Port Vale’s 20-year-old centre-half Nathan Smith is unlikely to have been dreaming of plying his trade in the top tier of English football during his years of development in the academy of the Burslem club. In fact, it is something that is unlikely to have crossed his mind even as recently as July, when Smith was fresh from a successful loan spell at National League club Torquay United and simply hopeful of getting a chance in the Vale first-team as he reported in for pre-season, the first at the club under new manager Bruno Ribeiro, a close friend of José Mourinho.
Born in April 1996 in nearby Madeley just over the North Staffordshire-Cheshire border, Smith grew up a boyhood fan of the Valiants’ local rivals Stoke City. The Potters back then plied their trade in what is now the EFL Championship, as did Port Vale themselves, and the Old First Division three years earlier had been rebranded with its current tag of the Premier League.
20 years and two loan spells later, Nathan Smith earned himself the accolade of the EFL’s Young Player of the Month for August after breaking into Port Vale’s first-team in pre-season, and if the reckonings of his manager and club chairman Norman Smurthwaite are to have any substance, Smith is a player who has a realistic chance of one day making it in the top flight.
Despite how his career has taken off so quickly, the 20-year-old centre-half keeps some words of advice with him, that he has kept in mind ever since his days in the academy.
“I remember being told play every game like it’s your last game. And basically it makes me think don’t play with any regrets and come off thinking I could’ve done this or that differently, that’s the thing that stuck with me”.
A thigh injury to Ribeiro’s first summer signing, Dutch defender Kjell Knops, forced the manager’s hand into giving Smith a chance in pre-season. He has exceeded expectations and seized his chance with both hands to the extent that within less than two months, he had become a regular in central defence, and had been rewarded with a three-year contract extension before scooping the EFL Young Player of the Month award. He has since gone on to start in all of Port Vale’s League One games so far this season.
“I was very happy with it”, says Smith on winning the accolade. “It’s nice to be given an award but afterwards you’ve just got to put it to one side and keep working hard and going forward”.
“It fills me full of confidence knowing that you’ve got the backing from the manager, you’re playing in the team every week and doing well, but you can’t think about it too much or let it get to your head.”
“You’ve got to keep working hard because football can change very quickly”.
The winning of such an award certainly puts him in quality company. The list of former winners of the Young Player of the Month award who have gone on to play in the Premier League is a long one, going right back to the very first winner, Chelsea’s Victor Moses, in December 2009, during his Crystal Palace years.
Other winners of the award who have gone on to play in the Premier League include Charlie Austin (March 2010), Connor Wickham (April 2010), Steven Caulker (November 2010), Danny Ings (April 2011), Jonjo Shelvey (November 2011), Wilfried Zaha (October 2012), Sam Byram (February 2013), Dele Alli (August 2014) and Demarai Gray (December 2014). At first glance, it undoubtedly sets a precedent.
Despite it being Smith’s breakthrough season in League One, club chairman Norman Smurthwaite has already hinted that the defender is attracting admirers from the higher echelons of the football pyramid, though of course Smith’s new deal, set to run until 2020, would give the Valiants leverage if any negotiations were to be made in the January transfer window or later.
His chairman however praises him for his “motivation by the craft” of the sport, rather than being motivated by money, and than any deal completed regarding the player would be nothing less than the right move for the good of the youngster’s career. Smith himself however refuses to be drawn on such speculation, despite the fact he has admitted he has been forced into re-assessing his personal goals for the season.
“I’m enjoying life under Bruno (Ribeiro) massively”, he says. “He’s given me my chance and its made my career progress quicker than I thought”.
“At the start of the season I was planning on hopefully just getting into the side here and there but he’s given me my chance and hopefully I can continue doing well.”
“My personal target is just to play as many games as possible really. At the start of the season it was to get into the team, I’ve done that so of course that has changed. So now I just want to play as many games as I can and do as well as possible for the club.”
Across their five league matches back in August, Vale won three of them, picked up ten points, conceded just two goals and Smith scored his first goal – the winner in a 1-0 victory at home to Rochdale. He added another soon after, another winner in Port Vale’s 1-0 Checkatrade Trophy triumph over Derby County’s U-23 side.
The youngster let out a chuckle upon being quizzed over his secret of being a goalscoring centre-half, explaining that from his perspective there isn’t particularly a great deal involved in excelling at the art, though the smirk suggests the compliment was much appreciated.
His centre-half partner Remie Streete- once a trainee at Newcastle United-, with whom Smith has formed an excellent partnership, has also been getting in amongst the goals, with both players now on three each for the season. Impressive when one considers that they are only 20 and 22 years of age respectively, and playing regular football at the heart of Bruno Ribeiro’s new-look Vale defence.
“I wouldn’t say there’s any secret to being a goalscoring centre-half, it’s just a case of being in the right place at the right time. It’s nice to score goals for your team, but as a pair we (Remie and I) concentrate more on keeping clean sheets”.
One of the most impressive performances the two have put in together was in new boss Bruno Ribeiro’s first competitive match in charge, where the Valiants battled well to earn a point at promotion-hopefuls Bradford on the opening day of the season. It was also more notably of course, Smith’s competitive debut for the club, played in front of a crowd that was little under 19,000 at Valley Parade. A task made all the more daunting for Smith by the mission of marking Bradford’s potent 6ft 4in target man James Hanson.
“There were definitely a few nerves”, Smith recalls with a grin. “It was my first appearance in the league and especially in front of a crowd as big as that I was full of nerves before kick-off. But as the game gradually wore on I feel like I grew more comfortably into the game”.
