by Paddy von Behr
SIX years ago, Connor Smith narrowly missed out on a contract with Inter Milan, but the AFC Wimbledon new boy is adamant that was for the best.
As a teenager, Smith was a reality TV star, leaving his home in Ireland to take part in Football’s Next Star and travelling to Milan as one of ten finalists. Put through their paces by the coaches at Inter, the youngsters were whittled down to a final three, with Smith eventually finishing second to Ben Greenhalgh.
But, while Greenhalgh – now with Concord Rangers – struggled to make the grade in Italy, the runner-up was back on these shores with Watford.
And, after ending a six-year association with the Hornets last week to join Wimbledon, Smith insists his TV adventure could hardly have worked out better.
“Me and my friends saw an advert on TV and we signed up for it for a laugh, not expecting to get anywhere really,” he recalled. “I ended up coming second and it was a great experience.
“It probably worked out for the better in the long run. Trying to break through at Inter Milan is a tough old thing. Coming back to England and signing for Watford, and the way I progressed there, was good.”
Away from the cut-throat environment of Inter, Smith was able to quietly go about his business in Hertfordshire, using the lessons he had learned in training sessions with Jose Mourinho.
“I always had ambitions to play professionally and, even before the show, clubs had spoken to me about being on trial,” he said. “You turn up with the attitude that it’s not the be-all-and-end-all but I started progressing. The further you get, the more you believe you can win it.
“We got put up in a really nice house, with a swimming pool, but the training was the most important thing and there were such great facilities.
“When we first went over, we met Mourinho and, on the final day, we trained with the team and he took the session. He had already won the Premier League with Chelsea so we knew a lot about him.
“The five weeks in Italy prepared me for Watford. I wasn’t used to training every day and it gave me a good platform.” From that platform he ended up breaking into the first team at Vicarage Road under Gianfranco Zola, until a knee problem and a change of manager set him back.
Loan spells with Gillingham and Stevenage followed before the 22-year-old midfielder called time on his Watford career last week and a mutual termination of his contract allowed him to join the Dons.
“I played games in the Championship, League One and League Two, so I know what it’s like,” added Smith. “I’m not just going in here off the back of U21 games. Hopefully, I can bring that experience into the team.
“It was a tough decision because I had been there for six or seven years. I have come all the way up with a few boys from the youth team and you come out of your comfort zone when you leave. But I wasn’t getting much football.
“I came over from Ireland at 16 and I owe Watford a lot, but it is time to play first-team football.”