Tommy’s a bit of All White
THE World Cup can make, or break, a young footballer.
The fear was that minnows New Zealand, and Tommy Smith in particular, would be out of their depth in South Africa this month.
Yet the outcome has been very different, and that’s great news for Smith, and also potentially Ipswich Town.
Suddenly, on the back of two mature performances against Slovakia and World Cup champions Italy, which both ended in 1-1 draws, Smith can be viewed as a possible regular in the Town starting line-up for next season.
This afternoon (kick-off 3pm), Smith will again be lining up on the left-side of a three-man central defence as New Zealand endeavour to cause a major shock by qualifying for the knockout stage of the world’s big tournament.
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A win over Paraguay would guarantee a safe passage through to the second round, something that not even the most patriotic Kiwi could have dreamt of a few weeks ago.
Town boss Roy Keane was looking forward to plotting the progress of Smith, his 20-year-old defender, whom he had farmed out on loan to League One mid-table outfit Brentford earlier in the year. The Irishman could not fail but to have been impressed.
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Smith has come on leaps and bounds in such a short space of time, from those days as a rather unconvincing young defender at the start of last season – he was in Town’s 18-man squad for the first 14 league games of the campaign, none of which were won.
In fact, the first time that he was out of the squad coincided with Town’s first league win of the campaign, over Derby at the end of October.
Smith did not make another appearance for Keane’s men until he had spent a spell on loan at Brentford, during the first 10 weeks of of this year.
Then a long-term injury to fellow defender Damien Delaney, at Nottingham Forest in mid-April, gave him his chance. Smith started the last three games of the campaign, a run of appearances that rubber-stamped his place in New Zealand’s World Cup squad.
Now Smith, who has dual citizenship – he spent the majority of his schooldays in New Zealand – is a regular international and a World Cup veteran. That experience should be priceless as he bids to carve out a career in club football.
Keane should certainly have no hesitation in turning to Smith during the following key season in the Championship.
His versatility means that he can operate as a left-back as well, an important option because the left-side of defence was a problem area for Town last season.
Yet he has looked most comfortable as a centre-half. His displays for New Zealand have been composed and unruffled, impressive traits when considered that many much older and experienced players have wilted under the pressure of the World Cup.
Today will be his seventh cap for the All-Whites, all inside the last four months.
And regardless of whether the Kiwis progress, or are knocked out of the competition, Smith will still have gained invaluable experience from these last few weeks.
He will return to Portman Road a better, wiser player, and that is good news for Ipswich Town.