You may consider David Beckham or Kevin Keegan as some of the most successful English players abroad seeing as they both won titles overseas. However, there is one man who has several titles to his name and he’s won them all after earning a masters degree back home, having not started his professional football career until the age of 27. His name is Matt Smith and he is one of the most successful players in A-League history.
“I never imagined that when I first went to Australia and watched the league on TV that I would become the captain of a multiple winning team. It was a surreal experience with great memories.”
They are the words of Smith who won the A-League Championship three times with Brisbane Roar, with two of those victories as captain of the club.
He may have slipped under your radar as he has earned three caps for Australia but he was born and raised in England.
“I grew up in a small village outside of Chichester in West Sussex,” he says. “I went through the youth years at Portsmouth from the age of ten and was released at YTS level.
“After that I played for non-league clubs such as Cirencester Town and Chichester City, Swindon Supermarine while I studied a degree at the University of Gloucestershire and a Masters at Hartpury University playing university football also.”
Whilst studying, Smith’s parents emigrated to Australia but the defender stayed at home to complete his studies. After earning his masters and playing for the Great Britain side in the Universiade (also known as the World University Games), the former Portsmouth youngster arrived in Australia at the age of 25 looking to kick-start his football career but it would be another two years until he made his professional debut.
“The first two years in Australia were frustrating because of many failed trails with A-League clubs and when I finally got the yes, the club didn’t realise that at that stage I wasn’t an Australian citizen, just a permanent resident, so I was back to square one.”
Smith was still playing football at the time but in the semi-professional state leagues, first with Palm Beach and then with Brisbane Strikers but it was a fully professional deal he wanted and after two years, he finally got the chance he so desperately craved.
“When I did finally get my citizenship [in 2009], North Queensland Fury came back in for me and the coach Ian Ferguson called me on the Monday after the weekend’s game and said ‘If you’re fit, you’ll start against Adelaide on the weekend.’
“I flew up and completed a fitness test and signed a six week injury replacement contract due to the fact that it was half way through the year.”
Albeit a short deal initially, the defender had finally got a chance to prove himself in the professional game and there was a certain Premier League legend who he would be lining up alongside.
“I remember first walking into social area and seeing Robbie Fowler drinking a strawberry milkshake,” he says. “He’s a player I watched hundreds of times in the Premier League and I’m thinking, I’m joining your team!”
In his first season, Smith made eleven starts, scoring once, as North Queensland narrowly missed out of a play-off spot. He had done enough in those appearances to convince his side to offer him an extended two-and-a-half year deal, although he admits the league was much more competitive than he was used to.
“The standard from what I was used to was a big jump. In the Australian league structure, there isn’t the depth and multiple levels of leagues like England. The standard of player across the league, level of decision making and fitness were the main differences.”
However, despite agreeing a deal to stay at the Fury, a change of ownership meant Smith’s contract was pulled. Fortunately for the Hartpury University graduate, fellow A-League side Brisbane Roar stepped in to offer him a two-year deal which would commence a marriage made in heaven.
“The first season [with Brisbane Roar] was amazing,” he says. “We won the Championship and started what turned out to be an all time Australian sporting record for the most games undefeated, thirty-six.
“In the second year I was named captain and we became the first team to win back-to-back Championships. We went on to win a third Championship in four years.”
It was a remarkable four season spell for the English defender who had come into the professional world so much later in his career. The Roar had won the A-League three times with Smith making nearly 90 appearances combined in those three Championship winning seasons. In the year they missed out on the title, Smith made only 14 appearances.
“During that era, it was spoken about that Brisbane changed the way Australian football was played. Possession based, high intensity play, movement, rotations and high press.
“Most importantly was the culture that was created was something I have never been exposed to in the past and one I feel proud of being involved with.”
During his incredibly successful spell at Brisbane, Smith twice made the A-League Team of the Season after being voted by his peers as one of the best centre-backs in the league during the 2010-11 and 2013-14 seasons.
Also whilst making his mark in domestic football, the former student caught the eye of the national team coaches and once he achieved his citizenship, Smith was called up to the Socceroos squad but despite earning three caps, he has been left with a sense of what might have been.
“Representing the Australian national team was a major honour for me,” he says.
“I was overjoyed to make my appearances but during the same time I became injured which was a few weeks later identified as a labral tear in my hip joint. During my rehab the head coach, Holger Osiek bought me into the training camps to be around the team but obviously was not ready to play. Shortly after he left the national team and a new coach came in.
“Unfortunately though, I did not get an opportunity with the new coach and that was the end of my national team experiences. I am forever grateful for the opportunity to play for Australia, maybe with a little bit of luck things might have been different.”
Smith’s three caps came during the 2013 East Asian Cup where his side finished fourth in the final stages of the tournament which included Japan, China and South Korea.
After five successful seasons with Brisbane, the Chichester-born defender’s time at the club was over but instead of staying in his adopted home, he decided to move further afield.
“The decision to leave Australia was probably six months in the making. It wasn’t an easy decision and one I had pondered over for a long time. Over the years there were always offers to leave but I felt a sense of belonging and loyalty to Brisbane for giving me the opportunity in the first place.
“I always knew that I would like to make a move overseas at some point in my career. I was 32 when I decided to leave Brisbane. There were many factors to the move but it was the right timing for me.”
Smith joined Thai top flight Bangkok Glass at the start of the 2015 season, moving to the city in which he competed in the Universiade all those years ago.
Now in his fourth season with the club, the 35-year-old has been a regular throughout his time in Asia, making over 100 appearances for the club, a record for a foreigner.
“The standard compared to Australia is mixed on many levels. I was pleasantly surprised with technical levels of the local players when I moved to Thailand.
“Because of the foreign player rule, each team can play four foreigners and those players tend to be good players from around the globe so the league is very competitive.”
His side are currently just outside the relegation spots but with the ever-dependable Smith at the back, the side surely fancy their chances to avoid the drop.
Now 35, the Brisbane Roar legend is showing no signs of slowing down but admits he does have one eye on life after football.
“It would be irresponsible of me to not think about what’s next, should playing not be an option. I’ve started my coaching badges in the Asian confederation and have a huge passion for football.
“I also have my marketing and business degree and sports management masters behind me and the business side of football also appeals.
“Right now though, I am keeping my options open. I am still fit and playing many games this season. I am sure my future will unfold over the next few months.”
For now, Smith is focused on ensuring Bangkok have a strong finish to the season but in a professional career which didn’t start until his late twenties, the three time A-League winner is determined to squeeze every last drop out of his dream career.