‘Wise beyond his years’ would undoubtedly fall under the category of overused football clichés, but it is perhaps the best way to describe Swindon Town’s Tom Smith, the 19-year-old currently on loan at National League South outfit Bath City.
“I’ve been there since I was eight/nine years old, coming all the way up through the academy, seeing everything that has been going on with the first team squad,” said the highly-rated midfielder, as he reminisced on his childhood spent admiring the club he has come to call home.
“I always used to watch the games thinking, “I could be out there one day”,” he professed. “There is no better feeling than stepping out to the County Ground. Is always where I wanted to be growing up.”
After seven years spent progressing through the Swindon Town youth system, Smith was handed his first professional contract with the Wiltshire outfit in the summer of 2014, before making his debut under manager Mark Cooper as a first-year scholar in 2015.
An appearance as a second half-substitute against Preston North End at the end of the 2014/15 campaign would mark his first outing for the club before he went on to score his first goal for the Robins in a 3-1 victory over Crewe Alexandra the season after.
A difficult 2015/16 season at the County Ground would lead to the sacking of Cooper. However, his successor, Luke Williams, would go on to reward Smith’s hard work with a run of first-team appearances throughout 2016/17.
This would be the year that Smith began to establish himself as a squad player at Swindon, but one that would ultimately lead to the club’s relegation. The midfielder featured 12 times in total for the Robins, earning himself seven starts.
Naturally, the loss of the club’s League One status led to the dismissal of Williams in May and a month-long wait for a new manager ensued before the Robins finally settled on the appointment of David Flitcroft.
Flitcroft’s arrival has seen a change in the wind at the County Ground and the new Robins boss has influenced a significant turn around in the club’s fortunes in the five months he has held the position.
The summer window saw an almost-complete overhaul, with 16 senior players arriving and just six surviving from the 2016/17 squad that suffered relegation to the fourth tier. This makeover has reaped its rewards thus far, with Town sitting comfortably in the League Two play-off places while boasting the best form in the division, and Smith was quick to praise the early work of his new manager:
“He has brought in a number of new players, but we needed it. A number of those players have really stepped up over the last month or so, and no we’re on a bit of a run. We have recently had back to back wins and a really good away record.”
While the club’s current standing is a delight for all fans to see, improved team performances led to fewer playing opportunities for Smith. It was, therefore, no surprise to see him depart on loan a month into the season.
“I was getting in the squad, but dipping in and out on the fringes,” Smith explained. “This is a big season for me, following on from the last couple, and I need to build on that. It was a no-brainer going out on loan somewhere.”
National League South side, Bath City, would be the eventual destination for the midfielder, after “ongoing discussions” that lasted “a couple of weeks”, to ensure the move was correct for all parties.
Smith, clearly recognising the need to be playing regular football in order to ensure continued development, stated: “On a personal level, I just needed to get out on loan and play games. There is nothing better, being young, just playing games.
“They have a good set-up down there. I went there to get games, experience and get my confidence back. Jerry and Bath City have helped me to kick start my football again.”
Smith certainly appears to have regained his self-belief and has made quite the impression at Twerton Park, where he has linked up with new Romans boss Jerry Gill. He has won two man of the match awards since his arrival in October while contributing two goals in his eight appearances.
The youngster stated his desire to add goals and assists to his game and will hope his improved efforts in the final third have caught the eye of Flitcroft. The Swindon boss made it clear that the midfielder remains in his long-term plans, giving him even greater motivation to impress while away from the club.
“We had a conversation before I went on loan,” Smith explained. “The idea is for me to get out and get experience playing, rather than just being stagnant around the squad. I am a Swindon player, born and bred, and long-term there will always be an option for me to be used.”
This involvement is critical for a player of Smith’s age, who is still adapting since his graduation from the Swindon Town Academy. Despite being around the first team set-up for three years now, fans would be forgiven for forgetting that the 19-year-old has made just 10 league appearances for the club. He looked to be on the verge of establishing a regular spot for the Robins last term before injury hampered his progress.
“I was getting a run of games and that really helped me push on and cement my place. I played against Rochdale at home, when we won 3-0, and I did well, but I actually got injured after that game.
“As a young player you have to take your opportunities, but sometimes when you do get injured you lose that place in the squad, whereas a more experienced player might come straight back,” Smith admitted. “It is a difficult one, as I was doing well at the time, but things come up and things change.”
However, having accepted that injuries are part and parcel of the game, Smith was determined to bounce back and reclaim his spot in the squad, even if it required a temporary loan move along the way. He thoughtfully stated, “You can’t really control what happens. You just have to get on with it and keep working hard.”
After initially arriving at Bath City on a one-month deal, the club were delighted to extend Smith’s stay until after the New Year. This comes as little surprise considering his early performances for the Romans. It is clear that he thrives on playing matches and his displays have proven key to the club cementing a comfortable mid-table position in the National League South.
Of course, this is not the first loan move of Smith’s career. Last season the 19-year-old spent a brief spell out on loan with League of Ireland First Division outfit Waterford, where he proved vital in the club’s successful push for promotion, alongside Town teammate Jake Evans.
“It was a similar situation to the beginning of this season. Come January the club brought in new players and it meant I probably wasn’t going to get in the squad. I needed to continue playing games and continue doing well, in order to make it a good season. Despite looking at other clubs in England, everything just fell into place behind the scenes.”
Moving to a new league, in a new country, represented a fresh challenge for Smith. However, it is one that saw him thrive. He made 11 appearances for the club, scoring a single goal in a 2–0 away victory over UCD.
It ended up being a really good move for me. It was my first loan and a really great experience. We had to fly out there and live away from home. I got to meet loads of new people and experience a different style of football.
Seemingly, the canvas for Smith has always been painted red. The long-term ambition for the teenage midfielder is to establish himself as a first-team regular at the County Ground. Everything he does in the meantime is in pursuit of realising that goal.
“With playing games and getting experience, I think my time will come. It would be nice this year, or maybe the year after, to play in a Swindon shirt regularly.”
Smith still looks back with fond memories of his time as a ball boy for the Robins. In particular, he recollects the excitement of the Paulo di Canio era, but he never envisaged himself gracing the same turf as those he considered his childhood heroes.
“Looking out onto the pitch I just couldn’t ever imagine myself being there. It seemed so far away.”
Being a Swindon Town first team regular may have been little more than a fantasy for a 13-year-old Tom Smith. Now, into his third year as a pro, he is closer than he ever would have expected. Despite all this, he remains grounded. Determined as ever to prove his worth at the club that has been a substantial influence in his life, to date.
“It is a weird thing, thinking I’m so close to being a regular. For me, being at a young age, I need to take a step back from everything, remember I am a young player, and keep working hard.”