Nathan Smith has enjoyed two stints at Yeovil
Life as a footballer has been anything but dull for Smith since he swapped his job as a computer analyst and part-time footballer with Enfield, Waltham Forest and Potters Bar Town for a professional contract with Yeovil at the age of 21.
He is nearing 300 appearances with the Somerset club across two spells wrapped around a three-year stay at Chesterfield. He has also made two international appearances for Jamaica.
A vegan, the 31-year-old is the subject of this week’s Sky Bet EFL Q&A and offers a thoughtful insight into the game, whether that is feeling embarrassment at being left out of the matchday squad or calling for more direct help from the football authorities to help players cope with life in football retirement.
Were you always a central defender?
No, I started off at left-wing. I was a winger back in the day, then went to left-back and as of recently I’ve started playing more centre-back.
I was at Enfield when I started. It was when I got into the first team there that I started playing left-back. They already had their players in positions, but one of their players was injured so I just slotted in at left-back and tried it from there.
There are a lot of similarities with the positions, but at the start when you’re not used to that part on the pitch and that position, it all seems a bit different which is obviously a part of the challenge of trying to adapt to it.
I couldn’t really say how long it took me but it was easier to adapt in the non-league environment rather than when you go into the professional side of things.
It’s my second full season now of playing centre-back. I’m still young there, still a newbie. I had an injury and someone came in at left-back and was doing well. When a person’s doing well, you can’t really expect them not to be put in the team. I think it was against Carlisle when a centre-back got sent off, so I had to come on there. After that, the gaffer said: “How do you feel about playing there?” I was just a natural (laughing).
Best moment on a football pitch?
It would have to be the EFL Trophy final when I won it with Chesterfield (2-0 against Swindon in March 2012). It’s every person’s dream as a youngster, especially where I came from in London, to play at Wembley. But you don’t think that you’re going to play at Wembley one day and be Man of the Match.
I remember that when the manager said I’d be playing, I couldn’t sleep that night. I remember being up until three or four o’clock in the morning. I dropped one of my friends a text to say: “I can’t sleep,” but obviously he didn’t respond. But then you get to the game and it’s much different to what you’re used to. The environment, the big open space, even the car park like you’re going around in a crystal maze, the changing rooms and then when you’re walking out you’ve got the big flames flying up into the air which were hot. It was very different, but it was a joy to be involved in.
I didn’t score but I got Man of the Match. I don’t know if they announced it, I just remember being pulled to one side and thinking: “What’s going on?” Then they told me and gave me my bottle (of champagne). When I was giving my interview, some of the players were trying to take my bottle. But that bottle was one I was keeping hold of and it was not opening to be sprayed at anyone.
Nathan Smith facing Alexis Sanchez
Is there one regret you need to put right?
Not really. The position I’m in right now, I’m just grateful for everything I’ve been able to go through. I really feel like that because when I’ve been able to go into schools and talk about my experiences, not solely as a footballer, but as a person, the impact that I’ve been able to leave on the kids and the students in the school has let me know that I haven’t really got any regrets to have.
I’ve spoken at a couple of schools in London. It came about because one of the schools, St Thomas More in north London, the sports head used to play with me down at Enfield, He got in contact and asked if I could come down and give a little talk. The impact that I know I made told me that I can’t have any regrets. You either play at a higher league or you don’t, just enjoy what you have at the moment.
Many people have said that I left Yeovil at the wrong time (and missed their promotion via the play-offs to the Championship in 2012/13), but I won the EFL Trophy in my first season with Chesterfield, so who’s to say that if I had stayed at Yeovil, the manager at the time would have liked me?
I got relegated with Chesterfield, but again that was a story I was able to tell the students that I know what it feels like to suffer disappointment and I know what it feels like to succeed because from there, we won promotion.
The player who always springs to mind is Fabien Brandy. The reason I say him is that I was very new to the game and he was at Swansea on loan from Man Utd at the time. I was just coming into the game and finding my feet. Coming into the professional game was like starting again and learning how to play a certain type of football with positioning and understanding when to set off against your opponent.
