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The Rise of Tommy Smith


When Huddersfield Town’s Tommy Smith climbed the steps at Wembley to lift the Championship Play-Off trophy, a personal quest through destinations of different terrain saw an almighty assent to The Premier League complete.

The 25-year-old right back’s tale is a unique example to any young player. One of hunger and belief, which included ejecting himself early from the comfort zone of a major academy and immersing himself within his local amateur team, before embarking on a determined rise to the biggest stage, captaining his side into the promise land on a famous day in May.

We caught up with Tommy in the sole stand at our local club, Helsby FC, where for a brief spell we played together in 2012. At a ground close to home, we traced his career steps of the past five years. Two school years below me, our friendship had began when he asked to use my tape before a match.

It was a privilege to have followed his success, through exchanging stories of the weekend gone by, from the corridors of Helsby High School and later to the local gym during tough spells with injury.

Seeing your friend leading his team out and gaining a place in the Premier League at Wembley was a fantastic moment, capping off one an individual voyage of hard work and dedication.

As he would say in the gym, “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.”

The journey would begin aged seven. Tommy was picked up by Tranmere Rovers whilst playing in a local summer tournament. He remembers getting his first taste of live football, his senses coming alive when he would go along to watch at Prenton Park.

“You get a feel for the atmosphere and you get a feeling that this is what football is about and this is what you want for yourself.”

Four years at Tranmere and it was again tournament football that would see his talent noticed, this time attracting the scouts of Manchester City, who approached his father, Gary, with a view to joining the under 12’s at the academy based then at Platt Lane.

“I turned up at Platt Lane and thought, oh my god this is amazing.”

I am sure people would look back on it in regards to in regards to where Man City are today at Carrington and think it isn’t good enough but all I remember was that it was one of the best times of my life – being part of that club and at Platt Lane, working towards where I am today.”

It was at the Fallowfield base where Smith would meet a man he calls a ‘sigficant figure’ in his career so far, Steve Eyre. It was the Salford born coach who convinced Smith that converting from a midfielder into a full back was the best option, as he began to dream of what could become.

“I’d seen the likes of Daniel Sturridge, Micah Richards, (Nedum) Onouha and Stephen Ireland train for the youth team and go on to play for the first-team and you start to think, one day that could be me.”

After gaining his YTS and going on to sign his first professional contract, a period of bad luck followed. A bad leg break in a youth team game away to Bolton Wanderers in 2010 put Smith out of action for 12 months. This coinciding with a time when the money and recruitment revolution was in full swing at Manchester City, narrowing the pathway.

“It was evident it was becoming more tough (to break into the first-team). When the money came in there where signings through every level at the club, hundreds of millions on players from all around the world for both the first team and academy. You start to doubt if there will be that chance. It became difficult and it was a very long road back from there.”

Things would go from bad to worse. Just as he returned from the horrific leg break, ankle ligament damage became a persistent problem. Smith’s contract was now running down to its final stages. His instinctive reaction to a conversation every footballer dreads, would decide his next turn.

“The manager at the time, (of the Elite Development Squad) Andy Welsh, pulled me into his office and told me that the club would not be renewing my contract in the summer. He asked me what I wanted to do and to get my thoughts.

I told him there and then that I wanted to leave immediately, if it was the case I was no longer wanted. I had been out for so long and was just desperate to play football. There was no ill feeling towards the club. They wanted to go in their direction and now it became clear it was a case of me going down a different avenue and kind of into the unknown.”

Releasing himself early from the club he had effectively grown up at and was a bold yet pivotal example of his strength of character. Months later he would watch the people he  would pass on a daily basis celebrate the club’s first Premier League title from a destination that was close to home yet a far, far cry away from his dreams.

“People were telling me I’d make the wrong decision coming away from the club six months early. I was just keen to move on quickly. I didn’t want to just sit around and wait until the next season. I was ready to go and do something and get finding a new club put to bed early.

I went and trained over in France with Le Havre for a week to explore that option and keep my fitness up. I also went to Cheltenham and Bradford. To tell you the truth, at the time there weren’t many options that were available to me. There were little openings but nothing concrete.”

Helsby Sports and Social Club is an ode to the traditional. Originally a worming men’s club for the British Insulated Callender’s Cables (BICC) factory workers in the Cheshire village, has been the home of the local amateur football team since 1934.

The sad decline of the amateur game, however, can be told in the cracks that appear on the grounds of a club who have recently been forced to pull out of the Carlsberg West Cheshire League after a 19-year affiliation due to

Whilst the club currently rebuild, five years ago, the sloped pitch surrounded by its rusted bar perimeter, provided the platform for Tommy Smith to unearth another shot at professional football.

During this time in 2011, his father Gary was in charge of the club’s under 16’s side that also included Tommy’s younger brother. I was signed on for the senior team at the time as was his cousin Adam Hunter, a prolific goal scorer formally of the Welsh Premier League.

To keep his fitness up Tommy would come training with us on the sandy astro-turf of the nearby Frodsham High School when Helsby’s Club Secretary Paul Nicholls and manager Lee Bignell rolled the dice.

“I was just coming towards the gate after a session when the manager asked me what I was doing on Saturday. My automatic response was no, thinking I already had a game. Then I realised, hang on, I don’t have a club. I just thought it was a good way of keeping my fitness up so I signed on.”

