Steve Ovett leads tributes to Matt Paterson

Monday 19th July 2021

Steve Ovett pays tribute to Phoenix co-founder Matt Paterson

I've been walking around for the last day or so after the funeral; disoriented, unsettled as if I needed to rebalance myself somehow. It's the loss. Something I knew was coming but hadn't as yet accepted. Matt had finally gone and our friendship was over. Selfishly I was a little bit angry. Something that couldn't be replaced had gone forever. 

I walked into the funeral and just fell apart realising how much I was going to miss Matt. So many memories and the short period of time I had to try and explain how much Matt meant to me. Again selfish. But that was the difference between us. He was never that way. His greatest gift was continually giving his time and energy to others. 

Yes he could be stubborn, uncompromising, cantankerous and a bloody pain in the backside sometimes but he never ever lost sight of trying to bring out the best in others through his teaching and coaching. The countless heartfelt tributes from around the world are a wonderful testament to that. Couple that drive with his laughter, smiling face, bandy legs, and a very dry sense of humour and that was Matt Paterson. 

I do not believe in fate but for some reason we were meant to be brought together. Matt's tenacity, his unrelenting desire to get the best out of people is what I needed. I had the talent but very little drive, he had the intuition to see this at the time and had the determination and patience to help. It was the perfect combination. The countless hours we spent together running over the wonderful South Downs, around the parks and roads of Brighton in all type of weather are memories that will never fade. The times l would crumple and stop running because of one of his jokes or comments only for him to take advantage and surge ahead laughing. Or the fact that he truly believed he could sprint never failed to bring a smile to my face. 

My father once said that to succeed against hard opposition you had to be tested against something harder, Matt was that Scottish forge for me. 

Matt was a proud man of many things in his life. His family, his friends and his club Phoenix. It wasn't easy for Matt to take the leap of faith and form a new club in Brighton. He put up with a lot of criticism and animosity, but that just hardened his resolve to push ahead with his idea to have a club that was for all ages, all talents and aimed to bring out the best in everyone. Even though my name was attached to the club at the beginning it was only through Matt's hard work and a few of the other founders like the Biggs, D'Arienzos, Burchalls, Lassetters and others, not forgetting of course the "Captain" Paul Collicutt that the club came into being. 

Matt loved going back to Brighton from Australia. He would show up at Withdean and bask in the atmosphere of the club, mixing it with all the young athletes and catching up with really old friends. He'd phone soon after and regale me with various stories, in particular how he could still lead them all in a hill session or 1000's but never indicating for how far! 

He was so proud of the club. 

It's helped me somewhat to write these words about Matt, I'm still dazed and not yet centred. But I know what he would have said "Come on boy, take your time, be patient, work harder at what you want to achieve, never give in, be the best you can be." 

Words I'm sure he would have said to any young Phoenix athlete who would have asked for help.


As a club, we are truly taken aback by the number of tributes which have been sent to us to remember Matt. A selection of these are below - we hope they paint a picture of the man he was.

Bridget Barbour (nee Smyth), GB International, National Champion at XC and track, club record holder 800m, 1500m, is now living in the States but remembers those morning runs well:

“Talking to Matt last week (after 35 years) was time travel like no other. It’s like I was lying in bed with a cup of tea at 710 with exactly 5 mins to get shoes on and out of the door coz the hammer on the door was coming for a run before school. Rain, snow, shine we kept on running. What days those were! Such an amazing group of runners riding the wave of Matt Paterson in the early days of Phoenix AC. He was a genius at getting the best out of people, putting them through the mangle of Withdean Park 600s and 1000s ,the dreaded long hills session and 3,2,1 on the track, Saturday night runs and double back Sunday morning .. and night and it didn’t feel like work. 

“I remember being about 13 at the house on Harrington Villas writing my goal times for the season which I pinned on the wall, we got those and beyond. Matt was the Sun in our running solar system , drawing people in and keeping them in orbit with good times, camaraderie and a level of smack that’s, frankly, been hard to match. 

“I remember those best golden days fondly, it dominated my life but in reality it was all too short! So grateful to Matt for his love of running, coaching and his pure determinism and straight talk.

“Condolences to Sharon, and to  Lorraine Fiona, Andrew and Anders whose Dad gave so much to his craft. He was so proud of you kids when we spoke. 

“I would say Rest In Peace but you’re probably timing 400s whatever the afterlife is.”

Olympic Bronze medallist, UK and club record holder 3km steeplechase and now head coach at Nike Oregon Elite, Mark Rowland, said he could not possibly express on paper what he was truly feeling about Matt but he did put down some thoughts.

“I can see the glint in his smile as I write this! Being honest with his opinions was never too far from the conversation.

“However, he loved and was loved by many of us in the early stages of the Phoenix Club at such an influential and key period in our lives, installing life skills and attributes through his mentorship with abrupt convictions in unearthing the talent we may have had…. 

“Steve [Ovett] may have been the flagship, shining lights and paintwork of the vehicle but Matt was without doubt the engine that kept chugging along everyday!

