It must have felt like the good times would never end, Weymouth had won the Conference South title the previous season and were now flying in the Conference National. Wearing the captain’s armband was an exciting attacking midfielder and top scorer, Ben Smith.
His manager at the time, Garry Hill was full of praise for his in-form number ten, “Ben is the best attacking midfielder in the Conference there is no doubt about that. He knows the league inside out, he skippers the side and his performances have been excellent.
“He is proud to be captain and he is a player I have always had a lot of time for even when he has played against me for other teams in the past. He is relishing the challenge and he is really turning around and setting the standards and leading by example.”
A month after those words from Hill, the whole of Weymouth’s first-team squad are called into a team meeting, they are due to travel to Spain for a mid-season training camp the following day. Expecting to go over the items they will need to take and an itinerary of the short break, Hill breaks the news that the dream is over.
Smith’s time at Weymouth was done, he had only arrived a year earlier and had recently agreed to extend his stay with the Terras a few weeks prior. He, and the rest of the squad had been transfer listed, Hill and his backroom team had already been dispensed of their services.
In a career which had already spun across 6 clubs before his move to the Wessex Stadium, Smith admited that he was happy at Weymouth and was looking forward to the prospect of spending many more years at the South Dorset side.
When it is considered the funds which were being put into the club by then owner Martyn Harrison and that the club were even considering a mid-season trip to Spain, perhaps Weymouth’s troubles were a fait accompli.
Although Smith recalls that none of the squad at the time saw the situation coming.
“I remember it vividly,” says Smith. “I’ve been at a few clubs where there’s some financial difficulties, or you’ve not been paid on time. At Weymouth we got paid on time, every time no problem, there was never any hint of it.
“It was obvious when you looked at it and worked it out that they were being funded by Martyn Harrison at the time, who was a big benefactor and if he wasn’t there then there would be a problem. There was never any inkling of that happening though.
“When I first came, I lived in one of his hotels for three months, all paid for by the club and I had just signed a new contract just before it started going belly-up. I thought, I’ve just signed a 2-and-half-year contract and I’m really happy at Weymouth, I didn’t want to move and didn’t want to do anything, I was just really happy to play there for as many years as I could.”
And why would he want to leave? Smith had hit the ground running in the Conference National for Weymouth, playing at a level he was more accustomed to and having been made club captain at the start of the season he had already scored ten goals by January.
With things personally going smoothly for Smith and Weymouth sitting comfortably in the upper-half of the Conference table, he and the rest of the squad thought that Garry Hill was pulling a fast one when he broke the news of their transfer listing and Weymouth’s financial demise.
“We were meant to be going to Spain for a mid-season training camp,” Smith tells uptheterras.co.uk. “So we were all ready for that, we had came to training the day before and Garry pulled us all in for a meeting, I was expecting him to tell us what we needed to take to Spain but he just came out with it and said, ‘all the coaching staff are leaving and you’re all on the transfer list.’
“We thought it was a joke to start with and then realised from his tone that it wasn’t and that was it. Everybody was put on the transfer list because they needed to get rid of everyone.
“Would I stay? I had no problem with staying, but I knew that situations like this don’t normally end well and you’ve got to look after yourself. From having had a really good first-half of that season, it was the one time in my career where I did have a lot of interest in teams who wanted to sign me, both in the Conference and the Football League. Once that happened there was probably no real chance of me staying and I had to be a bit selfish and think what was best for me.”
His short spell at the Terras had been a whirlwind, having been thrown into a squad who were desperate to return Weymouth to the Conference National, Smith became a focal part of Garry Hill’s ‘dream-team’.
It’s unusual for a player who had only spent a year at Weymouth to become such a fans’ favourite, but his impact on the Terras faithful was such that he has almost obtained legendary status amongst the supporters.
Having featured on Sky Sports two months prior to Smith’s arrival with the famous Nottingham Forest game in the FA Cup, national interest in a South Coast side who were looking to leap-frog their way to the Football League saw Weymouth broadcast twice on live television during Smith’s time there.
Against Gravesend, a game shown live on Sky Sports, with Weymouth trailing to an early goal Smith struck a volley which is still talked about at the Bob Lucas Stadium now.
Twenty-five yards or so from goal, the ball bounced off Richard Logan’s head and fell neatly at Smith’s feet, there was only one place that ball was going and it was over goalkeeper Lance Cronin’s head and into the back of the Wessex Stadium net.
“It’s like any of those things, it’s in the moment, the ball just fell to me,” Smith recounts. “Throughout my career, any time a volley came up I was hitting it, I didn’t want to waste those, so as soon as it came I just hit it.
