Ex-Swindon and Millwall keeper Phil Smith: I ended up hating football at Portsmouth. I applied for jobs as a train driver and postman to get away

The opening words of the Netflix documentary resonated with Phil Smith.

Thursday, 2nd September 2021, 6:00 pm
Phil Smith admits he suffered depression and grew to hate football as Pompey represented his final Football League club. Picture: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Beneath a solid career forged at Millwall, Crawley, Swindon, Pompey and Aldershot festered a tortured existence, the goalkeeper fighting depression and driven to hate football.

A sporting life embodied by the opening lines of an episode of Formula 1: Drive To Survive.

‘I’m not professing to be any fantastic sportsman, but I found what the voice-over said at the start of that episode incredibly profound,’ Smith told The News.

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‘It’s something I can still hear now – “They always say sportsmen die twice. Once when you lose your career and once at the actual end”.

‘That sums everything up, it really does feel like that. That part of your life is over. For me, that involved 20 years of making a living from football, more than half my life. It was everything.

‘Towards the end of my time at Pompey I hated it, so hated it. Football was done with me, I knew it was the end, and I wanted to get to the next part of my life.

‘I no longer felt good enough. I believed I was useless and started to go downhill mentally. I didn’t want to be around the place, I couldn’t be involved in football anymore. Meanwhile my home life struggled massively.

Phil Smith in action during his final Pompey outing - a 1-0 win over Bury in October 2013. Picture: Joe Pepler

‘After football, you feel you have no purpose. The only thing you’ve known since the age of 14 you can’t do any more. You can no longer provide for your wife and kids, it’s a horrible place.

‘After I left Pompey, my marriage ended and I spent two-and-a-half years having counselling, on and off. I know two people who have taken matters into their own hands.

‘Football is an awful business. It’s the best and the worst because it gives you great moments and experiences that money can’t buy. On the other hand, it also delivers the crushing lows that nothing else does.

‘I was an addict. I didn't want to need football anymore – simply because I couldn’t handle it.’

Phil Smith made five Pompey appearances before released by Andy Awford in May 2013. Picture: Joe Pepler

Smith had been without a club for six months when offered a Pompey trial in December 2012.

The goalkeeper had amassed 132 appearances with Swindon during a successful six-season stay consisting of two promotions.

He suffered depression during his County Ground days, a state of mind influenced by the deterioration of his pelvis rendering a reliance on painkillers and anti-inflammatories to combat constant pain.

Having been warned by a specialist that he would be lucky to play again, Smith was released by the Robins in May 2012.

Phil Smith is dejected after Mansfield equalise in his penultimate Pompey match in August 2013. Picture: Joe Pepler

Subsequently failing a trial at Southend, he reluctantly admitted retirement at the age of 32 – until Pompey intervened.

Smith added: ‘I was in retirement and out there looking for work, while my dad lent me some money for a couple of months to pay the bills.

‘For a few weeks I worked at the big Honda car plant in Swindon. Orders for parts would be sent to my factory and picked. My role was quality control, counting them to make sure everything was present.

‘People can be horrible. They’d point and laugh at me sometimes, thinking they’re being funny. “Blimey, you’ve fallen from grace” and that sort of stuff.

‘They don’t mean too much harm, but it’s not nice. I could see them looking before they’d walk away laughing. That was tough to take.

‘At one point, I looked into driving a train. I completed an online application and questionnaire, while also past a test. They said they’d be in touch for the next phase – but I never heard back.

Phil Smith and Pompey goalkeeping coach Alan Knight at a pre-season friendly against Bognor Town in July 2013. Picture: Paul Jacobs (131957-6)

‘Then, out of the blue, Pompey contacted me. My response to the goalkeeping coach John Keeley was: “I’ve not done anything in six months, I’m overweight, I’ve been injured, I don't even know whether I can do it”.

‘I can remember walking across the training pitch with Simon Eastwood on my first day. I was a bit self-conscious and a little overweight, although not crazy overweight.

‘He told me they’d had about 13 goalkeepers that season. I responded: “Mate, there’s going to be 14 soon because I’m not going to last five minutes!”.

‘After a couple of days of training, Guy Whittingham offered me a month-to-month deal. Wow!

‘The length of time not playing football helped my injury. Previously, I could hardly walk without painkillers and anti-inflammatories, it was like a dagger being stabbed into your pelvis whenever I moved.

‘This was it now, no more sitting on a sofa thinking woe is me. Pompey was such a breath of fresh air, a fantastic place.’

A rejuvenated Smith would serve out the remainder of the 2012-13 campaign as Eastwood’s trusty back-up from the bench, albeit without making an appearance.

However, he had sufficiently impressed to become the second Pompey player to sign a new deal during a massive summer overhaul, penning a 12-month contract in May 2013.

Following the subsequent bombshell of Eastwood’s decision to quit for Championship Blackburn, Whittingham turned to ex-Charlton man John Sullivan to compete with Smith for the goalkeeping spot.

Yet, with manager unable to settle on a first choice, both would be discarded by Pompey just 15 matches into the 2013-14 campaign, never playing for the club again.

‘I was dropped too soon – one mistake and I was taken out,’ said Smith.

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‘I featured once more and that was only because Trevor Carson couldn’t play. To lose my place after one error in a 2-2 draw against Mansfield was a bit harsh.

