to keep your head down, like I did, keep training hard and, obviously, it has paid off. Now I am playing and all I am thinking about is keep playing games and keep in the side.
“I have got Jeremy (Helan) who is also in my position, so it’s good competition. He’s also an attacking full-back, who can also play left wing, so it keeps me on my toes and I like that.
“I am not too sure why I wasn’t playing. Obviously, managers have their choices. Reda was here, he was a fans’ favourite – no doubt about that – and was a good player.
“He got us goals, which is a bit different for a left-back. At the time we weren’t getting as many wins, and he was getting the goals.
“If we were getting a win he was contributing to the goals.
“But I have worked with the gaffer before, at Portsmouth when I went on loan, and he was a fan of me playing at left-back so there was a change there (in the summer).
“I feel like I have contributed okay, I feel a lot fitter than last year. I am capable of getting up and down the pitch, like Stuart wants us to do, and work my socks off, ensuring I have nothing left to give at the end of the game.
“I am gradually getting back to my best form. I had a good start to my career, it’s dipped, but now I am getting games I feel like I can kick on again.
“The dip was probably just form. Also, when you go to a team and don’t play, you just have to keep mentally strong. When I was younger, maybe I wasn’t as mentally strong as I am now.”
The Owls kicked off the season with victory at Brighton, before successive Hillsborough draws in the Championship against Derby County and in-form Millwall.
It has been a good start and continues the impressive work Gray produced in saving the Owls from relegation after taking over from Jones last season.
“Stuart wants us to be physical, have good stamina, close down teams a lot – not let them play – but, obviously, we want to play football, too,” said Mattock. “We don’t want to just hoof the ball up; we are passing it, getting it wide and getting crosses in.
“He is very positive, he doesn’t just want us to play square and backwards.
“Pre-season work makes a big difference. You need to be fit, as the game is changing and it’s a lot faster and you need to be in good shape from the first game.
“We have been working on a lot in training, our talking, communication and feeling comfortable together. If you feel comfortable about the player next to you, you feel a lot more confident going to close a ball down. You know if you get beaten, your team-mate is going to be behind you.”
This approach has reaped its rewards this season, the only setback so far being Magaye Gueye’s late goal which brought a 1-1 draw on Tuesday night.
He said: “We came off Millwall with a point and we are still unbeaten at home.
“In the dressing room afterwards, it felt like we had lost the game, because we had put so much effort in, but at the last minute they took two points away from us.
“We are still unbeaten and just have to look forward to the next game.”
With 100 miles between Sheffield and Middlesbrough, it is hardly a derby for two clubs on opposite sides of Yorkshire.
But with Boro manager Aitor Karanka having assembled a good squad at the Riverside, Mattock expects a tough test of Wednesday’s new-found defensive resolve.
“Boro were struggling for a couple of years, but there are now some really strong teams in the Championship,” said Mattock.
“They are strong, have some quick players, and we have been working on the training ground on how to stop them.
“We will go for the win, but if we don’t get the win, we aim to come back with a point. We don’t want to come back with nothing.”