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From training with Inter Milan on reality TV and playing at Anfield to Boreham Wood - The life and times of Connor Smith

The Irish midfielder finished second in the Football’s Next Star TV series, and talks to The42 about his career thus far against an FA Cup reunion with his former side today.

WE ARE PRETTY sure Connor Smith is the only player to train with Patrick Vieira and Marco Materazzi under the raffish gaze of Jose Mourinho and then play an NDSL game for Mullingar Athletic across the space of 48 hours. 

“It summed up how much I loved football, I just wanted to play”, he tells The42

That love of football has broadly held firm. 

You may not know Smith by how he looks and sounds nowadays – hirsute, with his Irish accent swamped by a decade in England – but you may recognise the name. His training session with Vieira and co. was at Inter Milan’s training ground and the centrepiece of the finale of a Sky One reality TV show, Football’s Next Star

Smith made it to the final two, competing with Ben Greenhalgh in a first-team practice match to impress club coaches and earn a six-month professional contract at Inter Milan. He ultimately missed out and Greenhalgh earned the deal, though Smith remains a full-time professional and has had the most successful career of any of the show’s 10 finalists.

Source: BlaStuff/YouTube

Greenhalgh is playing semi-professionally now, having also earned money as a body double for Cristiano Ronaldo and as a pro golfer on the PGA circuit. (He was given a Champions League medal at Inter after the 2010 victory against Bayern, but lost it when he used it as a golf ball marker a few years later.) 

Smith, meanwhile, played in the Championship with Watford and is now pushing for promotion back to League Two with London side Boreham Wood. He will be involved against his former side AFC Wimbledon in the FA Cup third round later today, though injury means he will be restricted to the dug-out and to the latter half of his current title of player-coach. 

12,000 teenagers applied for Football’s Next Star, and Smith didn’t show up at the first trial with any starry-eyed thoughts of a manifest destiny. 

“Me and my pal saw an ad for it on the TV and said we’d apply, but it was just for a laugh really. I wasn’t going there thinking I’d half a chance of doing really well. It was a case of going for a laugh, and it’s a day of kicking a football around. 

“I knew I was good, but there were 12,000 kids at the trials. I didn’t expect to be in the top 100, never mind in the top 10 who went to Italy.”

Smith made the first cut, and was among the 40 hopefuls brought to Watford to impress the coaches and advance beyond the winnowing of the contestants to a final 10. He succeeded. 

“We had a great time. Young lads staying in a villa on Lake Como…there was a lot to be happy about.

“We met Mourinho when we went out there. He’s still an unbelievable manager now but at that point he was the top manager in the world. He won the Champions League that season we were there. There was an aura about him, he is very charismatic. He spoke to us about the standard stuff about working hard, but he did say to try and have as much character as you can, on and off the pitch.” 

The group spent five weeks in Milan with players eliminated each week. Smith survived to the end, with the final examination a training match among the Inter Milan first-team in which he and Greenhalgh went head-to-head. 

“Of course it was a giant step up. They were sharp, strong and powerful; I was a 16 year old lad playing with Mullingar Athletic. We played with the U19s the week before and they were a phenomenal standard. But they went onto win the Champions League that season so they were literally the best team in Europe. I tried to enjoy it. I told myself that if this doesn’t happen again, I can at least say I trained with them once. Vieira and Materazzi stood out – just their size and their presence. I grew up watching Vieria, and was lucky enough to get a signed Vieria Inter shirt which I’ve got hung up at home.”

In the end, Greenhalgh won the contract. 

“I definitely no bitterness about not winning. I just went to the trial with my mate for a laugh. If I got to the last 40 and didn’t get further I’d have been pleased. I was ecstatic to get that far. I took it week-by-week, I was never too worried in terms of going home. I’d have been gutted but I didn’t put too much pressure on myself because I was happy with what I’d done.”

Nonetheless, the show opened up avenues elsewhere. Watford instantly invited him on a six-week trial that was to start eight days after he left Milan, giving Smith time to play twice for Mullingar Athletic. A Stoke City scout approached Smith’s father after the second game. “My parents told me I shouldn’t play the second game. Looking back it was a terrible decision to play but thankfully I didn’t get injured.” 

soccer-capital-one-cup-second-round-preston-north-end-v-watford-deepdale Smith in action for Watford in the League Cup, 2015. Source: Dave Thompson

Smith impressed at Watford: brought to the fringes of the first-team by Malky Mackay and given a first pro contract by Sean Dyche. The club was then taken over by the Pozzo family, Dyche departed but Gianfranco Zola arrived to give Smith his first-team debut. 

