‘I chose books over X-Box... I bet some of the lads wish they did too now’ – Chris Smith on life after Ipswich Town
- Credit: Picture: Steve Waller
Chris Smith was at Ipswich Town from the age of eight to 21. STUART WATSON spoke to the King’s Lynn defender, who is now doing a mechanical engineering degree, 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 focussing 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.
“You know the turning on the left just before the training ground? That’s me,” he says. “If I get up now and look out the window I can see the pitches.
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“We were in this house before the training ground was even built in the early 2000s. My whole family are Ipswich based and they’re all proper Ipswich fans. I was a season ticket holder at the age of four and we’d go to as many away games as possible too.
“I remember, mainly, the Joe Royle era – Shefki, Pablo, big Jason de Vos... The two years we lost to West Ham in the play-off semi-finals, that was the time I was most into it. I used to love Owen Garvan in midfield. I had his name on a shirt which I wore far too much. He was a relatively tall like me and played how I wanted to play. He was my player.”
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Looking back on those early years, Smith – and this anecdote is important to the story – adds: “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.
“I got spotted playing for St John’s,” he says. “We had a good little team. Andre (Dozzell) and Woolfy (Luke Woolfenden) played, but Andre always jokes that he was in the ‘B’ team. Those two were the year below me, but played up. Believe it or not, we still didn’t win the league that year. We came second to a team who had a few big lads who bullied us a bit.
“Then from the 10 or 11 of us in that initial Under-9s group at Ipswich it was only me and one other lad, Travis Cole (now playing for Lowestoft), who made it all the way through to become scholars. It was hard because you’d see good friends being let go each year.”
A midfielder most of the way through his academy journey, Smith was converted ‘kicking and screaming’ into a centre-back at the age of 16 on the recommendation of Bryan Klug.
“I had really good coaches,” he says. “There was Graham Howlett, who everyone calls ‘Spike’, who really made football enjoyable. Liam Manning, who went to West Ham and is now working in America, was great. I had Lee O’Neill too, he was a really good coach.
“Some people go through the academy system and have horror stories about the pressure of it all and how they fell out of love with the game. I never thought too much about when I might get released though, I just enjoyed it for what it was. I kept playing other sports – a lot of cricket and tennis – for as long as I could. I didn’t stop those until I really had to when I became a full-time scholar.”
After finishing his GCSEs at Kesgrave High School, Smith started a full-time scholarship at Playford Road. 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.
“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.
“I did always feel a little bit different, but I quite enjoyed that,” he says, laughing. “In the dressing room there’d be an argument about something and the lads would automatically turn to me for the answer. I wouldn’t have a clue, but I’d make something up and they’d believe me just because they’d once seen me read a book!
“The lads would be off to play X-Box after training, Call of Duty or Fortnite, and Alan Lee (ex Town striker turned academy coach) would go ‘what’s Smithy doing, is going off to read a book?’”
Documenting his three-year pro journey, Smith explains: “I was playing with the 23s and, towards the end of the season, when a few of the lads started getting involved with the first team, I became captain.
“Then in the second year, after coming on in that League Cup game (the youngest side in Ipswich history losing valiantly at Premier League side Crystal Palace), I went out on loan to Chelmsford (in the National League South).
“It was a really good first taste of men’s football. I was a bit apprehensive at first. The manager, Rod Stringer, was your typical non-league manager – he loved you to get stuck in and he delivered these big shouty team talks – but he was great for me, he filled me with confidence. And they had Nick Haycock as a coach, who has worked in roles for the Premier League and West Ham. His sessions were great, so it wasn’t the non-league set-up that a lot of people think of.
“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 Norfolk-based National League North side King’s Lynn Town.
“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.” Chris Smith is the real poster boy for Town’s young players