Matt Smith Masthead

Sussex born & bred: Matt Smith

Former Australia International, talks growing up in Sussex, making it pro at 27, man-marking Fernando Llorente and more…

In the next of our Sussex born & bred series, we spoke to former Australia International and three-time A-League Championship winner, Matt Smith. 

Born in Barnham, West Sussex, Matt Smith is probably one of the most successful Sussex players that has passed you by in England. 

The now-Australian’s career is one that is almost impossible to summarise but let’s start right at the beginning, a young lad with endless dreams to be a footballer.

“I grew up in a small village house in Barnham. I had two younger brothers who I used to play jumpers for goalposts with in the garden. 

“I think the neighbours used to hate us because we’d play up against the garage and it’d just be a constant sound of the ball smacking the door!

“My youngest brother Bradley was probably better than me! He was technically unbelievable. I’m sure he won’t mind me saying, but I think having the ability is one thing but having the attitude and mindset is a bit different, and you must have a combination of both.

“I would get just as much satisfaction winning a small-sided training game as getting three points on a Saturday. Even now, I rip in to the young lads I coach because I beat them in a bleep test!

“Football in that sense started with me from a young age; my dad, Terence played for Chichester City and a couple of other county teams.” 

Barnham has a population of a little over 1,000 people, but its local side Barnham Trojans was a hot bed for producing young talent, and Smith definitely stood out.

“I started playing for Barnham Trojans as a kid, there wasn’t these sort of pre-development academies like there is now, you just played for your local team and that was that. We had a parent-coach at the time called Les Morton who was a passionate man from our village that ran things.

“We just played football when and wherever we could, before school, during school, after school. I went to St. Philip Howard Catholic School and we used to go down after school playing with kids much older than me and you certainly learnt how to look after yourself put it that way.

“I got picked up by Portsmouth in pretty much my first year playing for Barnham at under-10s. The Portsmouth Academy Director at the time, David Hirst, came to my house to get me on schoolboy forms. My memory is still quite sharp at 38!

“For the subsequent years we were still allowed to play local football which was the model back then. I think at one point in under-13s or 14s we had most of the Portsmouth squad playing together at Barnham.”

Matt Smith Australia
Mr. Smith - a short film by Jeremy Santolin
Matt Smith's hopes of becoming a professional footballer were crushed when his English club released him as a teenager. Ten years later, on the other side of the world, Smith gets another chance to realise his dream.

Smith, today, recalls his teenage years as “some of my best memories,” because he was playing with his friends and followed many of them to another local side, Bognor Martlets. Portsmouth, however, was a dream that was to go no further.

“When I look back, the one thing I’d change in terms of why I didn’t make it, was that I probably wasn’t brave enough. I was fearless when I was younger but in the time at Portsmouth, whilst I wasn’t the worst player on the pitch, I just used to take the safest options.

“To get to that position in the first place I took a lot more risks. Back then I was a striker or attacking midfielder and maybe I just lacked a bit of confidence. 

“I spent 7 years at Portsmouth, it was a big part of my life. It’s amazing what you remember but I had a fantastic time. The club was phenomenal, and we used to go and watch all the home games where the support was unbelievable, and you dreamt of walking out there one day.”

Matt’s mentality at the point of being released completely changed. For the first time in his life, football was becoming a more distant reality, but he wasn’t ready to give up on it just yet. 

“The football world is very small in Sussex and I ended up straight off the bat, getting a call from Littlehampton Town to play a senior game for them. But I then got an offer to go and study at Chichester High School and play for their Sixth Form team.

“The Head of Football there was a guy called Paul Blackmore who remains a good friend of mine. When you look back at people who have had an impact on your life, he was certainly one.

“I didn’t quite have the grades for sixth form, but he convinced the school that if I could play for the football team then I could get in. 

“At that point I realised I needed to look for a career outside of football, but I still had the burning desire to, not necessarily prove people wrong, but to be the best that I can be. 

“I also managed to get into the youth team at Chichester City under a guy called Gary Brockhurst which was great because all my friends from the high school were there. 

