Matty Cash is on the brink of playing right-back for Poland – a country where he wasn’t born and a position he once didn’t want to play.
But unexpected turns are a common theme for a player who went from selling toys in Windsor to rising from League Two to the Premier League.
Now a regular for Aston Villa, he is in the Poland squad for Friday’s World Cup qualifier against Andorra,
Yet at 16, he was without a club after being released by Wycombe.
“He was lost,” his dad Stuart Cash told BBC Sport.
“My wife and I sent him to work at Daniel Department Store, we wanted him to experience that real working life and it was fantastic for him. It gave him a sense of life without football, having come so close.
“I remember sitting down with him and saying ‘look, if you want to go and work in Daniel’s or get a job elsewhere, me and your mum will support you, but you’ve got too much talent on a football pitch to do that’.
“From there he knew what he had to do. That job gave him the motivation to say ‘I don’t want to do this, I want to become a footballer’.”
‘I made them do laps around a two-acre green’
Slough-born Cash – eligible to play for Poland through his mother Barbara – was awarded citizenship in October, before receiving his first call-up in November. He will now link up with Bayern Munich’s prolific forward Robert Lewandowski, Juventus goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny and Leeds United midfielder Mateusz Klich.
With Stuart a former Chesterfield full-back, elder brother Adam a semi-professional with Northwood FC in non-league and a sister on a golf scholarship in America, sport is very much in the Cash blood.
“I’ve always told him the truth, good or bad,” Stuart added.
“When he was younger, if I thought he or his brother hadn’t put enough effort into their football game that weekend I used to bring them home, get my stopwatch out and make them do laps around a two-acre green near our house.
“I used to say to them ‘every time me and your mum have to sacrifice our weekends and you don’t put effort in, this is what you’ll be doing’.
“I’m not one of those dads who will just be nice. If he or his siblings need a kick up the backside I’m there to do it and if they deserve a pat on the back, I’ll do that too.”
The ‘perfect modern-day full-back’ who started in midfield
These days Cash is a right-back by trade, but that hasn’t always been the case.
After reigniting his football career at the Bisham Abbey-based FAB football academy, Cash was picked up by Nottingham Forest, the club at which he would grow into the “perfect modern-day full-back”.
“We took him on trial after playing in a friendly against Bisham Abbey,” said Nottingham Forest academy manager Gary Brazil.
“His enthusiasm and desire to get around the pitch really grabbed us. He initially came in as a midfielder and he was one where, after a few minutes we thought ‘wow, we’ve got a footballer here’.
“He was one of those players where we thought we could definitely go on a journey together and achieve something.”
It was a journey that began in east London as League Two strugglers Dagenham & Redbridge took the 17-year-old attacking midfielder on loan for the latter stages of the 2016-17 season.
“He came back much better for the experience,” said Brazil.
“It was a chance for him to learn about the ‘real’ game and the demands of men’s football and he came back knowing he could handle that environment.”
Cash returned to the City Ground and made his first-team debut for Forest the following season.
But it wasn’t until the 2019-20 season – where an injury crisis called for cover at the back – that defending became his full-time role.
“I’ve got (ex-Forest boss) Sabri Lamouchi to thank for turning me into a full-back,” Cash told the EFL last year.
“I remember being told I was playing right-back in a pre-season friendly and I didn’t want to do it. I’d never done it before but it worked and now I love playing there.”
Cash spent five seasons at Forest and was named player of the season in 2019-20, before signing a five-year deal at Villa Park in September 2020 following a £16m move, going on to make 40 appearances.
‘It wasn’t long ago he may not have been a footballer’
Cash’s energetic and attacking displays at right-back, as well as his stunning strike against Everton in September for his first Villa goal, have lifted his profile and, in turn, raised the prospect of an international career.
“We spoke about him potentially playing for Poland when he signed for Villa, we’ve always talked about progression,” Stuart said.
“We always talk about what the next step is, even now. Five years ago it was to experience first-team football, then it was to establish himself in the first team at Forest, then it was the Premier League and now it’s the international stage. It’s all going to plan really.”
Dedicated and hard-working on the pitch, Cash remains grounded off it, according to those who know him.
“He’s a smashing lad,” said Brazil.
“Take away the football, he’s a wonderful kid who has a really positive effect on those around him. He lights up a room when he walks in and has a lovely attitude to life. He’ll continue to get better because he has the right character and works hard.”
Dad Stuart added: “He knows he’s in a privileged position.
“His feet are firmly on the ground. It wasn’t long ago he may not have even been a footballer, but it just goes to show what you can achieve.
“He still goes back to Daniel’s now and he always says to me ‘dad, remember when I used to work there?’
“That’s him reflecting on how far he’s come. He often says working there was the best thing he ever did because it helped him to get to where he wanted to be.”