Southampton midfielder Will Smallbone. Alamy Stock Photo
Class Act

'He's been to hell and back' - The Ireland star on verge of Premier League

Will Smallbone is at the heart of Southampton’s bid for victory over Leeds United in today’s Championship play-off final at Wembley.

WILL SMALLBONE HAD a choice to make around this time last year.

It felt as though his time at boyhood club Southampton was coming to an end.

An impressive loan spell at Stoke City during the 2022/23 campaign caught the eye of various teams as well as former Republic of Ireland boss Stephen Kenny.

Smallbone made his senior debut against Latvia and continued to thrive at Stoke, where first-team coach John O’Shea took a particular interest and put extra demands on the midfielder, bringing him in for additional video analysis sessions to try and break down his game and make him more effective.

The pair clicked but, as is so often the way, their paths would split.

For a time, anyway.

Heading into last summer, Smallbone’s contract was running out at Southampton.

They had suffered relegation from the Premier League after finishing bottom and a rebuild was needed.

As well as various options in the Championship, the then 23-year-old also had a quick route back to England’s top flight.

A move to newly-promoted Sheffield United was tempting, but Smallbone had reservations.

On a holiday in Greece he mulled it over, discussing the dilemma with close friend and former teammate Gavin Kilkenny.

“He’s a loyal guy, he cares for the club cause he’s one of their own. There was interest and it’s one of those things you have the weigh up,” Kilkenny, who played alongside Smallbone with Ireland’s U21s but really got to know him while also on loan at Stoke, says.

Smallbone went with his heart and, 12 months on, is one game away from returning to the Premier League.

Southampton take on Leeds United in the Championship play-off final at Wembley, a fixture that the accounting firm Deloitte reports is worth €165 million (£140m) with the potential to rise to almost €360m (£305m) should the promoted club survive their first season back.

No wonder, then, Smallbone has gone somewhat off grid this week after catching up with Kilkenny over a round of golf and a coffee.

gavin-kilkenny Former Ireland U21 international Gavin Kilkenny. Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

“He’s one of my best friends now, not just in football, and it’s rare to still be so close to someone in football because usually when you leave a club that’s it,” Kilkenny, who spent time with Fleetwood Town in League One last season but still has one more year on his contract at Bournemouth, says.

Smallbone has come to the fore once again under new Saints boss Russell Martin. A new three-year contract was signed after turning down that Premier League move and the 24-year-old has had his best goal return to date, finding the net seven times including a belter in the semi-final triumph over West Bromwich Albion.

He also scored against today’s opponents on the final day of the regular season and is finding form at a time that suggests he’s ready to make a mark on the biggest stage of all.

Four years ago it seemed as though he would always be a part of it.

Smallbone joined Southampton at the age of eight and in February 2020 made his Premier League debut.

Under Ralph Hasenhüttl they finished that campaign in 11th and the following season they dropped four places to 15th.

Smallbone was enduring his lowest point, though, suffering an anterior cruciate ligament injury that also coincided with his alopecia diagnosis, a condition which affects hair loss on the body.

“The stuff that’s happened to me over the last few years, I wouldn’t wish upon anyone,” he said last year. “I’ve shown resilience and a lot of character to know that I can take on anything that is thrown at me.”

Still, social media abuse after a mistake in a FA Cup defeat to Liverpool led to him deleting his social media account on X.

His manager stood by him and was on the verge of tears after Smallbone responded in a crucial win away to Birmingham City with a couple of assists.

“Will is one of the best people I have ever worked with so it makes me angry and sad that it has come to this,” Martin said.

Those closest to him have seen what he’s been through and how he’s fought to come through the other side.

Like Kilkenny, Andy Lyons played with Smallbone coming through the Ireland underage set-up and when the Dubliner joined Blackpool from Shamrock Rovers the trio were re-united.

“It definitely helps that all of our girlfriends get along,” Lyons says.

“Seeing where he is now, it is because of his hard work and belief. He’s been to hell and back and never gave in.”

andy-lyons-and-ronan-boyce Andy Lyons (right) in action for Shamrock Rovers. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Smallbone was also the first to get in touch with Lyons when he found out his friend had suffered an ACL injury this season.

“Straight away he was on giving advice and encouragement. He was being honest about what was to come and recommended the surgeon he went to in London. Stuff like that just helps you start the recovery.”

It is continuing this weekend in Morocco with his girlfriend and she will once again be wearing one of Smallbone’s jerseys when they find somewhere to watch today’s final.

Kilkenny, too, is away in Portugal with his better half. “I wish I was there.”

They will meet up after Ireland’s double header of friendlies with Hungary (4 June) and Portugal (11 June) for a couples’ holiday in Ibiza.

“He’s the one who organised everything although he’s gone quiet the last few days which is fair enough,” Kilkenny says.

A win today and Smallbone can enjoy his summer in peace knowing there is no decision to be made ahead of a return to the Premier League with the club he loves.

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