“We had a really good team that included the Murfin brothers, and we got to the First Round of The FA Youth Cup, where we played Cardiff City at Portfield drawing 2-2 before losing the away leg at Ninian Park.

“I did start leading two lives at this point though; one was play football and continue to be the best I can be, but the other was knowing I needed a career outside of that.”

Matt Smith Chichester
Matt Smith (middle row, second left) after winning silverware with Chichester City.

Following his time at college, Matt went on to study Marketing and Leisure Management at the University of Gloucester, he was also signed on for the Chichester City first team by then manager, Adie Girdler. As well as this he was part of a University side that were regional champions.

University turned out to be the making of Matt, and it wasn’t long into his time there that he discovered where future opportunities may lie.

“I had a placement year as part of my degree programme, and I went to Australia where my parents had recently emigrated.  

“Whilst there I played for a local team in Brisbane and a pro team actually came in for me, but I’d gone so far down the university path that I just didn’t want to throw that away at that point. 

“Once I had completed my degree, I was offered a scholarship to do a masters in Sports Management at Hartpury University in Gloucestershire. The director of the football department there is another good friend of mine now. It was an amazing setup because they were one of a few universities that offered full-time football programmes with academic education.

“The scholarship was dependant on me playing for the football team and we were also very successful, we won the South West title and became national champions beating Team Bath 1-0 at Loftus Road. It was the first time Hartpury had won it; I think they win it every other year now! 

“Hartpury offered that chance of continuing football development with further education, and I think you’ll find a number of students from there have gone on to play professionally since.” 

Matt Smith Hartpury
Matt Smith (Right) becoming national champions with Hartpury at Loftus Road.

It’s fascinating to talk to Matt and his mindset at the time was a unique one. He was fully focused on education and a career away from football but at the same time, never fully gave up on the idea of playing professionally, no matter how much older he got. 

He simply believed that if he kept working hard enough the opportunity would arise and compares his journey to a certain striker at Leicester City.

“I came from a generation where if you hadn’t made it by the age of 16 you were essentially touted as not good enough, whereas now players are given a lot more time. 

“I think if someone was to say to me you’re going to make it professional at 27 or you’re going to make it at 16 or 17, I’m obviously going to choose the latter. But then you have the likes of Jamie Vardy who, similarly, didn’t make it professional until a later age, although I’m not saying I’m anywhere near the profile of him!

“Hartpury gave me a lot of confidence playing in that professional environment. At the same time, I was playing for Cirencester Town and I was also selected for England Universities playing against the combined services.

“I then I got picked by Great Britain Universities to play in the World University Games 2007 in Bangkok. It was crazy because I’d gone on this journey where I’m only playing locally to then almost getting picked up by a team in Australia, coming back, playing quite well for Cirencester, then going to Thailand. 

“I was 24 or 25 at the time and I think I just gained a bit more self-belief and determination, so I decided that I would return to Australia and, again, have two doors open, with a career in mind but also give football another good go over there. 

“I think it comes down to my heritage within my family as well though. I was always raised to try and be the best, I hated losing, even back playing against my garage, so that’s always stayed with me, but also it comes down to timing and opportunity.” 

Matt Smith Cirencester Cele
Matt Smith (far right) celebrates with Cirencester teammates.

Upon completion of his masters, Matt decided it was time to pack away the journals and text books and go travelling. After six-years of higher education, the next six-months were to be spent backpacking through Thailand, Lao, Vietnam and Cambodia where he met his now-wife. 

Then, fresh off the boat from a business perspective, it was time to set up a new life in Australia, where his family had emigrated a number of years earlier. Football though, was a dream that wasn’t going be left behind in England.

“I knew that football in Australia was a completely different landscape to that in England. I had no contacts or anything coming here but I knew the biggest local club I could get involved with was a team called Brisbane Strikers. 

“I contacted them basically saying ‘look I’m returning to Australia, is there an opportunity to come on trial?’ The coach at the time was a Scottish guy called Stuart McLaren, who has recently taken the interim role as Scotland Women’s Manager, he invited me in for a meeting and they signed me there and then.

“They were in the highest non-professional league, you obviously have the professional A-League, then because Australia is so big you have state leagues. 

