MATT SMITH’s hopes of becoming a professional footballer appeared crushed when Pompey released him as a teenager in the summer of 2000.
But a decade on, the Chichester-born defender was given another chance to realise his dream on the other side of the world – and he’s never looked back.
Having been let go by the Blues as a 17-year-old, Smith – who had played for Barnham Trojans as a youngster – turned his attentions to education and a life at university.
Football took a back seat, though not before he’d played for Chichester City and helped them win the Sussex League title in 2004. Then in 2007 he moved to Australia to join his parents, who had emigrated three years earlier.
That prompted the start of a incredible period down under which saw Smith make his debut in the professional game at the age of 27 before later claiming three A-League championship-winners’ medals and three caps for the Australian national team.
Now 32, and playing for Bangkok Glass in the Thai Premier League, Smith is able to reflect on a rollercoaster footballing journey which looked to have ended before it had even begun.
He said: “Every football player growing up wishes and dreams of playing for a professional club.
“Living between Portsmouth and Brighton, they were my two local clubs and to be signed by one of them and addressed by them as a future star was very humbling.
“I remember when Dave Hurst, the Pompey Academy director, came to my house and put the contract in front of myself and my parents at the age of ten – that was one of my proudest moments.
“After seven years at Portsmouth, we knew that at the end of the season (1999-2000) the club would be making decisions about which players were going to gain full-time contracts and those that weren’t.
“My dad took the phone call – he didn’t tell me who it was at first, he just went into one of the separate rooms in the house.
“When he came out, I knew that something was wrong. He just looked at me and said: ‘sorry son, you won’t be offered a full-time contract’.
“The look in his eyes when he told me, it was like someone had died. To have that taken away and be left for nothing really hurt – it still hurts today.”
After completing his studies and joining his parents in the southern hemisphere, Smith plied his trade in the lower leagues, holding down a job as a marketing manager to support his young family.
A number of setbacks as a result of visa issues and unsuccessful trials at A-League clubs ensued, before the defender finally gained Australian citizenship. He then signed for North Queensland Fury at the age of 27, making his debut alongside esteemed company.
“We (the family) couldn’t afford to stay in a nice fancy hotel, so I booked into a backpackers,” said Smith.
“I remember walking in (to the club) and meeting the manager Ian Ferguson and Robbie Fowler was sitting there drinking a strawberry milkshake!
“Coming from England, where people refer to him as ‘God’, I didn’t want to say to him I was just staying down the road in a backpackers!
“I was 27 when I made my professional debut, which, in footballing terms, is very late.”
Within the space of a year Smith’s eye-catching performances earned him a move to Brisbane Roar, where he became something of a sensation within the Australian game.
A natural leader, the no-nonsense centre-half went on to make 112 league appearances, scoring five goals, during a trophy-laden spell which saw the Roar claim three Championship titles – the latter two with Smith as skipper.
A now-naturalised Australian, Smith also played for the Socceroos three times in 2012 at the East Asian Cup qualifiers.
He added: “I’ve gone along my football journey and there have been lots of good times, but there have been lots of bad times as well.
“When I was (Roar) captain during the grand final, though, I remember having the trophy and walking over and greeting the fans and seeing my dad in the crowd.
“I’ll never forget the moment that he just rushed down and bundled his way through the fans. He just grabbed me and he had his face full of tears. He just said: ‘I’m so proud of you’.”
n To view Matt Smith’s remarkable footballing journey, follow this link: youtube.com/watch?v=3xal5B28tMo