Plagued by in­juries, de­fender still had a play­ing ca­reer he never dreamed of. Now he is relishing a dif­fer­ent test, finds Graeme Macpher­son

The Herald on Sunday - - SPORT -

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

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