x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Tommy Smith crashing back onto the big stage with QPR

A serious road accident and a broken nose are just some of the obstacles the likeable QPR forward has had to overcome during his career, writes Kevin Affleck.

Smith had a painful time at Portsmouth.
Smith had a painful time at Portsmouth.

Jay Bothroyd and Tommy Smith inhabit the same dressing room at Queens Park Rangers yet would feature on the opposite end of any personality test spectrum.

Bothroyd, the much-travelled striker, was jettisoned from Arsenal for hurling his shirt at Don Howe, the highly-respected coach. Smith, on the other hand, is described as one of football's nice guys.

"Tommy is a top man, one of the nicest you could meet in football," Iain Moody, the former head of football operations at Watford and now head of player recruitment at Cardiff City, said. "He's a very talented player but also a laid-back unassuming bloke."

Bothroyd and Smith, however, are able to share one common experience; their time at Perugia, the Serie A club.

The forwards, by chance, joined the Italian side in the summer of 2003, Bothroyd for two years; Smith on trial for a week.

Bothroyd has subsequently claimed his time at the Italian club, which ended after the club ran into financial problems, was overshadowed by racist abuse. Smith's brief experience will not live long in the memory, either.

"Even if they had wanted me to sign I wouldn't have done," Smith said. "I didn't enjoy the trial or the style out there."

Smith returned from Italy to the family home he now shares with his wife, Nina, and their three children, in leafy Hertfordshire, England with his career at a crossroads just three years after he had been rubbing shoulders with the likes of Steven Gerrard, Joe Cole and Scott Parker with the England Under 21 squad.

He had turned down a new contract at Watford, the club he joined at the age of 12, and, for various reasons, failed to earn a contract after trial spells at Charlton Athletic and West Ham United.

"It was the lowest point I've been," said Smith, 31, "I was seriously thinking about other options if I wasn't played football anymore. Everything had gone well up to that point and I didn't know where I was going to go.

"I didn't know whether I wanted to drop down divisions and I remember asking my dad, who is a chartered surveyor and runs his own company, how long it would take to get trained and qualified." Tommy Smith, chartered surveyor does not quite have the same ring to it as Tommy Smith, professional footballer.

"I don't know if I would have backed it up but when you are not enjoying something you sometimes think you need a complete change of life. I was thinking about a few things and whether I would enjoy that more."

Sunderland rescued Smith from the potential football wilderness but, following a move to Derby County and then back to Watford, he probably wished he had pursued a career as a chartered surveyor when he was parachuted in at Portsmouth. It would certainly have provided greater career stability.

"It went from a fairy tale, signing for a team who had finished [in the] top half in the Premier League the previous year, to finding out three days later the owner had gone bust and we wouldn't be getting paid," Smith said. "I was thinking 'what I have done here'."

Smith had just left Watford, his boyhood club, who themselves were facing financial problems. Talk about jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

"It was an interesting first three months," Smith said. "We actually went a couple of months without any money, but they then started feeding us little bits here and there when they could."

Like so many former and current Portsmouth players, Smith is still being paid by his former club over the next three years.

"It was an experience and a learning curve," Smith added with distinct understatement.

If he didn't know already Portsmouth were not going to be the right club for him, it was probably confirmed when the arm of Chelsea's Daniel Sturridge left him with a broken nose in March last year.

"It was pretty painful, to be honest," Smith said, talking about his nose though he could easily have been talking about a season which yielded seven league wins in 38 matches.

"My nose was completely broke and I had an operation to straighten it and had to wear one of those ridiculous masks."

Many referred to the situation at Portsmouth, who won the FA Cup in 2008, played in Europe yet found themselves in administration, as a metaphorical car crash. Talking of road accidents, the luckless Smith was actually involved in a heavy collision in 2003, leaving him with a suspected broken sternum and his prized Audi TT a write off.

"It was fairly bad," Smith said. "It was quite icy and the guy lost control and the guy hit my door. He must have been doing quite a shift as he really whacked into us. It was a right smash. Fortunately, the doors are really chunky and thick on those cars and gave me a lot of protection."

Thankfully, Smith only sustained a dead leg and some bruising down the right side of his body, recovering in time to score one of the two goals in Watford's FA Cup quarter-final win over Burnley. Eerily, six months later Jimmy Davies, who was signed on loan from Manchester United by Watford as Smith's temporary replacement, was killed in a car crash when his BMW ploughed into the back of a lorry. He was twice over the drink drive limit.