He was off to a flyer. That Saturday he capped a 6-1 home victory over Hale with a goal from outside the box. The first steps back had been taken.

“I was playing with a smile on my face. I was really comfortable and I was as fit as I’d been for a long time and it was a major stepping stone to where I’ve got today.”

Helsby were competing in the 13th tier of the English football pyramid. He admits that he never let himself consider a life away from football. Four goals In 11 appearances helped Helsby achieve promotion to the 12th tier, Divison 2 of The West Cheshire League and silverware was to follow, with victory in the Complete Focus Shield, an occasion he describes with warmth.

“I remember the last game of the season being a Cup Final at a small ground. All the lads were looking forward to it and I was myself. It was my first Cup Final playing senior football. I didn’t expect it to be in these circumstances but this is why football is great.

A final is a final and winning things is what it’s all about. We won and you could see what it meant to everyone. It had been a successful season and I was delighted to play a small part in my local club’s history.

I remember the manager came over to me and asked what my plans for the next season were. I just wasn’t sure. I wanted to enjoy the moment because I hadn’t had much luck in the past few years at Manchester City.”

The contrast to Carrington and City, coming into a dressing room of odd kit, holes in socks and going away to play on bobbly pitches was something he embraced. With so many young players released from clubs year on year, falling out of the game, Smith’s attitude and application during his short stay at Helsby was the same as it is today. He says he would heavily advise others in his situation to follow his path.

“Sometimes professional footballers don’t really get the chance to play for their local team where their mates or family are involved and I was fortunate for the time I was here to do that.

A lot of lads now get kind of fixated with being at a club like your Chelsea’s, Arsenal’s and Manchester United’s. They wouldn’t dream of playing on the park pitches were most of them found their love for the game. People can be so badly advised. It is easy to get in a comfort zone. It doesn’t necessarily mean its best to stay at these kind of club’s if there is no clear passage to the first team but a lot of these young lads do because they are about image over hunger to play.

My advice to any young player would simply be to go and get game time, whatever the level. If you want it enough it will happen.”

The 2011-12 season finished, but the hard hours in the gym were still being put in for what may be around the corner.

A trial with Oxford United was followed by a call from Steve Eyre who was now in charge of Huddersfield Town’s Development Squad.

“When I left Man City my intention was always to go somewhere and play first team football. Steve sat me down and told me that I wasn’t ready yet. For me thinking I wasn’t ready to go and play first team professional football was a shock, but he was right.”

A year under his original mentor’s stewardship proved crucial. Tommy was given the opportunity to train with the first team. The breakthrough came when Terriers manager Mark Robbins gave him his professional debut in the League Cup away to Hull City.

Whilst he describes that night at the KC Stadium as a ‘surreal experience’, it was his league debut weeks later away to Sheffield Wednesday at a packed Hillsborough. A leap from the twelfth tier to the second in 18 months is when it hit home.

He didn’t look back, cemented his place on the right of Town’s defence. As Robbins departed, Ex-Charlton defender Chris Powell had come in. Smith recalls the moment the England International showed huge confidence in him.

“I was a consistent player in the team and I pulled him at the end of the season and told him that I wanted the number 2 shirt. I kind of walked into his office confident and ended up walking out even more confident for getting my wish. It was a big moment for me. People don’t realise what small gestures like this can do. For myself at 22-years-old, now playing in the Championship as a Right Back wearing the no.2 jersey, it was huge.”

As Smith progressed, Powell departed with David Wagner arriving from Borrusia Dortmund. During his first pre-season in charge, the German-American took the team into the wilderness of a Swedish forest.

12 tents pitched up, no mobile phones and forced only to rely on each other, the team learnt survival skills such as how to build fires and catch fish. Smith puts this trip down as a masterclass by the manager he describes as ‘infectious’, claiming his character has been a major force for the team as they practise their motto of ‘no limits’ which had taken them from relegation battles to the play-offs.

“Everything that we did over in Sweden was documented in this 10 minute video. Before we went to the Championship Play-Off final, we sat there as a team and watched it. It brought it all home as to where we had got to and what we had all achieved that season.

It really made us think if we can overcome situations like that out in the wild, we can overcome anything. We were sat in the hotel in London so ready to go over to Wembley and contest the richest game in football.”

Describing the final as an ‘unbelievable day’ for the club who since he arrived he has grown a huge affection for, Smith would lead his team out under the arch at Wembley having also been named in the Championship Team of the Year, after a remarkable season.

“To tell you the truth when we got the bus from the hotel to the stadium and you are driving in, and the streets are completely rammed full with fans singing, you see your blue and white colours all around Wembley. It really hits home how much it means to a hell of a lot of people. It was great that we could do it for them.”

With Premier League football having been achieved, he will have a new mission to embark upon. Sitting out looking at the pitch at Helsby, he admits he won’t feel he has ‘made it’ until he looks back on his career in years to come, when he has retired. The search for more success continues on from Wembley.

“I can sit here now and look back with great pride. Ultimately, football is football. It doesn’t matter about the state of the changing room or the pitch. All that matters is playing well and enjoying it. At the end of the day it’s a grass pitch with two nets and you’ve got a football.

Whether that’s Wembley in changing rooms as big as the 18-yard-box or in a tin shed with no window, you’re playing football. With your mates or as a job it doesn’t really matter. You go out there to try and win and that’s it. Where it takes you, it takes you.”