Ahead of this week’s Reader’s Digest supplement, The Boot Room had the pleasure of chatting to ex-pro footballer-turned author, Ben Smith.
With seasons playing for the likes of Reading, Yeovil, Southend, Hereford, Shrewsbury and Weymouth – and a career including three promotions, one relegation and some very memorable FA Cup games – Ben’s story is one of a quintessential journeyman footballer. Having made 475 first-team appearances and scored eighty-two goals during his 17 year career, at the age 35, he decided to hang up his boots and put pen to paper.
Following the release of his first publication, the suitably titled ‘Journeyman’ we were eager to throw a few additional questions in his direction. Speaking to the site during our exclusive interview, here is what he had to say:
TBR: So Ben, when we left you at the end of ‘Journeyman’ you were ready to embark on a new chapter of your life in coaching. How is this progressing and are you still pulling the strings in midfield for Thurrock?
BS: I am now the Under 16 coach for Brighton and Hove Albion FC in their academy and I also oversee the U15s. After a really tough year teaching I am really happy to be back in an environment that I know well and in a position to pass on some of the knowledge I have gained over the last 20 years. Thurrock decided to put me out of my misery playing wise by coming up with the well known ‘budget cut’ reason for dispensing with my services. In actual fact it worked out well as it freed me up to do more coaching, which inadvertently helped me, get my current role.
How did you find putting pen to paper in writing your book? Is it something that came quite naturally? I, for one, would struggle to detail the last 15 years of my life in a coherent fashion if I wanted to do so.
I really enjoyed it. I started writing it when I was feeling at quite a low ebb as I struggled with the teaching. Initially I just wanted to write it with no real ambitions to get it published but as it went on I felt like I had a story that was worth telling. While writing the book I would go on to the internet and look at the games from the season that I was referring to and the memory’s would come flooding back, good and bad!
What gave you the idea to write the book? Like you mention yourself, Premier League stars have saturated the autobiography market, so ‘Journeyman’ certainly came as a refreshing change!
That was my main motivation to try and add a bit of reality to this genre. Unfortunately the vast majority of us don’t drive fast cars, have holiday homes in Dubai and holiday on private yachts. In the grand scheme of things I am a nobody so it was important that I tried to be as honest as I could especially when talking about myself.
Having retired from the professional game in 2012, after leaving Crawley Town, what have you found yourself missing the most? Is there anything you’re not missing quite as much?
I miss the buzz of waking up on a Saturday and then that brilliant sense of satisfaction after a win and a good performance. However, I don’t miss that feeling of despair after a defeat and a rubbish performance that tends to linger until the next game.
Do you feel you would have sustained yourself at a higher level, had you had a better mentality as a youngster? Perhaps not as an Arsenal regular, but could consistent first team football at a club like Reading been more probable?
I look back on my career and know that athletically I would have struggled to perform at the requisite level on a consistent basis in the Premiership or Championship. However, I always felt that if I had been more dedicated as a younger player that I should have played the vast majority of my career in League One rather than straddling League Two and the Conference.
Steve Evans certainly sounds quite the character. Despite all your ups and downs, do you feel he was a manager capable of getting the best out of you? Do you think he can restore Leeds to former glories?
Sometimes I enjoyed working under him and other times I really didn’t agree with a lot of the things he did. But I will say that during the season we got promoted from the Conference from about September onwards he managed me really well and coaxed a lot of good performances from me. Although I will always think I should have played even more.
On the subject of managers, who was the best you ever worked under? Also, when it comes to your own career as a coach, have you adopted any aspects of any previous bosses’ coaching styles?
Graham Turner at Hereford was probably the manager I played my best football under. As a result of that he was someone I enjoyed playing for and respected. Normally he just let me get on with playing which was the way I liked it. I have taken lots of bits from the different managers and coaches I have worked under both good and bad. Ultimately though I try to be my own man and try to take a really individual approach with the boys and make them realise that I care for all of them and want to help them get better.
Match reports from your trip to Old Trafford suggest you were able to match United’s performance, even out-passing and creating better chances than your hosts. Looking back is this the fondest moment of your career? Honestly, how close do you think you came to toppling the Red Devils?
Whatever the ups and downs I had with Steve Evans that is a day that I am forever grateful for. They started the better team but we grew into it and went toe to toe with them in the second half. It was not often, especially in those days, that Man United were frantically defending their own 18yd box in the last 10 minutes. I’m not sure we deserved to beat them but we had definitely done enough, performance wise, to bring them back to Crawley for a replay.
For those who didn’t have the opportunity to see you play, if you had to compare yourself – based mainly on your style – to a player in the Premier League today, who would it be? And why?
Wow, that is a tricky question and one that could open me up to ridicule depending on my answer!! I really admire David Silva and Cesc Fabregas and would love to say I played like them but lets be realistic here! A more realistic comparison might be somebody like Wes Hoolahan especially in my Crawley Days. When I was younger I was a bit more box to box and more Frank Lampard like but a very poor imitation.
If you had to choose your best ever goal as a professional, which would it be? We would love to be able to dig it out of the YouTube archives to show our readers.
My best goal that you will catch on Youtube would be the volley I scored against Tranmere in the FA Cup third round for Hereford. I also got a good volley on Sky for Weymouth and a very composed finish against Swindon in the FA Cup.
You were clearly preparing for your future away from the game long before your professional career came to an end. Is this something you would encourage most players to do, and perhaps more importantly, are they given the right support by their clubs and the footballing community to do so?
Firstly I believe it is the player’s responsibility to take control of his own destiny and education rather than the club and governing bodies. Of course they can help but ultimately the player must be committed to doing it. Players should be looking ahead to their future career. As a player you have plenty of time to take up extra curricular activities and the sooner you prepare yourself for the future the better. Primarily because it takes the pressure off your football if you have something to fall back on and secondly it is very hard to re-train if you are already working full time in a new role when your career has finished.
This next feature is something we have done in past interviews. If you had to choose a five-a-side team (including a manager), consisting of the best players you ever featured alongside, who would you pick?
Good question, I would have Joe Hart in goal, Kyle McFadzean, Lionel Ainsworth, Toumani Diagouraga and Gary Hooper.
The manager would actually be my favourite coach, Richard O’Kelly, the current assistant manager of Walsall.