No regrets

From turning down Rangers to playing with God, via naked sauna parties in Helsinki and kangaroo courts in Swindon, Grant Smith has seen it all. And his story is far from over.

By Paul Brown

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

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“I had so many clubs it’s easy to lose count. My Wikipedia page even has a few added I never really played for”

They say Finns can be standoffish. A little cold. As he sits sweating in a little wooden sauna somewhere in the Finnish countryside, surrounded by naked girls, Grant Smith is beginning to disagree.

It’s a far cry from the days when he was first trying to make it as a footballer, leaving Rangers to sign for Reading. But it’s as good a place to start as any with a man who’s had more clubs than most have in a lifetime, who has travelled half the world, and who is still only 36.

Born in Irvine, North Ayrshire to dad Gordon, the controversial former Scottish Football Association chief executive, and mum Marlene, Smith ended up in Finland because he wasn’t getting a game any more at Dundee United under Craig Levein. He was offered a trial at Kotka, a city with a population of around 50,000 in the south of a country known for its forests, lakes and Father Christmas. There he was spotted by former Tangerines striker Mixu Paatelainen, who was manager of Finnish club TPS at the time. “He was like: ‘What are you doing here?’” says Smith. “He’d seen me play for Dundee United against Celtic about a month before. I told him I hadn’t signed anywhere yet and 24 hours later I got a phonecall saying there was a game and they needed a midfielder, did I want to come? I said yes. I went to Helsinki and ended up signing for HJK. They were the biggest club in Finland and they were in Europe.”

Known simply as Klubbi, which translates literally as The Club, HJK were and still are the powerhouse of Finnish football, with 27 championship titles to their name. Smith signed up in 2007 during a rare barren spell when they went six years without winning the league. They finished seventh the season he was there, four places behind Paatelainen’s TPS, and Smith says he probably never played in front of a crowd bigger than 10,000. But he loved every minute, despite initially feeling that he was being given the cold shoulder.

“I loved it. And I loved Helsinki,” he says. “It probably wasn’t the best time to live there, from March until November. In the winter months it’s freezing. But I enjoyed it. There were a lot of good boys there at the time who went on to have good careers. Pukki went on to play for Sevilla before going to Celtic, and one of my team-mates was Markus Halsti, who ended up at DC United.

“Helsinki was great in the summer. It even has a beach, which I didn’t know when I signed. Finns can be a bit strange. Scottish people are the opposite. They can’t do enough for you. It was funny because when I first got there, there was a holiday weekend and all the boys were talking about it in training saying they were going away, and they asked me what I was doing and I said: ‘Nothing’. But not one of them actually said well why don’t you come with us or something. I was thinking: ‘For fuck’s sake, what’s going on here?’ But they expect you to ask. It’s just how they are. Finnish people are kinda standoffish but once you make a friend you have a friend for life. After that it was fine and I used to get invited and stuff.”

Once he’d made friends, it was in Helsinki that Smith was introduced to Finland’s sauna culture. “We had a couple of team nights out,” he says, “and we’d be in a private sports bar watching the Champions League, and there’d be a sauna in there and people would just walk around in their towels! It was strange.

“It was a bit better when we went to people’s summer cottages and there were girls there. But it was strange with just the guys. The few days I spent at Kotka there was a sauna night, a kind of team bonding thing for all the players. They were just telling stories and getting drunk in this sauna with a splash pool and stuff. I kinda got a feeling for it early on. During midsummer we were in a city in the south of Finland, a party city and I met up with a girl and she said do I want to come and meet her friends, so I said okay. There were four girls and me and another guy I knew, in their summer cottage, and suddenly they’re like: ‘Let’s go for a sauna’ and they’re all getting naked and stuff. So we were like: ‘Ok, no problem!’ I’d never seen anything like it before. Finnish girls are pretty open, if you know what I mean.