‘Admittedly, I should have done better for what proved to be their equaliser, but it wasn’t ridiculous. To be dropped for that is when you know you’re not fancied.

‘I was so desperate to do well at Pompey, for me it was a massive thing. Imagine getting into the play-offs and winning promotion at Pompey after everything I had been through. That would have been huge.

‘Maybe I put myself under too much pressure, yet I couldn’t handle it at Pompey. I had played hundreds of first-team games by that stage, but couldn’t cope with the pressure of playing in front of that many people and having to perform. I thought I could, but I couldn’t.

‘I had five games at Pompey. For one of them I wasn’t very good, a couple of them I was okay, maybe one of them I was good – but, overall, that’s not good enough.’

Smith’s final Pompey outing was a 1-0 triumph over Bury in October 2013, when loanee Carson was unable to face his parent club.

The following month he spent a loan spell spanning five games at non-league Dartford, although, upon his return to Fratton Park, was back on the bench for the final 27 fixtures of the campaign.

It was no surprise to see Smith among nine players released by newly-appointed manager Andy Awford at the season’s end.

Yet the 34-year-old had already been preparing for life after football, applying for alternative careers during the latter part of Pompey’s 2013-14 campaign.

He added: ‘You never know what people are feeling. As a player, I roomed with Chris Barker at Aldershot, he was my friend.

‘I last saw him four weeks before he killed himself on New Year’s Day in 2020. You wouldn’t have known what was to come.

‘It doesn’t matter what people look like on the outside, the game sometimes takes them into places where they really shouldn't be going.

‘It can get to people, no matter who they are, how much money they make, how many games they’ve played, whether they’ve got a wife, kids, house, car or beautiful life.

‘They can have nothing, but it still affects them the same way – and they paint that face on.

‘During my final Pompey season, I confided in people like Richie Barker, Simon Ferry and Alan McLoughlin. I needed to get another job, a postman, a train driver, anything to get out of there and stop being a footballer. I was in such a rush.

‘When Andy Awford was manager, I told him I didn’t want to play anymore. I felt my body giving up, I could no longer do the things I’d been able to do in the past.

‘I was on Pompey’s bench thinking “I didn’t want to play any longer”.

‘I went on loan to Dartford for a month in November 2013, yet mentally was struggling. I nearly walked off the pitch during my second appearance.

‘Sully had turned it down, but I agreed. I wanted to play games, have a change of scenery, but as I drove down there I was thinking “I don’t really know why I’m doing this”.

‘We hosted Barnet in my second game and conceded after 19 minutes. I wanted to walk off the pitch and go home, I didn’t want to be there.

‘The goal wasn’t even that bad, but I just thought “I can’t do this any more”. I nearly did leave, I really nearly did. At half-time, I almost walked out of the place. It no longer felt right.

‘I had spoken to my Pompey manager, Richie Barker, about wanting to become a train driver. My Fratton Park wages were minimal, you’re talking £500-600 a week, that’s not life-changing money I’m walking away from. You have a good chance of earning more in a different job.

‘My money was only ever going to go down, so what would I do instead of football? I knew I was dead wood at Pompey, I knew I’d be leaving.

‘In the last couple of months of the season, I was applying for jobs. I remember sitting in Kev McCormack’s little room at Fratton Park and being on the phone applying to be a postman. I was also trying to get the train driver thing sorted.

‘People may think “Well that’s a bit unprofessional”, but I was just preparing for what I knew was coming. I needed to plan for life afterwards – and had come to hate football by then.

‘Not training, that was my escape, it was the off-field stuff I didn’t like. When you’re training, everything disappears, all your troubles, the stresses, the pain, gone – and I loved that.

‘Then all those hidden feelings would come straight back when it was over for the day.’

Smith did return to playing, however, the lure for one final fix too irresistible to ignore.

While shopping in Asda in July 2014, he took a call from Andy Scott, the boss of non-league Aldershot, persuading him to quit a Swindon-based advertising sales job.

The retired goalkeeper resumed his playing career at the Recreation Ground for the next two seasons, making 90 appearances, before finally calling it quits in May 2016.

In the years since, Smith has worked as a double glazing salesman with GlasSpace and as Swindon’s Academy goalkeeping coach.

Then, in May 2020, Smith was approached by his ex-Robins boss Dennis Wise to work with him at Garuda Select.

The project, which is based at Loughborough University with Wise as technical director, is designed to help promising Indonesian footballers forge a pathway into Europe, with their progress captured by television cameras for a docu-series titled ‘Dream Chasers’.

‘I’m coaching now, which is amazing. I didn’t think I’d ever want to do it, but I love it,’ the 41-year-old added.

‘For years I was trying to live without football, convincing myself that I didn’t need it any more. That was a big problem. I was trying to find something else to be passionate about, to be good at, yet couldn’t discover anything.

‘Now I’m around football and feel at home again. I understand it, I know it, I can teach people things about football and life in football – I’ve been through it all.

‘Counselling made a difference. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a light switch and everything is better, it was a process, and I’m still coming to terms with the fact I’m not a footballer anymore.

‘But I feel valuable in myself, I have a purpose. And that has taken a long, long time to accept.’

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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Phil Smith spent six seasons at Swindon before joining Pompey in December 2012. Picture: Harry Engels/Getty Images