With most of the football fixtures in the UK on ice SportGlos is taking a look at how one Gloucestershire footballer found a new career on the other side of the world.
Scoring a goal last month in front of a crowd of more than 6,000 people in the Suncorp Stadium against a team featuring Robbie Fowler, its clear defender Matt Smith is a world away from the Southern Premier League.
Yet just three years ago Smith was part of the Cirencester Town squad who narrowly escaped relegation so how did he go from softly spoken Hartpury student to a full-time A-league star?
Now an Australian citizen Smith is enjoying life with the Brisbane Roar, his team are top of the league and he is a full-time footballer in a league with a growing reputation.
SportGlos caught up with Smith to talk about how his time in the county helped shape his professional career.
SportGlos: So to start with can you just recap your football career since leaving Hartpury – how did you end up at the Roar? Was it easy to go from the Southern Prem with Ciren to the state league?
Matt Smith: “It took me some time to make it to the Roar and the A-League, when I left the UK I played for Great Britain in the World University Games in Bangkok back in 2007, I then signed for a club called the Brisbane Strikers, which are in the Queensland State League here, I played for them for 2 seasons and captained them in the second year.
Up until Oct 2009 I was on a permanent residency basis and in football terms meant that I was known as a VISA player (5 per squad), so when I got citizenship, I was classed as an Australian player and it wasn’t until then I got signed initially with the NQ Fury for the remainder of last season and for 2 more years. However, the clubs owner pulled his finances from the club and along with the contracts, it was then that Ange Postecoglou from the Brisbane Roar offered me a 2 year contract, which I happily accepted.
As for going from the Southern Prem to the A-League, the transition is different, you are playing with better players and in a full time environment, the game in Australia is played completely different to that in the UK. I loved my time in the UK and at Ciren and of course Hartpury University.
SG: It must be a bit strange going from playing in front of 50 or so people on a Tuesday night at the Corinium Stadium to average crowds of 7,000+ at the Suncorp Stadium, did it seem strange when you first started playing in the A-League (for NQ Fury) with Robbie Fowler as a teammate?
MS: At first I was very starstruck when playing in the same side as Robbie Fowler, he has been and still is a great player, he brings a lot to the Australian league and it was a privilege to play him and know him as a friend.
Playing in front of people back then was a bit daunting, but something that you adjust to as you gain more experience. We played Everton FC in a friendly this year in front of just under 20,000 and 22,000 playing down in Melbourne last season, both were a surreal experience.
SG In the MLS they have changed the rules to bring in more marquee players and attract a bigger worldwide audience. The A-league is growing next season with a new team – can you see the rules changing to bring in the Beckham and Henry level players to the A-league as the FFA expands the game?
MS: I think the future of the A-League would certainly benefit from increasing the VISA players (currently 5), however, I am not sure that the there is enough capital to bring in those kinds of players with their wage demands.
However, in Australia, there is enough capital to entice professional players from around the world to come play in Australia. Every club is allowed one marquee player and one Australian marquee player which exists outside the salary gap. I think, like the MLS, for the league to grow, it needs to gain the right balance of attracting bigger names, but also nurturing the great Australian talent coming through the system. I also believe it is important to not run before you can walk, the A-League is only in its 6th season and therefore still in the introductory stage in comparison to leagues across the world. The future of the A-League is still exciting.
SG: The A-league has strong links with youth football, with your Hartpury background and experience playing for a college and a Southern League club in England and the conflict that sometimes created, is it time the British game looked to work in a more productive manner with football colleges and having set rules on youth team members in the squad etc and would it help feed the national team with new blood as it has done in Australia?
MS: Most definitely, I think the concept that Hartpury creates an amazing platform for players to not only gain a degree but also be playing football in a full time environment with brilliant coaching and support staff.
For me, Hartpury formed the basis to give me an insight into the professional game; it is very similar and gave me confidence to be able to adjust to the higher level. In my opinion, as long as both club and university have the understanding (which is where it fell through with Ciren), the partnership can be rewarding for all parties involved, the club, the university and more importantly the player. The youth team policy and structure of football in Australia is different, there are not as many platforms or levels of competition in comparison to the UK. In the professional environment, each A-League has a first team (no reserves) and a youth team and this enables a close association between both and a development platform for those youth players to gain experience from the first team.
SG: Hartpury is now establishing itself as one of the top football colleges in the UK, how important was your time there in terms of your development as a player?
MS: I am very grateful to Tom Radcliffe and Marc Richards for there efforts in attracting me to Hartpury College, playing in the context at Hartpury while gaining my Masters has definitely given me the experience and capabilities to be able to play and perform where I am today, the management, facilities, treatment and culture of Hartpury is one of the best you will see outside of the full time professional club. As a matter of fact, I had Marc Richards stay with my last month and Marc is trying to get into the A-League also, so hopefully in the near future, there will be another ex-Hartpury playing professional football.
SG: Brisbane Roar are flying in the league and a lot of the reports say you are playing a very European style of football – is there really that much difference between the game here and in Australia?
MS: The principles of the game are the same, however, yes the game is very different, in my opinion, I would say that the English game is far more physical and you do not tend to have too much time on the ball, in contrast, the Australian game is more technical and strategic, the style of play that we are playing this year has gained some supporters, it is played at a level which involves players to be technically good while having the abilities to move the ball and himself quickly, short sharp patterns of play with forward passes. I guess, there is no right or wrong way, just different histories and cultures of playing football.
Action from the Brisbane Roar’s victory over Matt’s old team Perth Glory last month
SG And finally what are your hopes for the Roar and for you personally for the rest of the season?
My hopes for the Roar this season, we are currently top with 8 games left out of a 30 game season. I hope that we can finish the season as league winners and then play in the finals series to attain the Grand Final. As a club we haven’t set any targets and I think that it has been a good mentality to adopt, that way there is no pressure and the players are able to express themselves on the pitch. I have started every match and played more minutes than most of the other players and it is my personally hope to continue to develop as player and stay injury free.
To have a look a more interviews with Matt have a look at the Brisbane Roar’s YouTube Channel here