“The only thing was we didn’t really have a good team. They were playing me out of position, as more of a left winger, when I was more of a central midfielder. We didn’t get going and there were a few boys coming to the end of their contracts. It made it difficult. But I loved my time there, looking back on it. The summer. It was a good place. I was seeing a Finnish girl for about two and half years as well.”

Fast forward a few months and Smith is sitting in the directors’ box at Goodison Park next to injured Everton defender Phil Jagielka, a good friend from his Sheffield United days. He is not happy. It’s late on in the 2008/09 season, a campaign in which he started just one game, and his life is about to take a strange twist.

Approximately 12 months earlier, Smith had been a key part of a Carlisle team which lost in the League One play-offs in heartbreaking style. Leading their semi final with Leeds 2-1 after an away win at Elland Road, it all went badly wrong in the return leg. Jonathan Howson scored early to pull Leeds level on aggregate, before waiting until the 90th minute to hit the winner. Wembley for Leeds. Heartbreak for Carlisle. The beginning of the end for Smith.

He wouldn’t play another full 90 minutes for the club again, making just three more appearances for new boss Gregg Abbott, and by the time he ended up at Goodison as a guest of Jagielka he was desperate for something new. Smith had already played for 14 clubs by this point. He would go on to play for four more. But a chance meeting with a man named Graham Arnold that day on Merseyside would take him to the other side of the world, and ultimately help lead him to a whole new career as a football agent.

“Jags is one of my best mates,” Smith explains. “He was injured and we were in one of the boxes. Tim Cahill was at Everton at the time and there was a guy in there, a typical Australian, casual T-shirt and a pair of jeans. We got talking to him and he was coaching the Australian national team! He was chatting away and I wasn’t playing at Carlisle. I was trying to get out of my contract and it was coming to the end of the season.

“The year before we’d been beaten by Leeds. And this guy, he’d seen that game, because there were Australian guys at Leeds, and he said: ‘Oh I remember you. You’re left-footed aren’t you? There are no left-footed boys in Australia, I could get you out there.’”

Smith was interested. But as with so much of his 13-year journeyman career as a player, it would be far from simple. Arnold told him to keep himself fit, and in an attempt to leave Carlisle he went for a trial in Singapore. “I wanted to see the world,” he recalls. “I went over and it was a big mass trial thing where clubs watched you playing 11-a-side games. But it was terrible, a really poor league, with worse pitches. The money wasn’t great either. I think I had two offers but it never came to anything.” Instead, he ended up training with an old friend at non-league Droylsden, and even played for them in a friendly the day before he flew out to Australia to sign for former Rangers midfielder Ian Ferguson, the manager of North Queensland Fury – where he’d end up playing with Robbie Fowler, or ‘God’, as he’s known to Liverpool fans.

“Each club had five visa spots,” he explains. “But they had four or five cruciate injuries that season and one of them was a foreign boy, so I got his spot. They said they’d sign me until the end of the season. It was perfect. I loved my time there, playing with Robbie Fowler. It was a good league.”

Like so much of Smith’s career, it
didn’t last long. “We missed the play-offs, and then the club went bankrupt!” he
explains. “That kinda screwed it all. I ended up at Ross County. So I went from about 35 degrees to about minus 50. It was just disgusting. It’s one of the
reasons I ended up chucking it in!”

Just like his time in Finland, his spell Down Under came as a bit of a culture shock. “Australians were the opposite of Finns,” he laughs. “Sometimes you wished they weren’t quite so loud and brash… But a lot of the guys were funny. I ended up having an Australian girlfriend as well. It was a beach culture. I loved it. Because it was so hot we trained at night or early in the morning. My day would be training at night and then we’d all go for dinner, all the single boys, and we’d be out all night and have a lie-in and go to the beach. It was a great lifestyle.

