From Everton’s academy to the Challenge Cup final: St Helens coach who played with Wayne Rooney on his remarkable journey

Ross Heppenstall
Matty Smith St Helens Wayne Rooney

Matty Smith played alongside Wayne Rooney in Everton's academy | Photo: St Helens RFC

Matty Smith enjoyed a distinguished career as a scheming scrum-half after honing his footballing skills during three years in Everton’s junior ranks alongside Wayne Rooney.

Smith then graduated through the vaunted academy at St Helens before becoming a master of his craft and serial trophy winner at deadly rivals Wigan Warriors.

A St Helens lad, Smith later returned for a second stint in the Red V before hanging up his boots at the end of last season following a spell at Widnes Vikings.

Now Smith is carving out a growing reputation in the coaching ranks, having taken over St Helens women’s team at the start of 2023.

Smith’s side will face Leeds Rhinos on Saturday in the first women’s Challenge Cup final to be played at Wembley alongside the men’s final.

The 36-year-old is also part of Paul Wellens’ coaching staff as the men’s team chase a record-extending fifth successive Super League title.

“Taking the St Helens women’s team has just been a fantastic opportunity for me,” Smith told Love Rugby League.

“When Mike Rush (chief executive) approached me about taking the job, I actually couldn’t say yes quickly enough.

“Being back involved with this great club is brilliant because I get to coach the women and assist Wello too.

“I’m full-time with the men during the day and coach the girls in the evening, so I’m a busy man!

“But I’ve learnt so much in a short space of time from all the lads and from great coaches in Wello, Laurent Frayssinous and Ian Talbot.

“I love coaching the women and making tough decisions over selection as a head coach, so for me it’s just about continuing to develop and get better.

“This weekend is an unbelievable opportunity for our women’s team and women’s rugby league in general.

“Jodie Cunningham mentioned the other day about playing in a Challenge Cup final at Batley in 2013 – and now she’s playing at Wembley.

“10 years down the line, to be playing at your national stadium, is what we want for these girls and the women’s game.

“The stage doesn’t get any bigger and I know they’re going to go out and give it everything they’ve got on Saturday against a very good Leeds Rhinos side.”

That’s probably my claim to fame – I played with Wayne Rooney!’ – Matty Smith

Wayne Rooney Everton Alamy Wayne Rooney in action for Everton in 2002

Challenge Cup final weeks tend to throw up some interesting stories and Smith’s is certainly one of the more intriguing.

The boyhood Saints fan remembered: “As a young lad, I played rugby league and football.

“I was at Wigan Athletic first and then got signed by Everton when I was 12.

“I got released by Everton when I was 15… just before they started paying us!

“Of the 25 lads in the squad, I think only five got kept on.

“But I was lucky in that I got to experience training and playing with Wayne Rooney.

“He was a year older than me but on Saturday mornings we would train against them.

“But a couple of times they would mix the teams up a bit, so I got to play up front with Wayne.

“He was obviously special back then – he was unbelievable – and was always going to be a good player.

“But to do what he went on to achieve was sensational.

“That’s probably my claim to fame – I played with Wayne Rooney.

“For me, the football just didn’t work out so I turned to rugby league and didn’t look back really.

“Things happened pretty quickly after I joined St Helens on scholarship before being signed on.

“Playing football definitely helped me with my kicking game in rugby league, which as a half-back is massively important.

“Also just being in that elite environment for three years at Everton, at such a young age, definitely helped set me up for when I joined St Helens.

“At Everton I got to experience playing abroad and I just think it’s good to enjoy different sports.

“My little lad plays rugby now and that helps him with his football.

“Likewise, playing football helps him with his rugby, as it did with me.”

Coming through the ranks in one of the greatest ever Super League teams

Leon Pryce and Matty Smith St Helens Alamy Matty Smith (centre) celebrates a St Helens try with Leon Pryce (left) and Lee Gilmour (right)

Smith made his debut for Saints in 2006, the year the club won a glorious treble under Daniel Anderson with one of the greatest sides in Super League history.

“To come through at that time was special,” said Smith.

“I wasn’t getting much game-time, but learning from Sean Long, Leon Pryce, Keiron Cunningham and Paul Sculthorpe was unbelievable. It was a special squad.”

10 years on from winning the Lance Todd Trophy at Wembley

Matty Smith Wigan Warriors Alamy Matty Smith won the Lance Todd Trophy with Wigan Warriors in the 2013 Challenge Cup final

Smith’s most successful spell as a player was under Shaun Wane at Wigan, where he won two Super League Grand Finals in 2013 and 2016.

A decade ago, Smith won the Lance Todd Trophy as man of the match in the 2013 Challenge Cup final as Wigan defeated Hull FC 16-0 at Wembley.

“That was the only time I played at Wembley,” said Smith.

“It was raining and I remember waking up that morning and thinking ‘this suits me down to the ground, I’ll kick them to death’.

“When I look back at my career, I played for England and in Grand Finals but because I only got to play at Wembley once, it was probably the best thing I ever did.

“That’s why I’ll be telling our girls this weekend to savour every moment because it’s going to be an incredibly special occasion.”

Matty Smith loving his time in the coaches’ box

Leigh Leopards winger Josh Charnley and St Helens assistant coach Matty Smith Leigh Leopards winger Josh Charnley (left) with former Wigan Warriors team-mate and current St Helens assistant coach Matty Smith (right) after the Challenge Cup semi-final

Smith has thrived in his dual role with St Helens and is open-minded about the future.

His old Everton contemporary Rooney, 37, is making his name as a football manager, having taken on his current role at MLS side DC United after impressing at Derby County.

Smith reasoned: “I think you’ve got to dream big, haven’t you?

“I know my place at the minute and I know I’ve got to take my time with it.

“I’ve been around the game a long time and the best coaches I’ve worked with served apprenticeships, were assistant coaches and worked their way up.

“I understand that and don’t want to rush into anything.

“I know I’m a head coach now with the women but, in terms of how I progress, I have to do it gradually.

“But I’m certainly loving both roles at the moment and long may it continue.”

READ NEXT: Leeds Rhinos star praises St Helens’ ‘role model’ Jodie Cunningham ahead of historic Wembley Challenge Cup final