“Zola came in and he is probably my favourite manager I’ve had, in terms of his work on the grass. A lot of players came and went but luckily I had a good pre-season and he liked me. Watford gave me a four-year contract, along with other young guys like Tommie Hoban and Sean Murray.

“First game of the season, I made my debut at Selhurst Park. It was going well, I was in most matchday squads and played eight or nine times until November came. And as the typical story goes, I had a bad knee injury. I was out for 18 months in total: when I was about to come back, I did my knee again.

“By the time I came back, halfway through the next season, we were struggling a bit. I played a couple of games and then Zola got sacked. Then it was a managerial merry go round.”

Zola was replaced by compatriot Bebe Sannino, who lasted five months and to the end of the 2013/14 season and five games into the following season. The 27-day reign of his successor Oscar Garcia seemed an age of empire in comparison to what followed next: Billy McKinley was appointed and sacked within eight days. Slavisa Jokanovic then came in and led the club back to the Premier League. (For which he was, of course, sacked.) 

With Zola gone, Smith found himself jettisoned.

“Different managers just wanted different things. And to keep impressing different managers is tough. But if the takeover doesn’t happen, Zola doesn’t come in and I may not get a four-year contract. You can’t change anything in life and I wouldn’t, I had some great times there. Football is a strange industry and you need luck to continue at a level like that, and it is all opinion-based.” 

Watford went to the Premier League and Smith dropped to League Two, leaving permanently for AFC Wimbledon midway through the 15/16 season. Smith played at Wembley in Wimbledon’s League Two playoff victory against Plymouth, but having not agreed a new deal, then left for Plymouth, for whom he scored against Wimbledon, secured another promotion, and ticked off a lifelong ambition by playing at Anfield in the FA Cup third round.

“I’m a Liverpool fan, so if I could cherry-pick an FA Cup draw it would be Liverpool away.” Plymouth drew 0-0 against what was then the youngest-ever Liverpool side picked, though it included future stars like Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez while Daniel Sturridge, Roberto Firmino and Adam Lallana all came off the bench. 

liverpool-v-plymouth-argyle-emirates-fa-cup-third-round-anfield Jurgen Klopp greets Plymouth manager Derek Adams after their side's FA Cup meeting at Anfield. Source: Martin Rickett

Smith played the last 25 minutes but peer pressure meant he didn’t touch the This is Anfield sign on his way out. 

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“Being a Liverpool fan I really wanted to do it, but among your team-mates before the match you’re a bit iffy about doing it. I don’t think anyone got a shirt. They were refurbishing the Main Stand so their dressing room was miles from ours. They were probably thinking, ‘We’ve got to go to Plymouth now on a Tuesday night’, so it’s no issue. They got themselves off the pitch quickly.

“But I got a nice picture of Klopp shaking my hand. That’s one that is printed out and framed at home. That is phenomenal for me.” 

Smith missed the replay, having picked up an injury in a league game with Stevenage a few days before the renewal of acquaintances. He describes Plymouth as his favourite year in football but what followed next was his worst: a two-year stint at Yeovil that was ended halfway-through. 

yeovil-town-v-coventry-city-sky-bet-league-two-huish-park Smith in action for Yeovil. Source: EMPICS Sport

“I became disillusioned with football. I am the furthest thing from a bad egg in a dressing room, but the manager and I didn’t get on. We had a young group, out of the 21s, and they were great lads, but I was a big personality in the dressing room. We didn’t have a successful year, and because of my age, my experience and I’d been around successful teams, I felt I was made a scapegoat.

“I had no issue with that, I was happy to be that person if it helped the younger lads, but I didn’t want to spend two years as that person. After the first year I made the decision to move back closer to Watford.” 

Boreham Wood proved the destination, and Smith is now in his second spell at the club, though his first as a player-coach. 

“I’m 29 next month, it’s not an age at which people usually go looking for coaching roles but I didn’t want to pass the opportunity up because I know how good the manager [Luke Garrard] is. One of the best I’ve worked it, second-best after Zola. I want to learn as much as I can with an eye on going into management down the line.” 

A career in England’s lower leagues may not have been the instant prospect when Smith was at Inter, but he has no regrets. 

“I don’t have any regrets about anything. I’ve enjoyed my journey, I have met some great people and had some great successes. 

“Everyone looks back at every level and wouldn’t if they could have done better, but I wouldn’t change anything. It’s the same mindset: I went to the trial for the TV show as a laugh, and anything else was a bonus.

“When I first went on trial at Watford, I’d have taken the two year scholarship contract and then come back to Ireland for my Leaving Cert and uni.

“I have had a lot of bonuses along the way.”

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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