Authors: Ben Smith
I would like to dedicate this book to all the family and friends who supported me throughout my career, but particularly my mum and dad, who both sacrificed time and money to help me turn my young footballing dream into a reality.
I also reserve a special mention for my long-suffering girlfriend Emma, who patiently followed me around England for ten years. I have promised her that any profits made from this book will go towards a wedding. I think that is called a win–win situation!
Thanks also to James Barrett, who has been a great support to me throughout the writing and editing process, helping make my thoughts and emotions structured and coherent.
Lastly, thanks to all the people who said I was not good enough; some of you were right but you all gave me the inspiration to try to shove those words back down your throats.
I did not have the football career I dreamt of but, on reflection, seventeen years of making a living from something you enjoy is not bad…
been an avid reader and have read many footballers’ autobiographies. Unfortunately I have found a lot of them to be pretty bland and, more often than not, they do not really tell the public anything they do not already know.
I had a very modest career as a lower-league footballer and you could label me the proverbial ‘journeyman’ as I went from one modest footballing backwater to another, despite starting at the top. I thought my story was pretty unremarkable until, over the last year or so, I wrote a blog about my thoughts and experiences that was well received by the small group of people I interact with via social media.
As a result, I decided to write this candid book about my experiences within the football industry. People who know me well will already be aware that I find it hard to express my feelings openly, but I will use this book as a channel to give an honest and balanced view of my working life and the people I came across during a career punctuated with a few highs and many lows.
Here we go…
Witham, Essex, 2012
It is a late Sunday evening and I am, without wishing to sound too dramatic, at a crossroads in my life.
My professional football career is officially over.
I’ve known this has been coming because I have endured a drawn-out divorce from the game over the past twelve months. The 2011/12 season was personally an unmitigated disaster.
Last summer I signed a new one-year contract at Crawley Town after a successful season that saw the club crowned Conference Premier champions. Not only that, but we also set a new record for the highest ever points tally (105), plus added joint records for most consecutive games without defeat (thirty-one), fewest defeats over a season (three) and biggest goal difference (sixty-three). I had a good season and secured a £12-a-week pay rise – more about that extravagance later! – but deep down I knew maybe it was time to move on. Crawley had huge financial backing and it was clear the owners would invest heavily to strengthen the playing squad. As one of the elder statesmen within the team, I knew I was ripe for replacement.
As any professional sportsman will tell you, however, total faith in your
own ability is a pre-requisite and I was confident I could have remained a regular member of the first team if given a fair chance to do so.
Unfortunately that scenario did not happen, with some of the reasons down to me and some not … anyway, I digress.
I have always been pretty level-headed and appreciative of how fortunate I’ve been to earn my living from playing football, but the transition from footballer to ‘employee of the real world’ has proven to be more challenging than I could have ever imagined.
I have become a business and ICT teacher. This came about after I volunteered at a local school (the one I had attended as a youth) on my Wednesdays off throughout 2012. The aim of this was to simply gain some work experience. I was working with the school’s football academy because coaching is something I really fancy doing, but unfortunately there wasn’t a full-time role within the academy so I’ve taken this teaching job in the hope a sporting opportunity will come up in the future.
But I constantly feel like a fish out of water. I soon found out the Year 7 pupils know more about ICT than me and the sixth-form students look at me as if to say: ‘What does he know about business?’ They do not vocalise it but I can see it in their eyes – and they’re right.
This is a horrible situation to be in.
I am also used to being a well-respected member of football club dressing rooms whereas I am an ‘unknown quantity’ within the school staff room.
Another reason I took the job is because it’s local. The last thing I want to do is move house again after leading such a nomadic life to date.
I was offered three different roles within the football industry over the summer of 2012. Two were as a coach and one was as a manager. I rejected them all because I still had a burning desire to play and did not feel ready to make the move to the other side of the touchline. That seems pretty ironic now, though, as I could not feel more unprepared every time I stand at the front of my classroom.
But, being fair, my desire to continue playing has begun to dwindle as well. After being part of a club that had been promoted in consecutive years I thought I would be, if not inundated, then at least sought-after by semi-professional clubs.
But I was wrong and that was one of many mistakes I made over the summer.
Billericay Town wanted to pay me £160 per week – the same money it pays to twenty-year-olds who have played only a handful of non-League games at best. When I was twenty I was certainly not getting the wages of experienced professionals. Needless to say, I rejected that particular offer.
I’ve eventually ended up at AFC Sudbury, which means playing in the Ryman Division One North. By the end of last August we were already out of both the FA Cup and FA Trophy competitions. Being honest, I didn’t even realise these tournaments start so early in the season.
