Who is Nathan Smith, Port Vale's young defensive protégé?
Port Vale are a football club that has undergone a complete overhaul over the summer months, with a managerial change and a new-look first team squad. However, despite the changes both on and off the pitch, it is a young central defender who has progressed from the clubs academy that is making a real impact at Vale Park.
The summer of change in Burslem commenced with the departure of manager Rob Page who, after securing a 12th place finish in his first full season in charge, left to join League One rivals Northampton Town. An exodus of senior players then followed, with club captain Carl Dickinson ( who moved to Notts County), top goalscorer A.J Leitch-Smith (Shrewsbury Town), and long serving stalwarts Chris Neal (Fleetwood Town), Chris Birchall (Free Agent), Ryan McGivern (Shrewsbury Town), Richard Duffy (Notts County) and Louis Dodds (Shrewsbury Town) all failing to agree new deals.
Bruno Ribeiro succeeded Rob Page in the Port Vale managerial hotseat and the little-known Portuguese coach brought with him a continental revolution, signing 14 new players during pre-season from across the lower echelons of European football. Yet despite the vast array of new arrivals, it is 20-year-old academy graduate Nathan Smith who has emerged as a key component in Ribeiro’s new look team.
Smith has started, and played, every minute of Port Vale’s opening three fixtures and the central defender has played a prominent role in helping his side secure two clean sheets in three matches. He is beginning to develop into one of the most promising young defenders in League One and the consensus around Vale Park is that there is much more to come.
After rising through the youth system Smith spent the 2015/16 campaign on loan at Conference side Torquay United. He made 44 appearances for the ‘Gulls’ with manager Kevin Nicholson describing him as a ‘freak of nature’ due to the consistently outstanding performances that the central defender was producing. Such was the impact made at Plainmoore, that Smith was selected as Torquay’s Player of the Season.
The summer saw a change in manager at Vale Park as Smith’s return to Burslem coincided with the arrival of Ribeiro who immediately made the youngster a central part of his pre-season plans. Again, Smith made an immediate impression and his positive performances in both training and friendly fixture resulted him being labelled as ‘the best player of pre-season’.
Yet it still came as something of a surprise when other, more experienced defenders were overlooked as Smith made his Port Vale debut at Valley Parade on the opening day of the season. The 20-year-old produced a mature performance way beyond his years as he overcame a bruising encounter with Bradford striker James Hanson to help secure a vital clean sheet which earned Vale their first point of the new campaign.
Following his debut, Smith has cemented himself in Bruno Ribeiro’s starting eleven, starting all of Port Vale’s opening three fixtures, and he has continued to demonstrate that he possesses the ability and character to thrive in the physically demanding world of League One football. He is a young man full of potential and promise who has capitalised on the managerial change at the football club to rise to the forefront of first team action. Port Vale supporters will be hoping that Smith can maintain his positive early-season form and continue to develop over the coming months as the club looks to mount a promotion challenge.