“He knew what he meant to many of us and I was grateful to have been able to tell him so. “

Ronnie D’Arienzo, national medallist at 800m wrote:

“My running days at Phoenix withMatt and a special group of human beings was one of the happiest and most rewarding times of my life. These were my formative years and it was Matt that moulded me into the person that I am today. From him, I learnt how to win and I learnt how to lose. I understood that good things come from hard work and having the right attitude. I learnt how to apply myself and he taught me how to be the best I could be. And Matt managed to do all of this for not just me, but for so many other people. But maybe most importantly, he  made me understand that enjoying life and having fun was equally as important and ensured I and we lived for those moments. “

John Lassetter was one of the 5 founding members of the club. He recalled Matt…

“Firstly it was his work ethic. We all hear the ‘you get out what you put in’ phrase, but with Matt it was more about the time he would invest in you. if you showed him that you wanted to work hard and achieve, regardless of your ability, then he would give up his time. I remember him asking me about what training I had done on a particular day. I hadn't trained that day! I said "I didn't have time to train" his was reply was simple: "so in that whole day, you couldn't find half an hour to go for a run?" Of course it was a loaded question. because the answer is of course yes I could have, but I didn't bother. I never fell for that one again!!

“Secondly, it was his sense of humour. From the outside, people saw him as a hard nosed, gruff Scotsman, but when you new him he was the opposite and with a great sense of humour, We were in Stavanger, Norway and I was racing my brother over 800m. This was the first time we had raced each other as seniors. On paper I was faster than Mark but the sibling rivalry was huge and Mark was no slouch. Matt came to me and said "I bet you £5 you don't beat Mark" I took the bet. Little did I know he had done the same to Mark. I won, but I had to run as hard as I ever had. At the end of the race he went up to Mark and said "give that £5 to John".

Dave Agnew, English International, British Colleges and British Police 800m Champion can still hear Matt’s words reverberating in his head. For him he always has a special place for Matt’s reaction as Phoenix won the Sussex 4 x 400m championship for the first time telling everyone in no uncertain terms that “Yes we are a track club” and don’t forget it . “You’ve only gone and done it Big Dave…we smashed them!” 

Peter Webster writes:
“My first contact with Matt was a telephone conversation in late summer 1983 – this was long before the internet was a thing.  Realizing that I had run out of school sports days, and wanting to run competitively, fifteen year-old me looked up local athletics clubs in the yellow pages, and dialled the number for Phoenix AC from my parents’ home in Seaford.  I asked if I could join the club.  A soon to be familiar Scottish accent answered, and described the training regime: “On a Wednesday we’re at the track, and on a Sunday we run in the park, and sometimes we do HEELS…”  HEELS?  What?

So I started at the club, and the Sunday morning Park sessions became part of my life.  I loved the club – the people, the training, the excitement, and the feeling of being at your physical best.  And Matt was at the centre of all that.  But they were eyeballs-out sessions, at least for me.  And I kept wondering, ‘When are we going to do those HEEL things?  This stuff is hard enough – God only knows what the heels will be like.’  I imagined a drill involving some form of devilish contortion whilst running at speed.  Then one Sunday morning, the dreaded moment arrived.  It was time for the HEELS.  It turned out this involved running several times up a steep slope.  Hard, but not as hard as I’d imagined.

At that time, Matt’s catch phrase was ‘Train hard if you want to be good’, and this became the club’s unofficial motto.  But there was a lot more to him than that, and as I’ve got older, I’ve realized what a canny coach he was.  He had a knack for figuring out what sort of runner you were, and giving you sessions that would bring out your best.  And despite the catch phrase, he knew when to get you to back off.  He also had that rare talent for inspiring people to achieve more than they thought they could.  In my mind this is something that transcends sport.”

From Welsh International Phil Marsh:
“Matt was such a fantastic person, and it was such a privilege to have been part of his coaching group. It's funny to think that someone I first saw on the 'Ovett' documentary in 1982 would become such an influence on me.
Matt was such a funny man with a great sense of humour, and I look back with fond memories of time spent with him, particularly when a few of us went to Portugal in 1991 for a week's warm weather training. My ribs were aching at the end, largely through laughing so much at Matt!
A great man who will be sorely missed by everyone who ever knew him.”

Steve King, a former National Coach and coach to so many International athletes in and around Sussex, wrote to the club to say the following,

"So sad to hear of Matt's passing but pleased to see that people are keen to give him the credit for his enormous contribution to our sport.
I remember him primarily as the workhorse that made Steves training more palatable...and everyone knew that he was giving selflessly to make someone else great probably at his own expense...because I am old enough to remember him as a very good athlete in his own right!
Both he and I both had our differences with the ethos at the local club and I left to become independent as I remain today but Matt went a step further and set up a model that was revolutionary at the time but certainly  has stood the test of time.
I hope and assume your club knows and appreciate the legacy he created....
All other things aside I liked Matt...and realise as a coach what he achieved.
My best wishes to all his family.....and his extended athletics family.”


Matt and Steve