Keeper Smith’s already won his battle

Pompey keeper Phil Smith  Picture: Paul Jacobs
Pompey keeper Phil Smith Picture: Paul Jacobs
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The fight to start between the sticks against Oxford is going to the wire.

But Pompey’s Phil Smith has already emerged victorious from one of the most testing battles he is ever likely to face.

At the end of last year, it looked like the keeper’s time in the sport which has been his life was at an end.

Released by Swindon, the 33-year-old found himself without a club and on the outside of the football world looking in.

That’s when a descent into depression began for a man who is the absolute antithesis of the high-living, high-falluting footballer often seen in the game’s upper echelons.

The Blues keeper is, and it’s a compliment to say this, a normal bloke. No heirs or graces, low maintenance, approachable, focused and professional.

That approach has seen Smith carve out an admirable career in the English game in spells at the likes of Dover, Margate, Crawley and Swindon.

Being a footballer at that level doesn’t mean he’s immune to the pressures of life we all feel, though.

It was those demands which took Smith to a car parts factory at the end of last year after finding himself out of work. And with that came bouts of self-loathing as the darkness of depression took hold.

‘It was hard,’ said Smith, as he reflected on his recent journey with admirable honesty.

‘You doubt yourself and your worth. You are taught in this game from an early age that if you aren’t in football, you are a failure.

‘Of course, that’s not the case. Most people in this world do perfectly well outside of it. But it was hard for me. I stopped playing and it becomes tough to re-adjust.

‘After a few months, the realities of paying the bills became pressing.

‘Depression was an issue. It was tough. As a man, you want to provide for your wife and family.

‘I started working in a factory just to keep my head above water and pay the mortgage. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I found it hard.’

Reliving recent experiences is something that inevitably sees raw emotion bubble to the surface for Smith.

Being taken to a place which make the every day moans and groans we often let overwhelm us seem trivial, provides him with perspective today.

And it makes him eternally grateful for the offer which came his way last December.

Pompey’s goalkeeping issues offered Smith a route back from the football wilderness. First-team coach Alan McLoughlin had an influence in that via his Swindon connections.

Smith, without any game or training time under his belt, was up front about his situation.

But his experience meant he joined the swathe of players on month-to-month terms. And never was an offer so gladly accepted.

Eight months on, and Smith is reflecting on his renaissance as the final days of pre-season evolve into a bright, new campaign for Pompey as the United Kingdom’s biggest community-owned club.

The prospect of that turnaround being crowned by him performing in front of sell-out Fratton Park crowd at its dawn on Saturday is quite something.

Even if he doesn’t beat John Sullivan to the No1 spot, though, you somehow feel Smith is a person who could keep that disappointment in context given where he’s come from.

‘It’s good to know I’m going to be here,’ said Smith, who has now inked a 12-month agreement with the club.

‘Just being part of things in pre-season is something I appreciate and am so thankful for.

‘Hopefully we can now start out on the road back.’