By Damian Dolan
Connor Smith has something of a Midas Touch when it comes to winning promotion. Having enjoyed play-off final success with AFC Wimbledon at Wembley in 2016, last season he helped the side they beat in the final, Plymouth Argyle, to automatic promotion.
Back-to-back promotion campaigns for Smith, whose big break came in 2010 when he finished second in the TV show ‘Football’s Next Star’ on Sky1. It earned him a contract with Watford.
Now the 24-year-old Mullingar-native has turned his attention to a spot of potential FA Cup giant-killing, as his new club Yeovil Town prepare to face Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United in the FA Cup Fourth Round at Huish Park on Friday night.
Smith is quietly confident that the Glovers can give Mourinho’s men a run for their money.
“The pressure is on Man Utd; we’ll have a bit more freedom to play and the atmosphere is going to be unbelievable,” said Smith, a former Republic of Ireland Under 21 international.
“We’ve beaten League One sides here in the FA Cup, and while the Premier League is a different level, the principle is the same.
“It’s a very tough place to come, and we’ll be trying to make it as difficult as possible for them. We’re really confident, especially at home.
“We’ll either get the chance to play against some of the best players in the world or if they rest players it’ll give us a chance [of winning], or even of getting a draw and taking them back to Old Trafford.
“We go out to win every game, but a draw would be an unbelievable result and the players would get a day at Old Trafford, and the club a pay day.
“But you’ve to believe that you can. If we play with freedom we might have half a chance.”
The lowest ranked side still left in the cup, the Somerset side have already belied their league position (they’re currently 21st in League Two) by knocking out League One high flyers Bradford City, who famously stunned Chelsea in 2015.
League One side Southend and Port Vale (League Two) have also been seen off along the way, and Smith believes too much shouldn’t be written into the club’s league position.
“Our league form doesn’t show how good we’ve been playing – we’ve not had the rub of the green. We’ve let slip a lot of leads. But if we can tighten up a bit in the final period of games, I think we can move up the table,” he said.
Last season, Smith was in the Plymouth Argyle side that held Liverpool to a goalless draw at Anfield in the FA Cup Third Round, only to lose the replay 1-0. Liverpool’s winner coming from a set-piece.
“Over the two games they didn’t break us down in open play, so it is possible to get a result against the top teams. We [Plymouth Argyle] proved it last year. Anything is possible in this competition,” he said.
“We went in with a game plan to frustrate Liverpool and it worked. They didn’t have a big striker, so we got narrow and made them go around us, and once they started putting crosses in we had 6ft 3in and 6ft 4in centre halves against people like Roberto Firmino, small technical players.
“Against United you’ve a different problem if Romelu Lukaku is playing. We’ll try and frustrate them and make the pitch as small as possible, and try pressing them a little bit and make it as uncomfortable as possible. The pitch isn’t going to be like Old Trafford.”
Football’s Next Star
A former Mullingar Athletic AFC player, Smith signed Academy scholarship forms with Watford mid-way through the 2009/10 season, on the back of shooting to fame on ‘Football’s Next Star’. Smith and a couple of friends had attended trials in Dublin “for a laugh”.
Seven thousand young hopefuls from across Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales were whittled down to just 40, who went through to further trials. Smith finished as runner-up.
A link between the show and Watford saw him earn a trial and he did enough to be offered a contract at the age of 16.
“I’ll never regret going for it and I’m very thankful that anything came from it,” said Smith, who was given his firstteam debut by then Hornets boss Gianfranco Zola, against Crystal Palace in 2012.
He had loan spells with Stevenage, Gillingham and Wealdstone before leaving Watford in 2016. He joined AFC Wimbledon and ended his first season with play-off success at Wembley, as Wimbledon beat Plymouth 2-0 in the League Two final.
“It will be tough to top that day. Getting to play at Wembley and taking the trophy around the stadium, and being able to share it with friends and family. It’s the best day of my career,” he said.
“We’d sneaked into the top six on a good run of form, and we took that form into the play-offs. We had the momentum.”
He wouldn’t join his teammates in League One, however. A week after the final he was still talking to Wimbledon about a new deal, when Plymouth came in with a “good offer”.
Smith duly departed to help Argyle achieve automatic promotion to League One, as they finished the 2016/17 season in second place behind Portsmouth.
“Last season was one of the most enjoyable of my career – I thoroughly enjoyed it,” he said.
“I would have loved to have stayed at Plymouth, but that’s the way football is. They might have wanted to bring in more players with League One experience. You don’t know what way the manager is thinking.”
Instead, he signed a two-year deal with Yeovil in June 2017 and is now fully immersed into Somerset life.
— Yeovil Town FC (@YTFC) January 22, 2018
“It’s a good group of lads, a great manager, the staff are all unbelievable and everyone is pulling in the right direction,” said Smith, who was part of the Republic of Ireland side which reached the semi-finals of the European Championship in 2011, only to go down 5-0 to eventual winners Spain.
“We did really well; just qualifying for the European Championships was tough. We had to get through two qualification stages to reach the finals,” said Smith, who also played Under 17 and Under 21 for Ireland.
“It’s the biggest honour in football. Even if I’d only won one cap at Under 17s I’d have been proud. I always look back with great memories on all of my appearances for Ireland,” he said.
He’ll have another great memory to add to his collection if Yeovil can take the scalp of Manchester United.