Sudbury is a nice club, however, and Chris Tracey (the manager) is a decent guy. I do not personally think he is cut out to be a manager, though: he’s put together a good squad of players for this level of football, but we’re a crap team.
Since I’ve joined I’ve played terribly. It’s strange. I thought playing at this level would be easy for someone of my experience, but I was wrong. I have always had to play with my brain to make up for my lack of pace, but I am not on the same wavelength as some of my teammates. At this level, the things I do well on the pitch can look bad when, for example, my colleagues make the opposite run to the pass I play.
Players also do not show for the ball as much and I end up pirouetting, looking around for options until I get dispossessed. Maybe I should just lump the ball down the pitch like everybody else, but my principles will not allow for that. I think people expect me to go on mazy runs but I’ve never been able to do that at any level.
I also find it hard to comprehend that in 2011 I was playing at Old
Trafford, home to Manchester United, in front of 75,000 people, while just eighteen months later I’m playing – quite poorly – against the likes of Ilford and Heybridge Swifts.
It is amazing how quickly a career in football deteriorates. At this moment, I would be happy never to kick a ball again but I know, deep down, things will improve and that I cannot keep playing so badly.
Although it might not sound like it, I do feel I am one of the better-prepared players for the move into the ‘real world’. I have earned a degree (a 2:1 in business management), studied for my UEFA B coaching badge and FA Youth Modules 1 and 2, and have been learning Spanish for the past two years.
This all sounds fine on paper, yet none of it has prepared me for the emptiness I feel at the moment. People tell me things will get easier and I hope they are right. I would give anything to be able to have a few more years back in the safety of a dressing room with my teammates – somewhere I’ve always felt comfortable.
Another problem I have is I find the money I’m earning at Sudbury really useful. I will not be put on the breadline if I don’t get it, but I want to protect my savings. As a teacher I earn just over £21,000 a year, which is half what I earned in 2011 and only a quarter of what I was earning during my best days at Hereford United. This wage alone nowhere near covers my monthly expenses.
The £210 a week after tax that Sudbury pays me makes life a lot easier but, for the first time in a long while, I am not enjoying playing football. I feel like I’m stealing money off the club because my performances are so poor. I will be very surprised if I’m still playing for them by the time I finish writing this book. Some of my time on the pitch has been so inadequate that, at this rate, I will honestly be surprised if I see out this month.
I was right: Sudbury did not last. Chris Tracey rang me today and told me a tale of how the ‘chairman’ is going ‘mad’ about needing to cut the playing budget.
I believe that is just football talk and, roughly translated, means: ‘You have been playing rubbish and this is my way of passing the buck in an attempt to sugar-coat the decision to release you.’
Chris seemed apprehensive when he broke the news but he should not have worried because I felt more relieved than anything – I no longer have to toil through tedious matches. In every single game I played for Sudbury bar one, I paled into the landscape as just another mediocre player in a mediocre team in a mediocre league. Chris appreciated the grace with which I took the decision and I hold no grudges. Ultimately I did not perform and, if I’m honest, I just could not motivate myself to. It’s strange because I didn’t lose my motivation for training. I still enjoyed going to the gym and working hard but, when I pitched up on a Saturday, I just could not convince myself the game was important. There was no fear factor and no public humiliation if I had a stinker – whether I played well or not, my performance
would generally be forgotten by 5 p.m. and I certainly never got rated out of ten in a national newspaper.
It’s not surprising the gaffer has to trim down his playing staff. According to one of my former teammates, the playing budget is £1,600 per week – yet I believe the club is running at double that. I think this is the economic model used by many football clubs, unfortunately.
So I’ve decided I’m done with playing, unless something comes up in the higher echelons of part-time football. I fancy concentrating on coaching or maybe even trying my hand at scouting. I have always been pretty analytical regarding football, so I believe that role could suit me. I could call in a few favours to try to compensate for the loss of wages from football. Hopefully in a few years I will regard my conversation with Chris as a blessing. I’m confident my transition from playing to coaching or scouting will happen at some stage.
On the plus side, I just received my first pay packet from the school. I’m meant to clear around £1,400 a month but I’ve somehow been paid £2,375. Suffice to say, I’m not telling anyone, although with this sort of fiscal management it’s no wonder the government is effectively bankrupt!
Anyway let’s crack on with my story.
• • •
I AM GOING
to start right from the beginning but, as I typically always find the bit about the player’s formative years in any autobiography quite boring, this will be short and to the point.
I was born and raised in Witham, Essex. It is a pretty unremarkable place. I do not mean that in a derogatory respect, but the best way I can describe it is that if you – or family or friends – do not live there, then you have no real reason to visit.
