No chance with Portsmouth '“ but Denmead winger not giving up on Football League dream after Sunderland trial

Sunderland and Sheffield Wednesday have run the rule over him.

Monday, 31st December 2018, 11:09 am
Updated Thursday, 10th January 2019, 11:17 am
Sam Smart in action for Horndean. Picture: Habibur Rahman

But an outright opportunity to impress his boyhood club was never handed to Sam Smart.

The Denmead winger didn't get the chance to spend a trial period at Pompey as a junior.

A few odd training sessions were all that came to fruition '“ despite having a PO postcode and being a regular in the Fratton End.

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Sam Smart, right, celebrates scoring for Basingstoke. Picture: Steve Gridley

Nevertheless, that didn't curtail Smart's desire to make it as a professional. It's always been his dream to feature in the Football League.

Regarded as one of the brightest prospects in the non-league game at Basingstoke, his impressive form led to the Blues' League One rivals Sunderland casting their eye over him in November. The Black Cats didn't offer him a contract, though. 

Championship outfit Sheffield Wednesday were also interested in the summer yet no deal was tabled. 

But while neither club gave the 20-year-old pro terms, it's made him even hungrier to reach the paid ranks.

Sam Smart in action for Basingstoke Town. Picture: Steve Gridley

Smart said: '˜I did train with Pompey when I was younger but it was never really a trial.

'˜I knew the coaches and trained with teams a couple of years older than me.

'˜It wasn't that I wasn't good enough. They felt I was as good as what they had so there was no point switching.

'˜To be fair, I do think I was a bit unlucky. If I'd had a proper chance then maybe something could have happened from it.

Sam Smart. Picture : Habibur Rahman

'˜I don't quite know how the trial at Sunderland came about '“ I think my agent sorted it for me.

'˜At the start of the season, I had a trial at Sheffield Wednesday but nothing came from it.

'˜I was still pretty excited to go to Sunderland, though, and I thought it went pretty well.

'˜I was up there for two weeks. Because the under-23s had a game the day I arrived, I trained with the under-18s for a bit.

'˜Then when the under-23s returned, I worked with them and I felt I was up there with their level. Obviously, I thought I did really well but it didn't turn out how I wanted it to.

'˜My agent told me I've got to keep playing well, keep getting noticed and hopefully something else can happen.

'˜What he told me afterwards was that I was good enough '“ or even better '“ to play for the under-23s. But Sunderland are looking to get promoted this season and said I wouldn't be ready for the first team.

'˜The main thing I took from the experience was the intensity Sunderland trained at compared to what I'm used to.

'˜I've never been in an academy before so I'm not really used to it week-in, week-out. The level of intensity is what I want to do '“ it was unbelievable.'

Smart did have links to Fratton Park during his teenage years, though.

At 16, he pursued a football education scholarship with Pompey in the Community and Highbury College.

It allowed the former Horndean Technology College pupil to achieve a level three diploma in sport, while also playing football full-time.

Helping the Blues win the National Football Youth League title was the highlight '“ before earning a full scholarship to attend the University of Fort Lauderdale, in Florida.

While Smart lasted only a month in America, he has no regrets about his premature departure.

In fact, he feels he wouldn't be where he is now if he'd have remained Stateside.

'˜For Pompey in the Community, you'd only face proper teams such as Chelsea and Tottenham,' said Smart.

'˜So it was good to get noticed by other clubs and coaches as you never know who is watching.

'˜It was a three-year course and you'd be up against players sometimes three years older. It was good to be able to see the level you were at compared to each year group.

'˜We won the league in the first season. The second season didn't go as well but because we had new players, I had to adapt my game and moved from playing as a striker into the number-10 role.

'˜I ended up earning a full scholarship to go to America and play for the University of Fort Lauderdale. I was only there for a month, though, as it wasn't what I imagined what it would be like.

'˜I kind of bigged it up a bit too much and was a bit disappointed.

'˜However, I don't have any regrets because I wouldn't have achieved what I have done at home in America.

'˜I did the right thing, although I'm still waiting for my lucky break here to start kicking on.'

After returning to the south coast, Smart linked up with Horndean in the Wessex League premier division.

He was highly regarded by boss Michael Birmingham and gave the ex-Denmead Junior School pupil his first real taste of first-team football.

The Five Heads Park manager was never going to stop Smart from moving to Basingstoke when they came knocking in 2017, though.

And the wide man lit up the Southern League premier division for the Dragons last season. He netted 20 goals, which Football League clubs' attention and won him a call-up to the England C squad. 

But while a move from out of non-league is not yet in the offing, Hampshire's three National League clubs have displayed interest.

Smart reckons he's more than ready to cut it at that level.

And playing full-time would be a dream come true.

Smart added: '˜I'm quite raw in how I play. I like to keep things simple, think about my end product and get as my crosses into the box as I can.

'˜In my first season at Basingstoke, I was surprised how many I scored because I didn't score that many at Horndean.

'˜I thought I'd be on the bench and play a few games but instead I kicked on. The first game went really well then I just started scoring and I was happy to keep a good level of consistency.

'˜This season, I had a feeling I wouldn't score as much. After that campaign, most teams know who I am and the full-back and winger are tending to double up on me.

'˜But with new manager, Martin Kuhl, coming in, he's changed the style of play almost overnight. It's added more to my overall game and I want people to see the bigger picture of me.

'˜I enjoy playing for Basingstoke but in football, you want to move on and play at the highest level you can.

'˜I've trained with the Hawks, Aldershot and Eastleigh '“ all are at National League level. That's where I'm at in terms of proper men's football and could play at that level.

'˜But because I'm under contract at Basingstoke, it comes down to either a money situation or how the two clubs want to sort each other out.

'˜It's out of my hands and it's a bit frustrating but I can't really do much about it at the moment.

'˜It's good to know that teams do want me to come in for training. But I'm getting to the point where I want someone to take that risk on me and giving me the chance to display I've got.

'˜It would be a dream come true for me. It's the only thing I've ever wanted to do.'