Matt Jarvis never played for England’s under 21 side. That probably didn’t come as a huge shock to him – he hadn’t been called up for the under 19s or the under 17s either. But this week, at the age of 24, Jarvis was named in Fabio Capello’s squad and will surely become the 1,173rd man to represent England at senior international level. His story is a triumph of will and a testament to the virtues of hard work.
Hard work and discipline. They’re not the first qualities you think of when assessing a flying winger. However, as someone who has watched nearly all Jarvis’ 126 appearances for Wolves since joining in June 2007, I can tell you that this is what strikes you about him before long. And it’s chiefly because of the way his game has developed over the past four years.
Jarvis arrived at Molineux to operate on the opposite flank to Michael Kightly who had impressed in the previous season. Unfortunately, despite showing promise, it was an injury-hit debut season in which he struggled to get an extended run in the side. McCarthy occasionally favoured utility-man Stephen Ward – a player perceived to be more likely to adhere to the manager’s mantra of “putting a shift in.”
Even in the club’s title-winning 2008-09 season, Jarvis began the campaign on the bench with Ward seen as the counter-balance to the marauding Kightly. It was only when both wingers were unleashed, most notably in the 5-1 thrashing of Nottingham Forest, that Wolves emerged as genuine promotion candidates. But Jarvis remained a crowd thriller rather than an obviously effective performer.
His three goals and nine assists that season saw him outshone by Kightly on the other flank who contributed eight goals and an astonishing 21 assists. Jarvis had no problem finding the byline. But his left-footed crosses would invariably be stabbed towards the near post, while cutting inside regularly resulted in a mishit shot trickling into the keepers’ hands. You sensed he could do better.
The Premier League brought that improvement. And the progress has been conspicuous in a variety of ways. He may have been aided by the increased freedom afforded by Wolves’ 4-5-1 formation but Jarvis appreciated immediately the importance of tracking back to help his under pressure defence. At Wigan in August 2009, one lung-busting 80 yard dash to help double up on Charles N’Zogbia helped secure the three points late on. No longer was the young winger a luxury player but instead a necessity.
Jarvis’ technique has also improved in line with his mental strength. As Lee Dixon has pointed out, Jarvis regularly works on slowing the full-back down to a standstill, only to then speed him up again to find that yard for the cross. And those crosses are getting better – as indicated by the fact he now plays a role in dead-ball duties at the club. He is a more potent goal threat for his side too – despite playing in a higher league this will be the fourth year in a row in which Jarvis has improved his goal tally. All the clear result of hours spent on the training ground.
Mick McCarthy is certainly unambiguous about the reasons for the player’s improvement. He acknowledged: “If there is a criticism that has been levelled against Matt, it’s that he doesn’t score enough goals. What I like – and always will – is that he has taken it on board, gone on to the training ground and spent a long time with my assistant, Terry Connor, and done something about it. It has not just happened. Matt works constantly at his game. He is a great lad – straightforward, very honest and puts in a real day’s work.”
In an era in which footballers can sometimes feel like they’ve made it by the age of 18, it’s encouraging to see a player working on his game in his mid-20s. Don’t expect Jarvis to stop now. It may sound trivial but recent matches have seen him introduce a step-over trick to his game. He developed it in training – now he is implementing it.
If Matt Jarvis does get on the pitch for England at some point over the next week, people should not expect the finished article. What they can be sure of is that every time they see him play they’ll be seeing a better player than the one they saw last time. And I’d say that’s just about all anyone could ask.