TV STAR STAY­ING FRONT OF STAGE

The Football League Paper - - NEWS - By Paddy von Behr

SIX years ago, Con­nor Smith nar­rowly missed out on a con­tract with In­ter Mi­lan, but the AFC Wim­ble­don new boy is adamant that was for the best.

As a teenager, Smith was a re­al­ity TV star, leav­ing his home in Ire­land to take part in Foot­ball’s Next Star and trav­el­ling to Mi­lan as one of ten fi­nal­ists. Put through their paces by the coaches at In­ter, the young­sters were whit­tled down to a fi­nal three, with Smith even­tu­ally fin­ish­ing se­cond to Ben Greenhalgh.

But, while Greenhalgh – now with Con­cord Rangers – strug­gled to make the grade in Italy, the run­nerup was back on th­ese shores with Wat­ford.

And, af­ter end­ing a six-year as­so­ci­a­tion with the Hor­nets last week to join Wim­ble­don, Smith in­sists his TV ad­ven­ture could hardly have worked out bet­ter.

Cut-throat

“Me and my friends saw an ad­vert on TV and we signed up for it for a laugh, not ex­pect­ing to get any­where re­ally,” he re­called. “I ended up com­ing se­cond and it was a great ex­pe­ri­ence.

“It prob­a­bly worked out for the bet­ter in the long run. Try­ing to break through at In­ter Mi­lan is a tough old thing. Com­ing back to Eng­land and sign­ing for Wat­ford, and the way I pro­gressed there, was good.”

Away from the cut-throat en­vi­ron­ment of In­ter, Smith was able to qui­etly go about his busi­ness in Hert­ford­shire, us­ing the lessons he had learned in train­ing ses­sions with Jose Mour­inho.

“I al­ways had am­bi­tions to play pro­fes­sion­ally and, even be­fore the show, clubs had

spo­ken to me about be­ing on trial,” he said.“You turn up with the at­ti­tude that it’s not the be-all-and-end-all but I started pro­gress­ing. The fur­ther you get, the more you be­lieve you can win it.

“We got put up in a re­ally nice house, with a swim­ming pool, but the train­ing was the most im­por­tant thing and there were such great fa­cil­i­ties.

“When we first went over, we met Mour­inho and, on the fi­nal day, we trained with the team and he took the ses­sion. He had al­ready won the Premier League with Chelsea so we knew a lot about him.

“The five weeks in Italy pre­pared me for Wat­ford. I wasn’t used to train­ing ev­ery day and it gave me a good plat­form.” From that plat­form he ended up break­ing into the first team at Vicarage Road un­der Gian­franco Zola, un­til a knee prob­lem and a change of man­ager set him back.

Suc­cess

Loan spells with Gilling­ham and Steve­nage fol­lowed be­fore the 22year-old mid­fielder called time on his Wat­ford ca­reer last week and a mu­tual ter­mi­na­tion of his con­tract al­lowed him to join the Dons.

“I played games in the Cham­pi­onship, League One and League Two, so I know what it’s like,” added Smith. “I’m not just go­ing in here off the back of U21 games. Hope­fully, I can bring that ex­pe­ri­ence into the team.

“It was a tough de­ci­sion be­cause I had been there for six or seven years. I have come all the way up with a few boys from the youth team and you come out of your com­fort zone when you leave. But I wasn’t get­ting much foot­ball.

“I came over from Ire­land at 16 and I owe Wat­ford a lot, but it is time to play first-team foot­ball.”

PIC­TURE: Ac­tion Im­ages

IN­TER THE FRAY: For­mer Mi­lan hope­ful Con­nor Smith is quit­ting Wat­ford. In­set: Jose Mour­inho at In­ter Mi­lan

MOVE: Smith with Dons boss Neal Ard­ley

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