STEVEN SMITH IS RELISHING NEW CHALLENGE
Plagued by injuries, defender still had a playing career he never dreamed of. Now he is relishing a different test, finds Graeme Macpherson
A CONVERSATION with Steven Smith could double as a submission for The Lancet. When fit, Smith was one of the most promising Scottish full-backs of his generation, whippet quick and reliable in his defensive duties, too. The problem was he could never stay healthy for long.
Managers traditionally worry about their players spending too long in the pub. With Smith, the fear was he was frequenting too many hospitals. During a 16-year career that he brought voluntarily to a close in the summer, Smith went under the knife more often than Joan Rivers.
There was a recurring pelvic injury, a hernia problem, a troublesome hip, a thigh injury, as well as ankle and calf strains. Smith would regularly disappear off the radar for months at a time – surgery often followed by long, solitary hours in the gym trying to regain his fitness.
That he was able to continue playing until the age of 32 feels like more of an achievement than the trophies he lifted.
“I’m lucky to have played the games I did given all the injuries I had,” he says over coffee not far from Rangers’ training centre where he first emerged as a left-back of growing repute.
“Even when I was young there was talk that I might have to quit. So I’ve maybe not played a lot of games in my career but I’ve overcome so many injuries and always been able to get back fit each time and keep playing, and that feels like a success to me. I don’t regret any of it.
“The hardest work was the bit that people don’t see, to always keep coming back from the setbacks. Injured players are usually in first to the training ground every day and the last to leave. It’s sometimes a struggle to keep going but you develop a mental toughness when you’ve been through it so many times.
“I was out for a year when I was young, maybe in my late teens. If you had told me then I would play until I was 32, in some of the games that I did and for the clubs that I did, I would have bitten your hand off for that.”
The end officially came when his Kilmarnock contract ran out at the end of last season but Smith had made his peace with it much earlier. As club captain he felt obliged to make one last attempt to regain full fitness, but his body – scarred and torn after years shaped by the surgeon’s scalpel – had no more to give. His last senior appearance came in a 2-0 defeat to Motherwell in September last year.
“I had four operations in my last two years at Kilmarnock and I was starting to struggle,” he recalls. “Lee McCulloch was the manager at that time and because he’s a good friend I said I would give it my best shot.
“But I only managed three or four games all season and I wasn’t able to train before any of them. It was just a build-up of two or three years of frustration and I knew it was time to stop playing. I spoke to the physio and a few people close to me and knew in my mind this was the road I had to go down.
“Eventually I told Steve Clarke that I couldn’t keep going onto the training ground feeling fine and then after 40 minutes breaking down. It was time to stop.”
The highlights reel of a career that began as a nine-year-old with Rangers will centre on the trophies won but, perhaps surprisingly, he was at his most content during a season with Portland Timbers in MLS. Freed from the ubiquitous scrutiny that comes with playing for Rangers or Celtic, it is also the period of his career where he felt at his healthiest. A psychologist would maybe care to draw a correlation.
“The longest spell without an injury was probably when I went to America and it was the best I felt physically. It was also the most I enjoyed playing, being in a different environment and a different mindset. There wasn’t any pressure and I loved it there.
“I played almost every game. Physically it was the best I felt. Maybe because I was happy and playing every week helped keep me fit too. There’s maybe something in that.”
The injury-ravaged CV does not do justice to the player Smith was in his prime. In an era when swaggering leftbacks were not as commonplace as they are today, it remains something of a surprise that he was never capped for Scotland.
“I got called up for a game against France when I was at Rangers but I had a thigh strain and couldn’t go,” he adds. “Being young and naive I brushed it off and thought I would make the next squad. Or the next one. Or the next one. But it just never happened.
“People were still tipping me for call-ups later on but I knew I didn’t
I’ve overcome so many injuries it feels like a success. I don’t regret any of it
Having enjoyed a 16-year playing career at clubs including Rangers (top right), and Kilmarnock (centre right), Steven Smith is relishing leaving his comfort zone by setting up his own youth academy