So considering all the headlines that young Nathan Smith has been grabbing over the last couple of months, what actually goes into moulding an academy player into a future Premier League hopeful? As well as the advice he takes forward from his academy days, there is the example of one top-flight star which he feels has had an effect on his game.
“When I was growing up I used to love watching John Terry”, Smith recounts. “I loved the way that he’d go out and lead his team, no-nonsense defending, and that’s definitely something that I feel has rubbed off on me.”
A critical aspect in Smith’s development however came from him going out on loan and getting first-team experience lower down the football pyramid. It is an ethos which was preached by former Vale boss Rob Page and has continued under the Ribeiro regime, with some of Vale’s other academy prospects, hopeful of emulating Smith’s success, now undergoing the very same learning curve themselves.
Smith had his own message for the players that fall under this category. These include winger Ryan Lloyd, currently out on loan at Chester, goalkeepers Sam Johnson, Harry Pickering and Ryan Boot who are enjoying spells out on loan at Gateshead, Kidsgrove and Worcester respectively, right-back James Gibbons on-loan at Leek Town and midfielder Billy Reeves who is wracking up minutes with Witton Albion.
“I’d say playing games, competitive football against men is definitely something I’d advise to anyone coming through the youth system.”
“Playing competitive football, there’s nothing like it, you can’t recreate that in the academy”.
Smith’s first-ever spell out on loan was within the local area, when he put pen to paper for a season with Northern Premier League outfit Stafford Rangers, and Smith was more than happy to speak about the benefits of that experience.
“It was my first loan spell, so it felt a bit weird going out and away from the club, but regular competitive football definitely improved me as a player and again I’d advise any young players to go out and get games if the opportunity is there”.
The big turning point in Smith’s development however would come the following year in the 2015/16 season, when he was loaned out to National League outfit Torquay United. It was at the time the highest level the youngster had played at in his competitive career, and he was forced to adapt quickly after enduring a testing first-half of the season at Plainmoor.
The Gulls were entangled in relegation trouble in the National League, after having won just three times in 23 games before Christmas, two of those wins coming in their opening three games of the season. However a late season run that culminated in ten wins from 16 matches kept Torquay up relatively comfortably.
Smith was an integral part of that side, making 39 appearances throughout the season, whilst Torquay manager Kevin Nicholson hailed the youngster as being a “freak of nature”. Smith himself recognises this season as the moment when his career really began to upturn rapidly.
“Going out on loan to Torquay benefitted me massively”, he says. “That was the big learning curve of my career so far I would say”.
Port Vale chairman Norman Smurthwaite is also under no illusions as to the extent to which the experience has aided in Smith’s development. The loan spell almost constitutes a metamorphosis in his view, in that Smith went to Torquay a boy “and came back a man”. These words were also echoed to an extent by former Vale manager Rob Page when he spoke about the purpose of young players going out on loan, and featuring regularly in the team at clubs where it matters if you’re in a side that gets beaten on a Saturday afternoon. Page labelled the concept an experience which would help Vale’s youngsters become men. Smith himself, a beneficiary of this system, would agree with such an assertion.
“Kevin (Nicholson) helped me as a player both on and off the pitch and the experience helped me grow up, especially living away from home and going down to Torquay”, says Smith in recalling the experience.
“It has definitely helped my development the most so far. It was the step I needed to move forward”.
His exploits at Torquay didn’t go unappreciated amongst the Gulls faithful either, and the Vale youngster cleaned up at their end of season awards, scooping the club’s Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year awards, and it is an experience which brings a smile to Smith’s face when discussed.
“I was over the moon when my name was read out, and it’s something you remember, especially within a loan spell away from the club and it’ll stay with me forever. But mostly it has given me confidence in going forward.”
And it is going forward which is certainly the focus for the local lad who is fulfilling his ambition of representing the club which nurtured him and moulded him into a professional footballer. Port Vale, who finished 12th under Rob Page last season, have been in amongst the top six consistently so far this season under the oratory of former Leeds and Sheffield United player Bruno Ribiero. Recently however, the Valiants have been cut two points adrift of the playoffs after a run of four games without a win in October.
It is a run which Smith and his teammates are determined to put right, and although his future may well lie elsewhere either in January or beyond, the youngster is keeping his feet firmly on the ground. At present, doing his best for Port Vale, keeping his place in the team and striving to meet the club’s expectations for the season is all that is on the player’s mind; and much like his employers, he is aiming high.
“As a club, our ambitions for the season are definitely to reach the playoffs and be in the promotion mix, we can’t look at anything else. Anything else would be a failure I guess”, Smith explains.
“We want to go up the leagues and make our way as high up as possible”.
A summer of complete overhaul at Vale Park has seen the club more than ever in recent seasons striving to reach for the stars, and an important part of reaching that achievement will be the accumulation of asset value in terms of developing younger players and making substantial turnover on them, a model which has so often paid dividends for Vale’s local rivals Crewe Alexandra down the years. As far as Port Vale are concerned, Nathan Smith may well be the player to set the precedent and get the production line rolling.
Though rather than simply remain content with a constant cycle of selling off the club’s better players, an ethos is being developed of keeping the conveyor belt going and ensuring any money made on young stars is reinvested into the team, in order to build towards the club’s ultimate goal of promotion to the Championship and eventual stability in the second tier, from which point, if they can establish it, the sky may well be the limit.
Whether or not they ultimately achieve that goal, if Nathan Smith can continue to make such remarkable progress, there can be little doubt that he, if not the club in its entirety, certainly will. Another precedent has been set entirely by the company in which he shares his EFL Young Player of the Month accolade, and it seems the potential is very much there for him to hit the very same heights.