“I spent two years there, first year playing central-midfield but to be honest, watching the A-League, I didn’t think I’d compete with the crop of players playing in that position. So, I had a meeting with Stuart where I basically told him this is my last chance of playing professionally and I need to be playing centre-back. I was playing as a box-to-box midfielder at Chichester so every ten years I’ve moved further back!

“It wasn’t exactly a position at the time that was exciting for me, but for some reason it was one that I found easier. So, in my second year at Strikers I played centre-back and was captain as well.” 

It has to be said that it turned out to be an incredibly astute move for Matt, switching to centre-back, as before long he had attracted interest once again.  

“I remember we had a game away at Townsville which was a flight away, and Rangers legend, Ian Ferguson, who was manager of North Queensland Fury in the A-League, approached me and wanted to take me on trial.

“I went up on trial and played a game then they came to my hotel room and said they wanted to offer me a contract. I was 26 at the time, I was so excited I phoned my dad and family, then 10 minutes later I get another knock at the door asking for my Australian passport, which I didn’t have.

“In the A-League you can only have a certain amount of foreign players and I was still classed as a visa-player. They had Robbie Fowler at the time and somehow I don’t think a lad from Sussex was going to compete with him!

“The opportunity had finished before it had started, so I flew back home and continued working. I had trials with Brisbane Roar and a few other clubs, but there were lots of little things that got in the way and reasons as to why it didn’t kick off for me at that point.

“Whenever I watched the A-League I never thought I was better than any of them, but I certainly didn’t think I was worse. My wife kept saying to me when the opportunity comes, I had to take it. 

Shortly after, Matt did manage to obtain his Australian citizenship, and with his continued motivation to succeed, which he credits to his wife’s support, another opportunity arose following a phone call from the aforementioned Ian Ferguson. 

“I was at work when Ian called me and asked me again to join North Queensland Fury. I said to my boss that I had to take this chance. I was a Marketing Manager for a finance company at the time and he was really understanding. 

“We had just had our first daughter, we had bought our first house and the club said that I had to pay for my flight and accommodation to get there for the medical. We got by, but we were by no means wealthy, so I booked into a backpackers rather than a hotel as it was all I could afford. 

“I passed the medical fine and I went into the office signing a six-week contract. I made my debut the following week which we won and later on ended up signing a two-year contract with the club, I was just so grateful that they had given me the chance. 

“Things were going great, and I kept having to pinch myself walking in the dressing room and Robbie Fowler is my teammate.”

It had finally happened; at the age of 27, Matt Smith, from a small village town in Sussex, was a professional footballer in Australia. It would be almost hard to believe that another hurdle was going to get in the way wouldn’t it? Luckily for Matt, he’d already made his mark. 

“We were ready to sell our house and move to Townsville and then, incredibly, the owner pulls away from the club and our contracts are voided!

“Luckily for me, I was contacted by Ange Postecoglou, the Brisbane Roar manager at the time, who called me and offered me a two-year contract there, so it became a simple decision to return to Brisbane at a professional level and one that changed my life.”

Matt Smith Title Winner
"I think it was a legacy that changed the landscape of Australian football."

It was a move that turned out to be the best of Matt’s career. One that puts him in the list of one of Sussex football’s most decorated professional players. For Matt though, Brisbane Roar was more than all of that, he was part of something that would stay with him permanently. 

“People talk about all the silverware and I obviously won three championships with Brisbane Roar, playing in the Asian Champions League and being selected for PFA Team of the Year, which was incredible. 

“That’s what people see on the outside but what stays with me is how we did it. I think it was a legacy that changed the landscape of Australian football. The manager had this philosophy of football which was different to the norm. 

“We were the first team here to play possession-based football, and that whole culture throughout the club is what will stay with me. We were nicknamed ‘Roarcelona’ it’s corny I know!

“I remember playing Everton in pre-season, which we lost 2-1, but I felt we dominated the game. We knew then that if we could do that against Everton, we could do that against anybody in the A-League!

“We didn’t actually win until our fifth game of the season, but then we went 36 games unbeaten which is still an Australian sporting record. That first year we won the league and then also won the grand final which the top six teams play out and actually holds more merit than what the league does. 