“In the same game I had another one just a little bit after that which went out for a throw, they don’t always go where you want but I hit that one really sweet. I probably scored a few of those in my career, not always on Sky though! I refused to not take an opportunity like that when the ball sits up like that.
“That was a good one, but when we played Tamworth in the first game of the season I scored after about 6 seconds. We had centre, it went back to Steve Tully, who played it down the line, there was a header inside and I volleyed it straight past the keeper, that’s always a good way to start the season! There was a few, but they were the two standout ones, in that first-half of the season I got quite a few goals before I left, every goal is a good goal.
“I don’t know about an extra expectation playing on television, but it did give an edge to the game because you knew you were going out to a wider audience. When you’re a lower league footballer playing in either the Conference or the lower reaches of the Football League it’s a good opportunity to put yourself out there. You hear time and time again of players who first caught the eye in games like that and then getting moves to higher clubs, that would’ve been the aim for all of our players at that stage.
“There was always a nice edge to it and I always found that I thrived under that expectation and I tended to have pretty good games on tele, although I’m sure I had the odd stinker!”
When he arrived at the Terras, playing football in the South West was nothing new to Smith. He had previously played for Yeovil Town and was involved in the FA Trophy clash between Weymouth and the Glovers in 1999.
“I was aware of the rivalry only a little bit, when I played for Yeovil I was living in Essex still,” admits Smith. “We were part-time and I would travel up and down so I wasn’t really immersed in the area or living in the South West, so I didn’t really know too much about it.
“In the Trophy, we drew at Weymouth and then we played the replay at Yeovil and Yeovil won, I scored in the game at Weymouth and it was disallowed, how it was disallowed I’ll never know, I was about 4-yards onside!
“When I joined Weymouth I wasn’t too bothered by the Yeovil rivalry, if I’m honest, when you’re a lower league player you can’t be that picky, you’ve got to go where the jobs are and who wants to take you. Believe it or not there weren’t a lot of people who wanted to sign me, so you’ve got to go where you can get the work.”
Having been enjoying his football with Weymouth it was natural that Smith was looking to be somewhere where he knew he would be appreciated when he was forced to leave. He returned to Hereford United who had Graham Turner as manager, Smith had previously worked with Turner at Edgar Street.
So keen were Hereford United to sign the Weymouth captain, that they offered a much needed £20,000 to the cash-strapped Terras. This was the first time the Bulls had spent any money on a new signing for a decade, since they signed Neil Grayson in 1997.
“I had played for Hereford before with Graham and I knew he was really tight, he wouldn’t spend money willingly,” continues Smith. “I had about five Football League who all wanted to sign me, as much as I love Hereford, there were better and bigger clubs than Hereford.
“I had a really good time there before and they had tried to sign me when I joined Weymouth, so I knew they were really keen and Graham knew my game really well. With the way I played, some managers really liked my style and some didn’t, so I needed to make sure that the manager who was signing me was really keen on me.
“I spoke to Cheltenham as well who were really keen and offered me a good contract, but I spoke to John Ward and asked him ‘what do you think of me as a player?’ He said ‘I’ve not really seen you play but the secretary thinks you’re good.’ Their club secretary had watched the last game that I had played against Forest Green, we had lost 3-2 but I had scored twice. I thought if they’ve not really seen me play then I’m not sure about this, that’s why I didn’t go there, I really liked what they were offering and everything they were talking about, but Graham knew my game really well and money wasn’t really the deciding factor.
“I was getting a decent contract wherever I went, so it was more about where I was going to play, at that stage when it was going wrong at Weymouth I was probably coming to the best years of my career, so I wanted to make sure I made the right decision and was playing a lot.”
With his career starting at Arsenal, Smith tells of what it was like to make the step-up from an Arsenal youth player to playing in the first team.
Arsenal were a top Premier League, as a 16-year-old he found himself training in a side with players like Dennis Bergkamp, Ian Wright, Tony Adams and Paul Merson
“It’s strange, you’re a bit naive at that age, I joined them at 11 and played there until I was 18. I think you soon realise, when you become a youth team player, of the standard you’re trying to get to. When I was in my school team or playing for Arsenal youth I was always one of the best players, but when I realised the step-up and the difference, I soon realised that I probably wasn’t going to be good enough to play at a club at that level.
“I still thought I could have a career at some level, the thing that stood out to me was the athleticism of some of the players at the level, it was on a different level to somebody who was just bog-standard and average like me.
“I wouldn’t say the step-up was so much in the youth team, but when you look at the players in the reserves, or when we would train with the first-team sometimes, you just saw the gulf in quality was just huge. In my youth career between 11-16, I had the odd game where I came up against players who were better than me, but more often than not I always thought that I was the one of the best players. Then all of a sudden I was a very small fish in a very big pond.”
