Connor Smith: My time with Zola was probably one of the favourite periods of my careerFri, Jul 10 2020
Connor Smith has had more unique ascent to professional football than most, with his career being partly opened up by an appearance on Sky’s Football’s Next Star programme.
The now 27-year-old reached the final of the programme – a final that well-known Crumlin United star Craig Walsh also took part in – but he was eventually bested by Englishman Ben Greenhalgh.
While a dream of playing for Inter Milan was dashed, Smith soon dusted himself off to enjoy what has turned out to be an eventful career in England – one that is still ongoing.
As recent as a couple of months ago, Smith was promoted to the National League with Wealdstone and is currently working under Dubliner Dean Brennan at the club.
The journey through the professional ranks – which began at Watford – has seen the former Republic of Ireland underage international play at Wembley, Anfield and even against Manchester United.
“I always loved football,” he tells extratime.com. “You always dream of being a footballer. But being from Ireland - there’s not many academies that are accessible to you.
“You always will have your back up plans to do well in school but it came in a weird way for me.”
A weird way it most certainly was – with the then 16-year-old Smith jokingly taking part in the Irish leg of trials for Sky One’s Football Next Star.
Football’s Next Star saw ten players from the UK and Ireland move over to Milan for a six-week period in search of a contract with Inter Milan who were then managed by Jose Mourinho.
“I went on the trials for Football’s Next Star as a bit of a laugh and then I ended up signing for a professional club (after with Watford).
“The main thing I took from it was how different full-time football is and the physical stresses that it puts on you.
“When I was playing back home before I went you would train one or two nights a week and then you had a match on the weekend but then all of a sudden you train every day with a match on the weekend.”
Following his heartbreak in the show’s finale – it wasn’t long before Smith got back on his feet – soon joining then English Championship side Watford.
While at Watford, the former Mullingar Athletic schoolboy made his Championship debut against Crystal Palace and also played under famed Italian Gianfranco Zola.
“During my first year with (the club) Malky Mackay was manager and I was lucky enough to make a couple of first-team squads when I was 17.
“In my second year, Sean Dyche was manager and I signed my first pro contract – then there was the summer when the takeover happened.”
The ‘takeover’ took place in the summer of 2012, with the then unfashionable Watford being taken over by the Pozzo family.
“At the time, I was thinking I hadn’t much of a chance breaking into the team with 20 or 25 players coming in, so I was a bit wary of the takeover,” Smith admits.
“I came back in pre-season and did well. Zola really liked me, and I played in the first game of the season against Palace.
“(My time) with Zola was probably one of the favourite periods of my career - and I played some of my best football at that point," he said. "He’s probably among the nicest people I’ve met in football which is mental seeing the kind of player he was.
“When he watched us train, he’s probably thinking ‘what are they doing’ because he was so good as a player.
“He’s probably one of the best coaches I’ve worked with, but he was almost too nice to be a manager.
“He was one of those managers that you just wanted to give everything for because you respect him so much. He motivated us in a different way, not by fear but because you’re so fond of him.”
His time at Vicarage Road was riddled with injuries, misfortune and a number of loans – leaving the then Irish underage international unable to really get settled on the pitch.
Smith’s contract was cancelled by mutual consent by Watford in January 2016, but he found himself joining League Two AFC Wimbledon a day later.
While at Wimbledon, the four-time Ireland under-21 international enjoyed a day out in the sun at Wembley Stadium – despite being a severe doubt for the League Two Playoff final.
“In the last game of the league season I got knocked out. I had a clash of heads with someone and I got taken to hospital for scans and I ended up missing the two playoff semi-finals because of it.
“I was back training a couple of days before the final and I ended up starting it which I was surprised by. I thought the manager might stick with the same team for the final.
“I ended up playing - but I’m not going to complain, am I? – I was buzzing to be playing at Wembley and it ended up in a win, so it was an amazing day.”
The Play-Off Final win over Plymouth – by two goals to one – would happen to be his final game as a Wimbledon player. Where would he end up next? You guessed it, Plymouth…
“When we got promoted with Wimbledon, I was in talks with them to stay on,” he admits. “They offered me something, but Plymouth then came in and offered me a really good deal.
“(But) it was a weird one. When I first signed, I walked into the dressing room – it wasn’t ideal that I was on the team that stopped them from getting promoted the year before.
“I had a bit of a laugh and a joke with them saying don’t worry I’ll get you promoted. They were all good lads and there was no bad blood.”
While at Home Park – Smith got promoted from League Two again, and also got to fulfil a childhood ambition of playing at Anfield against Liverpool – his boyhood club – something that he won’t forget.
“I remember in the round before we drew with Newport at home and before the replay, we knew the draw was Liverpool, so we went away to Newport knowing what was at stake.
“That was tense but luckily we got through it. Liverpool was the reward and as a fan of them it was amazing.
“I came on for the last fifteen or twenty minutes and then I had a bad bit of luck after it. I started the league game just after that and then ended up tearing my ankle ligaments in the last minute of the game, so I missed the replay.
“(Injuries) are tough, but the worst thing about them all was the timings of it. At Watford, the injury came at a terrible time – I was in the first-team and playing well.
“It was the same at Plymouth. I felt like I was in talks to get a new deal then I got injured. I came back towards the end of the season but once we got promoted, I think that might have been the swinging factor.
“You can’t really dwell on those things. I moved onto Yeovil then and that didn’t really work out.”
With Yeovil, Smith endured a disappointing campaign, although he did get to play against Manchester United while at Huish Park in the FA Cup.
A drop down to non-league football followed – with Boreham Wood initially: “The way the year at Yeovil went – after having such great years before – I almost fell out of love with football,” he adds.
“I was under the impression that I wouldn’t have minded if I dropped out of full-time football.
“It wasn’t an enjoyable year for a few reasons. After that it was a case where I wanted to move back to a club close to Watford and Boreham Wood was that.
“In January (2019) I then spoke to Dean Brennan at Billericay. But that didn’t work out because he left (a few weeks later) so that year was a bit of a write-off.
“Luckily, Dean got the job at Wealdstone, and I joined him there (last summer). It was a place where there was a bit more stability and we ended up getting promoted (this year) which was great.”
While he may yearn for a return to his past heights, Smith admits he is not actively looking for a return to full-time professional football.
“I’m a full-time coach now with Boreham Wood in their academy and I’m really enjoying that. I can’t see myself going back into full-time football.
“(But) if I score a load of goals and get offered ten grand a week to play in the Championship I’m not going to say no but at the same time it’s not a massive goal of mine to get back into the Football League.”