Chris Smith’s journey to King’s Lynn Town via Ipswich is an education...
- Credit: Archant
King’s Lynn Town’s Chris Smith was at Ipswich from the age of eight to 21. STUART WATSON spoke to the defender about why he’s glad he always had a Plan B
The stories of football’s lost boys are rarely told. It’s easy to forget the huge human collateral damage that occurs annually when focusing on the small percentage who make it. That’s why Chris Smith’s tale needs telling. He’s a poster boy for how to handle a brutal industry.
Smith joined Ipswich Town at the age of eight. He captained the Under-23s. He spent three years on a professional contract. Yet his is a name many Blues fans may not even know.
Released last summer after making just one brief senior appearance for his boyhood club, the 22-year-old takes a break from his mechanical engineering textbooks to field this phone call.
Looking back on his early years, Smith – and this anecdote is important to the story – says: “Charlie Woods (former Town player and coach) used to live across the road from us at that time and he knew I was football mad. One day he said to me ‘next time Bobby Robson is round, do you want to come over?’ I was like ‘yes, please!’ I think I was about six. So I went over to see him and was obviously star struck. We talked about football for ages but then he asked me about school. I remember him saying ‘no education is ever wasted son’ and that really stuck with me’.”
It wasn’t long before Smith was picked up by the Blues, and after finishing his GCSEs at Kesgrave High School, he started a full-time scholarship. Quickly he decided that the further education which the club are duty bound to provide wasn’t enough.
“It’s a B-Tec qualification that you do on day release every Wednesday,” he explains. “I can’t quite remember the full title... sports exercise and health, or something like that.
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“I spoke to the club and said ‘I want to do A Levels as well seeing as I don’t know what’s going to happen with the football’. They said that was fine, but there wasn’t exactly a lot of support. It’s something I had to do off my own back.
“My old school were great, they said I could go in and do lessons whenever I wanted, but I struggled to do that because of training. So really all the studying came from YouTube and books.”
Those initial A Levels were in maths and physics. The plan, if he got released at the end of his scholarship, was to go off to university. But he didn’t get released.
“I’d played a few games for the Under-18s, but still didn’t have a clue if I was going to be kept on,” he recalls.
“You all get called in one by one. It’s like D-Day. You’re all so nervous. Mick (McCarthy) said ‘we’re going to offer you something’.
“I had an offer from Loughborough University at that point. When I found out I had the contract offer, I told them I was going to defer for a year. I ended up having to defer a couple more times and they were saying ‘look, are you going to come or not?’ and all I could say was ‘I really don’t know’.”
In his first year as a professional, Smith continued with his education, taking another A Level – this time in further maths. In his second year, after coming on in a League Cup game, Smith went out on loan to Chelmsford.
“I got called back when Ipswich had quite a few injuries at centre-back. That’s when I started to think ‘I’ve got a chance here’. I was on the bench away at Bolton (January 20) and going into the last few minutes Mick said ‘go and get warm’, but I never got on and then players got fit again and I went back to Chelmsford.
“I went back there full of confidence, was playing well, then when Bryan Klug took on the caretaker role after Mick left he said he was bringing me back and would try to get me a few minutes.
“I was an unused sub against Aston Villa (a 4-0 home loss) and thought I had a real chance of being involved at Reading the following game, you know the one where we won 4-0? During the week though I slipped a disc in my back.
“My chance of making a league debut had gone and I spent the whole summer and start of next season rehabbing. Gary Waddock had seen me play before and said he would like to take me on loan to Aldershot (National League) on the basis of that. He’s good friends with Mick McCarthy and Mick said ‘take him’.
“I went there but I was still struggling with my back. I was playing in pain. Gary Waddock said to me; ‘Look, you’re not like you were before, if you’re not right then go back because people will judge you on how you are playing now. Don’t try and hide it from it anyone’.
“So I went back, was honest with the physios, and was only able to play on and off. Around Christmas time my back went properly in a training session; not as bad as the first time, but bad enough. I walked in from training, didn’t speak to anyone and just sat there thinking ‘I’m not getting another contract’.
“When the time came for me to get released I wasn’t too sad. It was more frustration that after all those years of build up, and having got so close to the first team, I wasn’t able to show what I could do when it mattered.
“There was some relief too, I suppose. It was nice to finally have some clarity and for my destiny to be in my own hands at last. Football is all about opinions. Someone else determines whether you’re in the team or being kept on. With uni I know that whatever I put in I will get out in terms of the end result. It’s nice to be under my own steam.”
So finally, after deferring three times, Smith started a mechanical engineering degree at Loughborough last summer. He also signed for the Linnets.
“Combining the two has been mentally and physically tiring,” he admits. “We got back from playing Chester away at two in the morning and I’d managed to lock myself out of my room. I had to sleep on the floor and go to a lecture at 9am.
“It helps that the manager is so understanding. I had a game clash with an exam at one stage and he said ‘university comes first’.”
That manager is Ian Culverhouse, the man who was assistant to current Ipswich Town boss Paul Lambert at Colchester United, Norwich City and Aston Villa before the pair parted ways in acrimonious circumstances in 2014.
“He’s such a calming influence, a real thinker,” said Smith. “There have been so many times where we’ve had a frustrating first half, then he’s tweaked things around at half-time, given a great team talk and we’ve gone on to be brilliant and win the game.
“We’re desperately hoping the we can finish this season because we are second in the (National League North) table, just two points behind (leaders York City) with two games in hand to come. Obviously there are far bigger things than football at this moment in time though.”
So, what next?
“I’m just seeing what parts of the course I enjoy the most before deciding what sort of career I’ll pursue,” he says. “I like making things and looking at the maths behind that. One thing I’ve got in my mind is maybe doing some engineering in sport – looking at the engineering behind the boots, the balls, something like that. I’ve joked with some of the physios at Ipswich, saying ‘you’re spending an arm and a leg on this equipment, let me invent something for you!’
“I might do a year in industry, I might do a masters. It could be a three, four, five year course. We’ll see. The studying will always come first, but I couldn’t do without the football either. I need them both.”
Would he consider a return to the professional game?
“I’m really enjoying my football and if you enjoy your football then who knows where it will take you,” says Smith. “If an offer came in from a professional club it would have to be the right club at the right time though. Right now, during my studies, it’s not the right time. Then, once I’m working, it’s something I’d really have to assess.”
I put it to Smith that he could probably earn more money combining income from a qualified job and decent level of non-league football than he would playing full-time in League Two or even League One. “Yeah, that’s what a lot of the boys have worked out,” he says. “And that’s exactly what I’d be weighing up.”
Asked what his message to young footballers across the land would be, Smith says: “Just that it’s important to have a back-up. I want people to understand that it’s not the end of the world if you don’t make it at an academy or as a young pro. There will always be a team to play for, no matter what the level.
“It’s about enjoying football. I’d say to anyone, if you’re not enjoying football for whatever reason then find a way to reconnect with it because the more you enjoy it the better you get.
“A lot of lads didn’t have a Plan B – all they wanted was to be footballers and that was it. I’ve spoken to a few of them in recent months, lads who are quite switched on, and they’re now doing jobs they hate just to get money.
“Not that long ago they were looking at me revising on the coach thinking ‘what are you doing?’ I tell you what though, I bet a few of them are probably wishing they’d done something like that themselves now.”