Timbers defender Steven Smith, once a flying Scot on Rangers, tries to resurrect career
May 12, 2012 (Menafn - The Oregonian - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --With the Timbers
Life is short for a professional athlete, and no one knows that better than Portland Timbers left back Steven Smith, a 26-year-old Scotsman who may be down to his last chance after stops and starts with Glasgow Rangers, Norwich City, Aberdeen, and Preston North End.
Smith is an energetic defender with a high motor and an educated left foot but he has a history of injuries.
There was a pelvic problem that sidelined him for 16 months, issues with his achilles, and his hip, and his ankle.
Oh yeah, and a hernia operation.
Once a bright young star at Rangers, one of the world's storied soccer clubs, Smith dropped out of the lineup in Glasgow and then bounced around like a ping-pong ball.
His career clock was going tick-tock, and all he could do was sit and watch it happen.
Tick-tock ... Smith read with regret this week that former Preston North End teammate Neil Mellor was forced to retire because of a knee injury.
Closer to home, Portland forward Eddie Johnson quit the game because of the after-effects of concussions.
Smith doesn't see himself taking that kind of drastic step even if he goes down again (knock on wood).
He feels healthy.
He feels like all of those hours spent with trainers and doctors are behind him.
"I can't lie, it was a tough experience (missing so many games) but I think I grew stronger as a person during the bad times. That's when you learn a lot about yourself,'' he said.
With Portland (2-5-2, 8 points) marking time before Tuesday's game at Houston, Smith is weary of all the questions about his hip and his ankle and says he just wants a chance to prove he's still good enough to contribute.
Smith made his debut at left back in the Montreal game on April 28. He called it a "surreal'' experience and said the unfortunate inadvertent second-half handball in the box that led to the Impact's first goal was "just one of those things that happens in soccer.
"I can definitely play better, but getting 90 minutes in was important to me,'' said Smith.
Smith was sitting in the U.S. Embassy in Belfast sorting out visa issues while the Timbers were preparing for Columbus and he didn't play against the Crew last week.
He's anxious to show head coach John Spencer what he can do. Given half a chance, he'll prove the talented 19-year-old who came on for Rangers in 2004 still has some gas in the tank eight years later.
"It's tough to sit out for two years and come back at the same level, but I've put in a lot of hard work and I'm looking forward to keeping my fitness up and playing in games,'' he said.
"It's one of those things you look back on and wish it never happened but you can't dwell on those things. You've got to move forward.''
Smith was a teammate of Portland striker Kris Boyd at Rangers for 4 1/2 seasons (2006-2010) and the two Scots had known each other from their youth soccer days.
When Smith came to town for his tryout, he stayed with Boyd.
"I was at Rangers before he actually signed. I played against him a lot growing up, so we know each other quite well,'' said Smith.
Smith grew up in Bellshill, 10 miles southeast of Glasgow, while Boyd grew up in Irvine, a town on the coast of Firth of Clyde 30 minutes or so from the Rangers' vaunted Ibrox Stadium.
Boyd, another Scot looking to resurrect his career in the MLS, served as the advance scout for his former Rangers mate.
The gist of a long phone conversation was basically, 'get over here!'
"I spoke with him (before signing with the Timbers) and he couldn't praise the place enough,'' said Smith.
"He told me about the atmosphere here and what it's like on match nights. I didn't need much convincing anyway, but what he said helped.''
Said Boyd, "(We talked) at length about the place. His agent is good friends with my agent, so I knew he was leaving (Preston North End). I knew he was available. I told (Spencer) to bring him over and see how he is (at left back).''
Smith said he knew little or nothing about MLS.
"Not too much if I'm being honest, but Kris said the standard was good, the training was good and the matches were tough. It was a new challenge for me, a new chapter in my career.''
Smith doesn't like to dig up bad memories, but he's quick to dispute the notion that he's damaged goods. Boyd will support this, noting there were many times his friend was fit to play but was passed over by managers loathe to change their starting 11.
Boyd said Smith, "was unlucky with injuries. It hampered him a bit earlier in his career because at that time he was a top-class defender.''
It was like the soccer gods just didn't want Smith on the field, or playing for Scotland as a young prodigy.
"It wasn't one specific injury it was two or three niggling injuries they took a lot longer to heal than they possibly should have,'' Smith said.
"That's in the past, and I'm looking to the future. I've been fit and strong now for the last three or four years.''
Smith said he went "all over the world'' seeking medical advice for his injuries.
He said a doctor in Germany finally had the answer for his pelvic problem and an operation was performed.
That black cloud looming over Smith appears to be gone.
Being in Portland may have something to do with it.
"You can see he's enjoying himself again. He's enjoying football again,'' said Boyd. "I said it myself when I came over here. This is a great environment to be in. Everybody's kind, everybody's helpful. People can't do enough for you. It makes the job on the football pitch a lot easier. ... you want to come to training every day with a smile on your face and do as well as you can.''
There was a moment early in the Montreal match when Smith sent a probing ball to Boyd that clearly showed they had been former teammates at Rangers. It was a reading-his-mind kind of pass that might have clicked for a goal with slightly better timing.
"When you've played with somebody that long you know their movements,'' said Smith. "People on the squad will get used to where Kris wants the ball and where you've got to put it for him to score goals. ... if you get him the ball in the box he will score goals. That's a fact.''
Smith has played in huge games -- including UEFA champions league matches -- so there are no worries about how he handles the "pressure'' of the MLS.
He handled an unusual situation two years ago while playing for Norwich, stepping in to help deliver his second child, a baby girl named Jaya, when it became clear he didn't have time to get his wife to the hospital.
Smith said seeing Jaya's head pop out was a life-changing experience and nothing he has done in soccer compares.
"It sinks in,'' he said then, "and it seems like the most unreal thing you've ever done in your life.''
Forty-eight hours later, Steven Smith the accidental mid-wife was playing in a game against Crystal Palace.
Notes: Lots of personal tidbits about Smith and Boyd in this story by Mark Nelson on the Timbers website. ... the two former Rangers are both saddened by what's happening with the famous club, which is having horrendous financial issues and reportedly will be completely out of money by June 1. "Fans didn't know how bad it was. It's a fantastic club. I just hope it gets back on its feet soon," said Smith. ... Boyd, the all-time leading scorer in the Scottish Premier League, said he felt sorry for "the teammates I played there with. ... it's a disappointing time. There's no getting away from it that its been run wrongly from the top. A lot of clubs are in the same position but I don't think a lot of people thought it would happen to Rangers."
- Paul Buker (also on Twitter)
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