Indeed, Jack Smith, Tommy's younger brother, was a young professional at Watford when Davies died.

Jack has since moved to Millwall, via Swindon, and the Smiths, who started their careers at Watford, now find themselves playing for feisty London rivals QPR and Millwall.

"I'm not sure how intense the rivalry is but I guess Millwall aren't friendly with many clubs," Jack said. "I know there was a bit of trouble in the game at their place [Loftus Road]."

The return match between the two sides in March at The New Den attracted a capacity crowd of nearly 20,000.

Jack was injured for that match, denying the pair the chance to go head-to-head, while both were substitutes for the corresponding fixture earlier in the season.

"I guess it was quite nice for mum and dad neither of us were involved from the start as it makes it easier to watch," Tommy said. "They would then have to cope with one losing."

The pair, did, however, go head-to-head in 2004 when Jack's Watford met Tommy's Sunderland in a fixture in the second tier of English football.

"It was tough and weird playing against him but I think the family found it tougher," Jack, 27, said. "The build-up was probably worse as so many people were taking about it was much easier when the game started. I know our sister said it was the hardest game she'd ever watched."

The brothers speak most days and live minutes from each other, which means they can get plenty of opportunity to resume their rivalry on the tennis court and the golf course.

"That rivalry is huge," Tommy said. "He's a better tennis player than me but golf I used to have the upper hand, but we are pretty closer now at golf."

So close in fact Jack claims they both play off a handicap of 14. Their father, Dave, however, plays off eight or nine. "He should do as he plays about four times a week," said Jack.

"I probably had the upper hand [over Tommy] at tennis but I haven't played for while now. Perhaps if Tommy wants to invest in one in his garden then I can start playing again."

Jack, a versatile full-back who has played over 250 league games, actually started off his career as a striker, according to Tommy.

"We were always arguing about who have to goal in goal as we both wanted to shoot. "

Jack acknowledged he found it quite tough carving out his career in the shadow of his brother.

"When I was younger I was always 'Tommy's brother' and I guess now it has got a bit worse as he is more high profile. It would be nice to have my own identity because I certainly don't brag about it and go into training thinking and saying I am 'Tommy's brother'."

The football gene is clearly in the family DNA. The Smith's dad was a youth team player at Watford and Tommy's four-year-old son, Max, is showing signs of promise.

"He's pretty good, to be honest," Tommy said. "But maybe I'm a bit biased. He loves his football and always comes to watch. He's got kits for Watford, Portsmouth and Reading and I think he's confused what team he likes best. He goes to football camps in some really strange kits, that's for sure."

The durable Smith has worn the shirt of five different clubs and has played a combined 450 games in England's top two divisions. "He's clever, infectious, enthusiastic and a hard worker," Paul Hart, the manager of Portsmouth, said when Smith signed for the south coast club in 2009. "He can play as a centre forward, behind the centre forward or out wide, so he covers a lot of positions."

Smith is ostensibly a right winger, blessed with a deceptive turn of pace and has the tools to be as good an executioner as he is an architect. However, a return of five goals in 52 Premier League appearances is not commensurate with his ability.

"I don't want to make excuses, I should have scored more," Smith said. "But it's tough in struggling teams, who aren't scoring loads, to get on the scoresheet.

"Often, being the wide man, you get more of a defensive role, particularly away from home. So tactics have played a part but it [the statistics] certainly don't make great reading. I should be scoring more."

Smith may not be posing the goalscoring threat he ought to but his searching raids down the touchline prove a handful for opposition left-backs.

"To play against him is always a challenge for me," Paul Robinson, the combative Bolton Wanderers full-back and a former teammate at Watford, said. "He's quick, both footed and is a very underrated player."

Although only a ninth of his career appearances have been made in the top flight of English football, Smith feels he belongs in the Premier League and underlined that by scoring the winner against Everton in QPR's second league game of the season.

"You've got to have that confidence in yourself," Smith said. "When I've played in the Premier League I feel I haven't let myself down but never playing for an established Premier League has not helped."

David Kerslake, the former Tottenham Hotspur and Watford coach, succinctly sums up Smith's ability.

"You only realise quite how good a player Tommy is when you work with him," Kerslake said.


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