Witham started off as a small town 30 miles from east London, but in the
1960s it became an overspill town for Londoners who wanted to live in the country. My dad and mum were two such people, so Peter and Margaret Smith moved to Essex in the mid-1970s. I joined them on 23 November 1978 and my brother Joe completed our family at the start of 1981.
My upbringing was that of a typical suburban family. My dad worked as a London fireman (and as anything else he could find to make ends meet) while my mum looked after the house, my brother and me. Dad would regularly work a night shift at the fire station, do some kind of skilled labour the whole of the next day and then go back for another night shift.
I used to wonder why he would come home and sometimes snap at me when all I wanted was to talk or play games with him. Now I am working in a ‘proper’ job I really appreciate how tired he must have been, but the vast majority of times he would submit to my demands and stand in goal while I smashed footballs at him.
I have no real gripes about my upbringing. The only sad point I can think of was when we all struggled through a couple of years of stress because my mum and dad were wrestling with the decision of whether or not to split up. They tried to hide it from my brother and me, but the tension and frostiness were clear to everyone and made our house an uncomfortable environment for a while.
In fairness they were only doing it to try to keep the family together. In hindsight, and I have discussed this with both of them, it would have been in everyone’s interest to have two happy parents who lived apart than two miserable ones who were living together for their children’s sake. I do not think the former ever works but, in the mid-1990s, there was much more of a stigma around divorce than there is now.
My memories of my early years are quite vague but I remember not starting to play football until about the age of eight. That might not sound old but I know kids these days who start going to soccer schools and other such organisations as soon as they can walk.
My dad loves telling a story about us walking through our local park when I was five. He wanted to stand and watch a football match but, according to him, I said, ‘Daddy, I don’t want to stay here – football is boring!’
A couple of my friends always used to try to get me to go football training with them and I eventually succumbed aged eight and joined my first team – the Witham Nomads.
I do not remember being particularly good in those days, or even having any real passion for the game. But I continued with it and, as I got older, I became obsessed about practising. My dad had to regularly rebuild the wall outside our house as I used to continuously kick my ball against it.
I used to go over to the park with my pals pretty much every day after school to play ‘headers and volleys’. If nobody wanted to play I would go and practise ball-juggling non-stop. My record was once 10,000 touches without dropping the ball. When I go on different coaching courses I now realise that kind of exercise is the reason for my good touch. Those hours of repetition trained my brain to know exactly how hard or soft to hit the ball depending on where I wanted it to go.
I also have to thank my dad for the fact I can play with both feet. He used to spend hours making me kick the ball with my left foot and it got to the stage where the majority of people who watched me play thought I was left-footed. I also developed a pretty unique style of predominantly using the outside of my foot. I haven’t got a clue how I created this technique – it was not something I consciously worked on – but I always took it as a massive compliment when I read scouting reports saying that I could use both feet.
Within a year of joining Witham Nomads I moved on to Witham Youth Football Club and then Valley Green. Little did I know this was an early indication of the nomadic lifestyle I would lead nearly twenty years later – that first team name was very prophetic!
I played for Valley Green between the ages of nine and fourteen. Joining
them was, I believe, the first piece of good fortune that contributed to my becoming a professional footballer.
Ryan Oates, still one of my best friends, played with me there, and his dad Gary was the manager – a man who had trodden the footballing path I wanted to follow.
Gary had been an apprentice and professional footballer at West Ham United. Unfortunately his career was curtailed by what nowadays would be a pretty insignificant injury – he had the cartilage from one of his knees removed. That sadly ended his professional career at the age of twenty.
I cannot remember if he was a brilliant coach but he was an excellent player whenever I watched him play for my dad’s Sunday team, or even when he joined in training with us youngsters. He was a cultured left-footed midfielder and maybe in hindsight this was where I developed my dominant left-sided style.
I am a big believer in the theory put forward by the likes of Matthew Syed, in his superb book
, and Malcolm Gladwell, in his equally impressive
. These authors argue that excellence is nurtured and not something we are born with. I believe being coached by Gary Oates was one of those strokes of luck they refer too. It put me in contact with someone who knew what was required to have any chance of succeeding in the professional game for the first time. This, in my opinion, gave me an advantage over any peer being coached by an enthusiastic but less experienced volunteer.
That Valley Green team was all-conquering. We won our league every season as well as the majority of the cup competitions. At the end of our first season we went into summer five-a-side tournaments and won all eight we entered. We had five or six really talented boys who made us a formidable side in that form of the game.
