Surely you remember Ben Smith? You don’t? Well I still have a clear memory of a sunny late April afternoon back in 2008 when all-conquering Hereford United stomped all over a weak Brentford team and thrashed them three-nil to secure a promotion slot to Division One. Their raucous supporters took over an otherwise morgue-like and desperate Griffin Park and in midfield Watford loanee Toumani Diagouaraga and the aforementioned Smith dovetailed perfectly and ran rings around us, creating chance after chance for the predatory Gary Hooper. Whilst Hooper has gone onto fame and no doubt fortune in his subsequent career at Celtic and Norwich City Ben Smith never succeeded in touching those heights.
He had high hopes when, as a callow, cocky young Essex boy he started off as an apprentice in the hallowed marble halls of Highbury, marvelling at the skills of the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, and dreaming of the day he would play alongside his hero, but it wasn’t to be and he was soon shipped out to begin his long odyssey around the lesser reaches of the football world.
He became the epitome of the journeyman footballer, surviving, if not always thriving, for no less than seventeen years in a sport that mercilessly weeds out the weak and unfortunate and established himself in such outposts of the game as Yeovil, Hereford, Crawley and Swindon.
His marvellous autobiography is published today. No tales of the Champions League or Baby Bentleys here – instead, what you get is a gritty, fascinating and indeed salutary tale as Smith is searingly honest, opens himself up to criticism and scrutiny and spares nobody, least of all himself, as he looks back with the perspective of a now mature adult at some of the naive, immature and frankly daft decisions and mistakes he made that condemned him to the life of a lower league journeyman rather than a Premier League superstar.
Ben certainly had the raw talent to play at the top level as he was skilful on the ball, read the game excellently and had the ability to open up a defence with one incisive through ball but he was never given the opportunity to prove it and when glimmers of hope appeared he was either cursed with bad luck, ill-timed injuries, the vagaries of unsympathetic management or indeed his own myriad shortcomings.
He now realises and admits that early on in his career, before the penny dropped, he squandered his ability through ill-discipline, abusing his body, which was hardly a temple, and a failure to knuckle down to self-sacrifice and the monastic lifestyle required to be a successful professional footballer.
He was left to scrabble around each year for one more contract, a club car, an extra fifty quid a week or an appearance bonus to help secure his future and delay the inevitable. This is what life is really about in the lower divisions where there is no job security and a footballer is simply a depreciating asset with the clock ticking, who is instantly replaceable by another identical clone and can be disposed of at the will and whim of despotic chairmen or managers who have their own agendas, play favourites, pay lip service to the truth and are always looking to find a way to cut the wage bill or slither out of their obligations.
Smith often falls foul of their machinations as he is despatched from pillar to post and learns the hard way about the perils of finding a new club and contract negotiation both with and without an agent. He leaves himself exposed to danger by agreeing to a potential new contract that only kicks in if he plays a set number of games the previous season, and is left to wither on the vine as his manager did everything within his power to avoid him reaching that milestone and get rid of him.
Not that he bemoans his fate as throughout the book it becomes quite clear that he was massively proud and grateful for the chance to play professional football for so long and to make over three hundred appearances at levels ranging from Division One to the Conference South. He was a craftsman, a survivor and he made some money, got the girl, won the odd promotion and title here and there, became a local hero and established a decent reputation in some of the aforementioned outposts of the game, enjoyed himself and most importantly, did not have to succumb to the drudgery of a normal nine-to-five routine.
As we have heard elsewhere this season, football is “a village” and in the course of his travels Smith meets up with so many incredible characters within the game both on and off the pitch and he is an excellent fly on the wall and has taken careful note of their strengths and weaknesses. He is a keen observer and paints vivid word portraits. He is sympathetic to the likes of Graham Turner, juggling the horrendous joint roles of Chairman and Manager at Hereford United but he has little time for and eviscerates Gary Peters and Steve Evans for whom he played at Shrewsbury Town and Crawley respectively. Peters comes over as a totally miserable and negative influence, playing a horrible brand of percentage long-ball football and a man far keener to carp, criticise and diminish rather than empower, encourage and support his players.
As for Steve Evans, the chapters on Smith’s roller coaster ride at Crawley under the aegis of Evans are pure comedy gold and are worth the cover price of the book on their own. The man is obviously as crazy as a fox and he is a total loose cannon with the players never knowing which side of his Jekyll and Hyde character he will display from day to day – or even minute to minute. Players are screamed at, abused and sacked on a seemingly random and daily basis only to be reinstated quickly and quietly. But there is a method to his madness and, fawningly supported by his equally foul-mouthed yes-man number two Paul Rayner, Evans keeps the players on their toes, never allowing them to relax or feel secure and ever ready to indulge in a mad trolley dash to bring in replacements, but his unorthodox approach gets results. Smith found success at Crawley as they rose into the Football League and he played an important part in their incredible FA Cup run that saw them beat the likes of Derby County and Torquay United before the high-spot of his career, running Manchester United extremely close in a narrow one-nil defeat at a packed Old Trafford.
Brentford fans will be fascinated by the sympathetic descriptions of the likes of Toumani Diagouraga, one of the best midfield partners Smith ever played alongside, perennial good pro and nice guy David Hunt, and of course the immortal Martin Allen who plays a cameo role in Smith’s story and orchestrates a hilarious meeting worthy of a Brian Rix farce with the Cheltenham chairman intended to earn Smith a contract at the club.
This well-written book should be required reading for every supporter of a lower league team whether it be Accrington or York as it tells it exactly how it is. Budding young footballers and their parents would also do well to peruse it in order to become aware of the traps and pitfalls that may well await them.
Ben Smith has clearly demonstrated that there is no shame in being described as a “journeyman.” Quite the opposite as he is to be applauded for writing what is surely the best book of this ilk since Garry Nelson’s classic “Left Foot Forward.”
“Journeyman: One man’s odyssey through the lower leagues of English football” by Ben Smith is published today by Biteback Publishing and is available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.