“It was good playing with Robbie. But his wife and kid didn’t really take to it over there and they came home. He was on his own and you know what’s it like – a Scouser and a Glaswegian – we used to hang about together. We spent a lot of time together. It was a dangerous combination! But we had a good time. We were stressing too though because you know you’re not going to be there long, and there was always talk of the club having money problems. He could still play. He still had it. He was playing every game. I played with plenty of good young players who went on to have decent careers like Danny Graham at Carlisle. But as far as someone you play with that you just know is going to score, Robbie is up there, one of the best ever. Even in training his finishing was top class.”

Fowler would have more of an impact on Smith’s career than he realised. He fell out of love with football at Ross County and started taking his coaching badges, looking for a new career in the game. “I was coaching the 15s at Rangers,” he remembers. “A few of them were asking me about agents and I was giving them advice about it, and then one of them said: ‘Have you never thought about doing it?’ A kid called Wladimir Weiss, a Slovakian, came to Rangers and I started helping him out. Then I played a little bit for Airdrie because they’d let me look into being an agent on the side. But once I got my licence you’re not allowed to be affiliated with a club so I had to leave.”

It was here that Fowler came in with an idea. “I actually started my first agency with Robbie,” Smith says. “He just said: ‘Why don’t we start one?’ But he wanted to go into coaching so he did that instead. I’ve been on my own since then. Looking back now on my career as a player, I don’t really have regrets. I never stayed long at one club. But everything I did, it’s helping me in the job I have now. The connections I’ve got, players I’ve played with. There’s not many people I don’t know.

“I’m not married. I suppose all the moving around made it difficult. My Finnish girlfriend lived over here for a bit. I always thought I’d go back to Finland but it never really happened. Then an Australian girlfriend, the same thing happened with her. She came over here in October or November and it was just stinkingly dark and depressing. It was summer in Australia and I just couldn’t make her do it. Things happen you know. It’s probably easier to get a girlfriend in Glasgow now.”

Smith also ventured into a project called Starsboots, billed as football’s version of ebay, a website devoted to selling boots and gloves worn by current players, with a contribution from the proceeds going to charity. Fowler and Jagielka were among those who donated. But the company’s Twitter account has been dormant since 2012 and its website is no longer in use. For now, Smith is concentrating all his talents on representing players rather than selling their gear.

Looking back, the one regret Smith owns up to is the way he left Swindon Town. He spent two seasons there after signing from Sheffield United in 2003, where he’d played some of his best football under Neil Warnock. At Swindon he played for Andy King, a man he once described as “a poor man-manager who held grudges”. King played him at right back in a League Cup tie against Leeds, who were then in the Premier League, a game in which goalkeeper Paul Robinson scored the winner from a corner in the last minute. Much later, Smith one day found himself in Robinson’s house, where he saw a big picture of that goal mounted on the wall. He was in it, cowering somewhere underneath the goalscorer. His relationship with King soured when he was fined for being sent off against Notts County in an FA Cup replay at Meadow Lane in 2004. In a later interview, Smith said: “We had a kangaroo court and even though Kingy admitted it was a dive by the other guy, he fined me and said they wouldn’t appeal. I wasn’t that bothered as I was suspended for Boxing Day so I enjoyed my Christmas Day off.”

He still feels he left under a cloud though. “The only regret I probably have is leaving Swindon,” he tells me. “But at the time, they were struggling and they offered me less money than I was on, a one-year contract because they were struggling for money. Bristol City were offering me two years, good money and they were going to be pushing for the championship. Swindon went down the next season.”

Looking back, it was probably the right decision. But then Grant Smith’s story is all about making the right decisions, all the way back to his early days at Rangers. “I didn’t really want to sign for Rangers because it was too hard to break through at the time,” he says now. He went on trial at Wycombe instead because manager John Gregory was a friend of his dad’s, and got spotted by Tommy Burns at Reading, who signed him to his first professional contract. The rest, as they say, is history.  “I had so many clubs it’s easy to lose count,” Smith says. “My Wikipedia page even has a few added I never really played for.” Apart from the phantom few on his online profile, you get the feeling he left his mark on every single one.

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

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