Less than ten minutes into Lincoln City’s Checkatrade Trophy Final with Shrewsbury, Matt Rhead had been painted as the pantomime villain.
He collided with Dean Henderson, seemingly on purpose, and earned the derision of the football world. The incident was described as a forearm smash, with images of Harold Schumacher’s 1982 assault on Patrick Battison conjured up for those old enough to remember it.
The incident only served to heighten the public perception of Rhead, a monster of a man with a reputation as a bruiser and nothing more than the targets of Lincoln’s long-ball tactics.
His dust up with Joey Barton in the FA Cup the year before earned him cult status, but the Wembley final served to bolster his reputation, certainly amongst lower league fans.
Whilst there are elements to Rhead’s game that many find frustrating, the picture of aggressive thug is one that has been painted incorrectly. He does go down too easily for a big lump and he is one to get in the referee’s ear, but he is not a thug and the Henderson incident may have been analysed a little too much.
In that fateful clash it appears as though Rhead looks at Henderson, raises his arms and deliberately smashes the on-loan keeper in the face. In slow motion the evidence is damning, but in real time not so much. Rhead is going through on the keeper, but after a nudge in the back from the defender he looks up, anticipates a collision and raises his arms to protect himself.
That is a train of thought that doesn’t fit the narrative, but those who know Matt Rhead know he wouldn’t deliberately injure another player.
Rhead is a football fan himself, before his professional career took off he held a season ticket at Stoke City and in printed programme notes at Sincil Bank last season he revealed that is exactly where he’ll spend his Saturdays after his career finishes.
As well as that, he’s also a very gifted footballer, capable of moments of extreme skill and poise. He doesn’t move quickly, often not at all, but what he lacks in agility he makes up for in vision. He’s scored some goals that would grace the top flight during his Lincoln tenure, including an overhead kick from eighteen yards out on an angle.
When managers have stopped berating him for his few faults, they’ve managed to praise his all-round impact too. For a man who worked in a JCB factory until he was 28, he’s certainly made the most of his short career.
At 34 it would seem his days are numbered at Sincil Bank, but he’s proven critics wrong time and again, written off by fans when Danny Cowley joined the club in 2016, when Lincoln earned promotion in 2017 and by some in 2018 after John Akinde arrived. He’s played 145 times for Lincoln in a three-season stay and scored 45 goals. Not bad for a guy who worked shifts into his late twenties.
It would be a huge shame if football were to retain the image of Matt Rhead the aggressive thug, because nothing could be further from the truth. He is like you and I, a fan of football, a follower of his club and a guy who knows what it is to work eight until five and then knock off for a wet Tuesday night in Stoke.
In fact, he knows it better than any of us ever will.