I enjoy looking back on those days playing for Valley Green. I used to look forward all week to training on a Saturday and games on a Sunday,
although there is one tragic episode that will stay with everyone who was involved with the team forever.
We were playing an away game against Stony Stratford in the East Anglia Youth Cup. They were based in Milton Keynes so it was a long trip for us. When we arrived at the venue we went to inspect the pitch.
To get to the grass we had to walk across a couple of others that contained moveable goals. My memory tells me they were full-size goals, but I’m not sure eleven-year-olds could have touched the crossbar. Anyway, some of the lads did what boys tend to do and jumped up to hang from them. Again, my memory tells me there were at least three or four lads who successfully did this.
Their combined weight made the goal unstable and it toppled over, pinning them to the floor. Most of them were unharmed but Jonathan Smith was not so fortunate. The impact of the goal frame had broken his neck and he died almost instantly. My dad, being fully qualified in first aid, was on the scene at once and gave Jonathan mouth-to-mouth. He managed to resuscitate him on more than one occasion but he tragically couldn’t keep him alive.
This may sound strange to some of you but, as a youngster, you do not really understand the enormity of such a tragic accident. Young boys can be pretty resilient. It is only now that I reflect on the impact this must have had on the adults within our club. I know that my dad and Gary especially were hit really hard for a long time as they felt a responsibility to Jonathan. I can only imagine the pain his mum and dad, Peter and Brenda, went through – and no doubt still do to this day.
I remember the funeral being a hugely emotional day. The whole team was inconsolable as the magnitude of what happened became a reality. Jonathan was a huge West Ham fan and they were great with regard to the funeral – former Hammers midfielder Stuart Slater was in attendance.
That devastating incident aside, my days playing for Valley Green were
brilliant. The success of our team meant we started to generate a lot of interest from professional clubs. By the age of nine I had been spotted by local professional club Colchester United. I trained with them for a year before then attracting interest from West Ham and Ipswich.
West Ham wanting to sign me was especially exciting as my dad had grown up in the area and been a lifelong fan. Obviously, with him supporting them, I had the dubious privilege of doing the same – I say ‘dubious’ because I seem to remember not having a great deal of choice in the matter!
Initially I trained at both clubs but, after a while, it became clear that I would have to make a decision. As much as we loved West Ham, my dad and I felt that the club had an approach of quantity over quality. At every training session there were twenty or thirty players in each age group. I felt like just another player – nothing special.
Ipswich was different; I felt really wanted and appreciated there. Even at the age of ten that was important. During my time at the club there were some players who went on to become stars in the Premier League. There was Kieron Dyer and defender Matthew Upson, who both trained in my age group, as well as goalkeeper Richard Wright, who was in the year above.
One incident involving Kieron Dyer really sticks in my mind. We were doing some kind of small-sided game and Kieron ran at me with the ball. He twisted me up to the point where I ended up on my backside before he went on to score a goal. The coach was kind enough to stop the session and get Kieron to re-enact the incident in slow motion, including putting me on my arse. It was embarrassing enough once, let alone twice!
After twelve months there I had another decision to make as Arsenal began showing interest in me. Steve Rowley, who is now the chief scout, started regularly attending our games and eventually he invited both Lee Boylan and me to train with them. I enjoyed it straight away, plus it felt a lot more selective – training sessions would often have fewer than ten players involved.
I was in a bit of a quandary. I was perfectly happy at Ipswich but this was the start of the 1990s. Arsenal had just won the First Division championship (now the Premier League) by beating Liverpool on a memorable night at Anfield. At the time they were arguably the biggest and best club in the country and they potentially wanted to sign me!
Signing young players was different in those days. You signed a ‘centre of excellence’ form for a year and the agreement was re-assessed at the end of every season until you got to fourteen, at which point you could sign a two-year contract called a ‘schoolboy’ form. This was the holy grail as it meant you were eligible for free football boots from the club, although slightly tempered by the fact Arsenal handed out very unfashionable Gola-branded boots to their schoolboys. I doubt this is still the case but it didn’t even bother me as Ian Bishop, my favourite West Ham player at the time, wore Gola.
I was just starting senior school when Arsenal wanted to sign me, so I was eleven years old. Ipswich did their best to persuade me to stay once they became aware of the interest. Tony Dable was the youth development officer at Ipswich back then and a nice man. He gave my dad and I the normal advice about Arsenal being a big club and how tough it would be to be a success there. Bearing in mind the future success of the Ipswich lads I mentioned earlier, maybe he was right. I definitely felt equal to those players at that time, but his advice fell on deaf ears and we came to the decision that I had to take this opportunity.