“Our captain, Matt McKay, left at the end of the season to sign for Rangers and I was offered the captaincy. I’d gone from being nowhere on the Australian football landscape to all of a sudden being asked to lead a title-winning team.” 

If Matt thought captaining Brisbane Roar was a surreal reality, it was about to go off the scale. Australia national team manager, Holger Osieck, called him up once he had passed five years as a resident, then low and behold, Matt Smith was an Australian international footballer. 

He just missed out on the 2014 FIFA World Cup squad, despite being considered a front runner after captaining Roar to their third championship, but to even be considered for the squad Matt was humbled.

“For a lad from Barnham to be spoken about whether or not I was going to go to the Brazil World Cup with Australia was extremely surreal!”

Matt Smith Australia Team Photo Home
Matt Smith (bottom row, far left) said it was "extremely surreal" to be considered for Socceroos.

During his time with Brisbane Roar, Smith was voted to play for the A-League All-Stars who were scheduled to play a star-studded Juventus side in the summer of 2014. It’s not a match Matt will forget in a hurry and especially not for who he had to mark!

“Del Piero had actually just played his first year over in Sydney and it was quite surreal walking out with him! I got a lot of comments from my English mates saying what’s going on, what are you doing walking out the tunnel in the same side as Del Piero!

“Again, it’s very surreal and I’m thankful for these experiences. The fans got to vote for who would be in the All-Stars team and I got the opportunity. Playing against Pirlo, Pogba, Buffon, Evra, Llorente, Tevez and to be fair we only lost 3-2.

“We took the lead early on, they equalised, we went 2-1 up and they got two late goals. 65,000 we had in at Sydney Olympic Stadium as well. To put things in perspective though, Llorente is 6’5, I’m 5’11 and I had to mark him! Evra has whipped a ball in from the left, one step and he’s got the jump on me to score, which is just the difference at that level isn’t it!” 

Matt Smith Juventus
"I’m thankful for these experiences."

After four successful seasons with Brisbane Roar, and at the age of 32, Matt decided to leave on a high and explore other opportunities within Asia something he describes as a “very tough decision.” 

The next destination for Matt and his family was to be in Thailand with Singha Beer-owned, Bangkok Glass. He spent four years there becoming the first foreign player to reach 114 appearances (a Thai milestone), and also started on his coaching journey.

Then, at the age of 36, he signed a short-term deal with Hong Kong side, Kitchee Sports Club, and completed his PFA B License (UEFA B equivalent). 

Now, at the age of 38, Matt resides back in Australia with his wife and four children, with the playing years not quite over saying “the body is still okay,” but ultimately, it’s a career in coaching that is where his future lies.

“Back in Australia I am now in the final part of my PFA A License. I’m still playing as well as head coach for Brisbane City and I’m also the Director of Football. I oversee 600 kids, 35 teams and their development right the way to elite.

“I’ve been in the position just over a year now, it’s a challenging and fulfilling role, one that my wife will tell you is very time consuming!

“I do know though that all the time that I’m playing I’m stopping a young player from coming through. We’ve built a very good squad this season, and I think once I’ve found a player that can replace me and build off the other experienced players in the squad, then we’ll see.” 

Matt Smith Shield lift 2
Matt Smith (middle) captained Brisbane Roar to multiple A-League Championships.

Lastly he had this to say for aspiring footballers in Sussex: “You never know who’s watching so just go out and want to win everything. Be the best you can be and don’t compare yourself to a teammate or any other players or what people are doing around the world. Always try and be better and be the best version of yourself you can be!”

In what has been one of the most incredible stories we have heard, it was one we could have talked about for days on end, and there’s an eased smile on the face of Matt as he realises the time has gone past midnight in Australia. 

There is so much about his story that should inspire young people in Sussex. He had an attitude that meant no matter what got in his way he was always going to one day become a pro. It was that belief that saw him go onto captain a side to multiple championships and play on the international stage. Not bad for a lad from Barnham is it?

To find out more about playing opportunities in Sussex please contact:

T: 01903 766855

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