After leaving Arsenal in 1996, a move to Reading looked to be a chance for Smith to forge a career for himself at a senior level and in League Football. It was an opportunity which he admits to not taking advantage of.
“At Reading there was a big difference,” continues Smith. “They were in the Championship at the time, so I went there and played in the youth team there was quite a big difference in the quality of the youth team from Arsenal to Reading. In those days you’d expect that, not so much now as Reading has got a really good youth system.
“I then went and trained with the first-team pretty much straight away, I was in-and-around and felt comfortable and not out of place at all. The trouble was in those days you didn’t really have much support from the club, I was a young boy that was going to move away from home for the first time, I went to live with a few players who were older than me and me being the sort of person at the time who would get sucked into what the crowd were doing I ended up doing stuff that I probably shouldn’t have been doing.
“The first-team players weren’t doing anything wrong, they were just living their lives, they were Championship players and doing what they needed to do, I was just going along for the ride and not really taking it seriously. Slowly my form and the quality of my play deteriorated because I wasn’t keeping myself fit or looking after myself, that’s why things didn’t really work out for me there. That should have been the place stabilised and really started to forge a career, maybe not at the Championship but probably at League One.”
Having eventually finished his career with Eseex clubs Thurrock and Maldon & Tiptree, in a rare move for a lower league player Smith released his well-received autobiography Journeyman: One man’s odyssey through the lower leagues of English football in August 2015.
“It was just a project that I did myself really. I’m a big reader myself, not just football biographies but biographies in general and self-help books. I’ve read a lot of books and always thought that I could write a decent story myself,” says Smith. “Initially I just started writing it on my iPad for a bit of fun, but as it got going and I got through it I thought ‘it’s not bad this’, and kept doing it.
“From the age of about 30 I had kept a journal, especially around the time I played for Crawley and for Steve Evans, which was an interesting time, I had all the stories written down so I knew I could revert back to them.
“People always tell me how hard it is to get a book published, but I sent it out to two publishers and the second one said straight away they wanted to take it. Normally you just send off a synopsis and if they like it they’ll request the whole book, I think it was a little bit of luck really.
“I had spoken to the Chief Executive of a company called Biteback Publishing, who is a guy called Iain Dale, he’s quite well known and has his own Drive-Time shown on LBC radio and he’s on Sky News a lot. I said to him ‘Do you want me to send over the synopsis?’ But he was going on holiday and wanted me to send him the whole book, so I think there was a bit of luck there that he had had the time to sit there and read it all.
“After about three weeks I hadn’t heard anything so I thought he didn’t want to do anything with it, I messaged him anyway to see if he could give me some feedback on what I’d need to change, but he loved it. I then went down to his offices in London the week after and agreed the deal and it was published in about 6 months.
“I had finished writing it, but there was a lot of editing I needed to do, in an average book there’s about 100,000 words, but I had about 140,000 to 150,000 words, so some stories didn’t make it in, there could be a sequel! It sold 20,000 copies, when I went in there they said if we sell 3,000 they would be happy and if we sell 10,00 they would put a statue in this office for me, I’m expecting there to be two statues, I’ll have to have a look next time!”
After football Smith worked as a teacher having gained a degree in Business Management, a course which he started at Weymouth College whilst at the Terras. Although it wasn’t always in his immediate plans, Smith is now back involved with football.
“I’m not really one of these people who goes on social media and tells people what they are doing, so not many people know I’m there,” laughs Smith. “I’m a coach at Brighton and Hove Albion in their academy now, but when I was about 28 I had no interest in coaching or staying in football and I thought I wanted to do something else.
“As I got older I realised what I knew already, that I love football and I wanted to be involved in it in some capacity. I can’t see my life without football and now I’m a coach, it’s a bit ironic really.”
Over thirteen have passed since he left the Terras amid the turmoil and financial difficulties, but Smith still looks out for Weymouth’s results and is pleased to see the club has managed to rebuild itself.
“It’s great to see the club getting back to close to where it should be, I always thought when I played there that it could be a Football League club no problem. After the era I was there, there was a lot of mismanagement and the club had to drop down a long way.
“I was on loan at Aldershot and then Mark (Molesley) came in on loan, so we were only there for two weeks together, I wouldn’t have had a clue if he’d go into management, but he was a nice feller and it’s always good to see people like that do well, it’s great to see him doing such a brilliant job.
“It looks like the season has been curtailed now, but it looks like they’re in good shape for the next few years. Firstly they should aim to get back into the Conference, but then aim to get into the Football League one day, I don’t see why that can’t happen.”
Photos: Idris Martin