What helped was that I was living with Terrell Forbes and Gavin Tomlin and we used to watch all of our games back in the front room. That helped me massively.
Nathan Smith (right) spent three seasons at Chesterfield
It wasn’t that Fabien Brandy did anything amazing that game, it was the fact that I had just been thrown in and was adapting to the level whereas his movement coming from Man Utd, he had things ingrained in him that were different to other players I had encountered.
In non-league football, players didn’t really do double-movements on you.
I would also say Jason Puncheon was a hard opponent, too. I had a lot of battles with him around that time (Puncheon was at MK Dons, then Southampton).
Least favourite away ground?
The one that springs to mind is Accrington. The environment, it just looks so dull at times. But I enjoy going there at the same time because I know it’s what works for them. If a whole team goes there thinking about the environment, it’s very much to their advantage. That’s why I enjoy going there because I know it’s going to be a battle with the inside voice.
The majority of the non-league grounds I went to were very much bad, so there’s not really one that sticks out. On the other side, I remember going to Dover and the pitch was like a carpet. I thought I had made it when I went there.
What’s your guilty food pleasure?
To be honest, the way I eat there’s never really anything that I have too much of, but what I will have is a raw vegan cheesecake. I’m a vegan and that’s a natural cake that I make. It doesn’t have any dairy and it’s not cooked, so I can indulge in as much of it as I want, to be honest, because it’s got all healthy stuff in it.
It has got to the point where the way I eat on a consistent basis, I can’t really eat much rubbish anyway because my body will react a certain way and I can feel it instantly. I just stick to what my body responds to in a positive way.
Nathan Smith’s first stint at Yeovil began in 2008
Funniest thing you have seen in a dressing room?
It may have been when someone hung up Jack Lester’s coat at Chesterfield. The reactions of no-one saying who had done it and Jack wasn’t happy about it. Sometimes players would hang up someone else’s clothes on a hanger and hang it to the ceiling in the middle of the room. Everyone tried to keep quiet and you’d watch for the responses. Jack wasn’t happy, but he didn’t know who to blame. It wasn’t me. That’s one thing about me. I don’t get involved in that stuff. I laugh at it, but I wouldn’t touch anyone’s clothes no matter how bad they were.
Boyhood sporting hero?
Me and my friends used to look up Ronaldo – Big Ron – and Ronaldinho, those kinds of players. Big Ron was exciting to watch, especially when you watched the Italian football on Channel 4 on Sunday afternoons – Goooaaallllazzio!
If you had the power, what one thing would you change about the game?
I would say have more help from the outside in terms of helping players with their future after football and their mindset. There are a lot of players who suffer from depression and breakdowns after they have left the game. If there was more help from the governing bodies, maybe somewhere the players have to go to once a week just to help them with their mindset and with the little things that may possibly occur. Just to prepare them for anything.
I would say it hasn’t improved since I turned professional. It’s more or less exactly the same as it was. You get the odd governing body that comes in and says one or two things, but in terms of setting up some sort of workshop that players have to attend, that would prove to be a massive benefit, I feel.
Most embarrassing moment in football?
I’m just trying to think. You’ve caught me well off guard with that one. I would say when you’ve not even been selected in a matchday squad. It is embarrassing because you want to be involved.
That happened to me at times at Chesterfield in the same season that we won the EFL Trophy. There was a period where I didn’t really feature. I was in the stands for a few games. When you’re put in the stands on a couple of occasions, it is embarrassing because you want to be involved. You’re thinking: “I’m a footballer and I’m not even playing.” When it’s in your early days as well, when you’re learning to understand the game and there’s that growth, you take in a lot more from the environment than you possibly should do.
Which player in history would you like to play alongside?
I would love to play alongside Big Ron, but as a defender, I’d say Roberto Carlos. Or Cafu. I used to find Cafu very interesting the way he chewed that chewing gum as he ran up and down.
I’d play centrally just for one game. I wouldn’t mind letting Roberto Carlos play left-back. Then he could go back on the bench.