Russ Penn gets the lowdown from his former Gateshead and Wrexham team-mate Manny Smith
But there’s so much talent in National League
It’s been just over 10 years since Manny Smith made his professional debut in the football league for Walsall. Since then, the big defender has played over 150 games in League One and the same amount in the National League. I caught up with my former Gateshead and Wrexham team-mate...
TOUGHEST BATTLE YOU'VE EVER HAD AS A PLAYER ON THE PITCH?
When I was at Walsall we played Aston Villa in a pre-season game, and I was up against Darren Bent. He dragged me everywhere, down the channels, pushed me off the ball, won his headers and also scored. I came off the pitch wondering if football was really for me.
BEST PLAYER YOU HAVE PLAYED WITH?
At Notts County, Keith Curle signed a young lad called Jack Grealish on loan from Aston Villa. I thought, “Oh here we go, another typical Premier League youth player”. But my opinion quickly changed. He proved to be the difference for us for the time he was there, and I always knew he would go to the top.
BEST MANAGER YOU HAVE PLAYED UNDER?
My old youth team manager Mike Halsall was the main reason I am where I am now. He pushed me really hard when I was a youth team player. He was honest and brutal, but that was something I needed as a 17-year-old.”
ANY REGRETS IN YOUR FOOTBALL CAREER?
I have no regrets; every decision I made was for a reason. My toughest decision came recently when I left Gateshead. I had another year left on my deal, but being a four-hour drive from home it was getting tough. It was also tough on my wife and children as I was only home a couple of times a week. So I had to think of them as well as myself for my future.”
WHAT SURPRISES YOU MOST IN FOOTBALL NOWADAYS?
Two things come to mind. The first is the price tags of players these days. Football has gone crazy in terms of money; I just wish it filtered down to this level. The second is the standard of players at National League level; I’ve been really impressed with certain players and it won’t be long until they are in the league.”
THE BIGGEST THING YOU HAVE BOUGHT WITH A NEW CONTRACT?
I bought a house when I signed for Notts County. They doubled my money, with a signing-on fee and the club bonuses were great. So that helped me put it into bricks and mortar.”
BEST MATE IN FOOTBALL?
Troy Deeney. We both joined Walsall at youth team level and we both lived near each other in Birmingham. We see each other when we can around our fixtures. Troy is a down-to-earth guy and I’m proud of what he’s achieved in the game”
ANY PLANS FOR LIFE AFTER FOOTBALL?
“I’ve got my fingers in a few pies at the moment. I obviously want to stay in football for as long as possible, whether it’s as a player, a coach or in any other capacity. I’ve just completed my massage course, which I’ve enjoyed, and I’ve got a stake in a beard grooming business with Jamal Fyfield (Gateshead). Also, I’m just getting into a bit of property with my wife at the moment.”
FAVOURITE FOOTBALL TALE?
I was a first-year pro at Walsall, Richard Money was my first team manager. Every time I played or trained well he would always find a fault and was on my case 24/7. I thought it was borderline bullying. In front of me were Scott Dann, Ant Gerrard, Ian Roper and Chris Westwood, so it looked like I would never play a first team game.
Out of nowhere I found myself in the squad. I was buzzing and as a first year pro it was a big deal. We were away that Saturday, so I turned up at the Bescot Stadium to get on the coach, and Richard pulled me aside and said I’m not on the bench but I’m traveling to make the tea and coffee, and I wasn’t allowed to sit down until I got to the game. With mixed emotions I just got on with it and was a ‘yes’ man.
We had a game away on New Year’s Day and instead of having a few days off I found myself in the squad again, so all my plans were ruined because I was 100 per cent going just to be a ‘yes’ man. I decided to go out and ‘not’ drink.
Early hours New Year’s Day I was a bit tipsy and thought I’m only making teas and coffee, no one will notice I’ve even been out. I got home at around 4am and had to be at the stadium for 9am. But I woke up to a dead phone battery and panic kicked in. I missed the coach as I got to the stadium at half past nine. What happened in the gaffer’s office the following Monday cannot be repeated...
MANNING THE FORT: Manny Smith in action for Gateshead, best mate Troy Deeney, inset left, and his beard-grooming business, right