He is most closely connected with his time at Yeovil Town, and Chesterfield too, where he produced a Man of the Match display at Wembley and also tasted senior international football with Jamaica. Before Nathan Smith played a part in 11 separate seasons of League football, though, non-league was his grounding, and it is where you find him in 2021.
Following time with Dagenham & Redbridge and Dulwich Hamlet in the past three years, this winter saw the defender link up with Braintree Town. In addition to his on-field achievements and exploits, he attracted wider media interest in 2016 for a close-season trip to India, which took the form of a ten-day silent retreat. That is just one element of a detailed and continuing curiosity he carries regarding the world around him and his own potential impact. Here is an extended conversation with a now-experienced campaigner on the pitch, and a committed student and teacher off it…
Starting with the here and now, despite the obvious restrictions this season, what has been your feel for the place and the set-up since you joined Braintree? Working as well with (manager) Ryan Maxwell.
With the gaffer, it very much reminds me of (former Yeovil boss) Darren Way. He’s just an honest person, training’s always intense, and you can see the players here wanna do well. It’s just interesting experiencing an evening environment twice a week. The time’s so limited, in the sense of being able to go through things that you may want as a manager, structured elements, because players have other regular commitments in the day. It’s just been interesting overall, but the players have all been good since I’ve been in there, no egos, everyone’s nice.
Non-league is a significant part of your whole path in the game, as the gateway to all those years in the Football League. Since you’ve been playing again in non-league, does any of it feel different compared to 10-15 years ago?
Yeah, definitely, I think the leagues have become better, in terms of the types of players within it. Going through into the professional game and now coming back, you see so many things that stand out, and it can become a bit frustrating at times, because you may have a standard. Players may not necessarily be as technically-gifted as some, but one thing I always say is that you can always show heart and give it your all.
How are you different to the Nathan Smith at say Potters Bar Town? If you were speaking to him now, not necessarily to alter his course at that point, but just in terms of what you would be able to share, what would you want to get across?
Just continue to watch top players, and know who you are and what you want to be, as a player. You can get into the game and people tend to want to shape you in a different way to what they originally liked you for. You look at some top managers and they’ve shaped a player by keeping their raw ability and what is unique to them, but some other managers will try and change everything about that player that made them unique, because it doesn’t fit with what they believe in. So for me, it would be ‘know who you are and just continue to express yourself, because you came into the game expressive and that’s what made you stand out’.
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So was there anything managers ever tried to change about the way you do things?
Yeah, definitely in certain circumstances, because I think what made me stand out was I never got taught anything about football growing up, until I signed for Yeovil at 21. Then as your career goes on, you’ll get restricted from doing this or doing that, rather than saying ‘do this in the right spaces’ or ‘we still want you to do this, how can we keep that expression going?’
On the subject of your way of playing, your perception of the game growing up, what was football to you in those years, what were the surroundings?
I grew up in Wood Green. For me, it was just playing on the streets with my friends. You look out the window, the neighbours, Chris and Dan, always outside, we used to play. The road was locked off so it was like we had the whole street for ourselves. River Sports Centre, we always used to be over there every day, playing football. So that was just really my way of learning the game. Even when I was 14-16, nobody said ‘control a ball like this’ or ‘do this, have this in mind’, so for me, it was like I started to learn football from the age of 21.
Yeovil’s been very significant in your career across those two spells. Why do you think it was able to work, because it’s one of those places that’s far away from a lot of things, and that can be difficult for plenty of players long-term?
I think number one, I never really was a person who was here, there and everywhere. I always was just in my house, school or outside playing football, whereas a lot of my friends would always be going to that area, going to that area, and so on. So adjusting at Yeovil just became ‘okay, I’m here now’. But then I had the likes of Terrell Forbes, Gavin Tomlin, Lee Peltier, and they all had similar backgrounds as me. One thing was Terrell Forbes, Gavin Tomlin, we always watched the games after we played them, we always had a DVD off the media man, H. We’d sit down and it was like Monday Night Football with Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville, it was literally that with Forbesy and Gav. They’d rewind it, play it, rewind it, Gav would be like ‘you should have passed it to me, safe side’ and Forbesy would say ‘oh, I was thinking this, but I get what you’re saying’. So the element of just understanding what that player wanted, now I’m in that environment where I wanna do better as well, because I’ve come into the game late so I’m just trying to learn. Forbesy grew up in West Ham’s academy, he’s played with the likes of Rio (Ferdinand) and Joe Cole, so he’s someone who I know knows what they’re talking about. He’s talking to me in a way that you can be receptive to, so it just became like you didn’t wanna let your family down. I don’t really see too many players asking players for that information now, or trying to place themselves around the players who have been there and done that. It was just pure life lessons, because it made me wanna do better all the time.
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What type of approach from a manager do you think gets the best from you, and which one(s) stands out for understanding that?
I think it’s changed over the years, because now I know what it is that I need. For me, it’s the work done within the week, my visualisation. ‘Alright, this is what I’m aiming for’, so when I now get to that Saturday, it doesn’t feel like I need to jar myself up as much, it’s more just being mindful of my environment. The only one person I could probably say would be Darren Way towards the latter part (at Yeovil), because I always did things different, so I was very much misunderstood. I had to explain ‘this is how I am’. Some people think that because I have a straight face, I may just be in my own zone or whatnot, but I don’t know that this is the expression I’m giving off. So some people go ‘oh, he’s not interested’, so if the game doesn’t go right, it’s ‘yeah, I knew, I could see in his face’. I know inside, though, that I’m doing things to get myself ready for the match. Towards the end, Darren Way did understand how I am. I think a lot of people started to understand, because the generation before, you had people who’d be walking around shouting and doing all these things, but society changed and the way people operate is very much different.
At Chesterfield, you had the JPT final win in 2012, live on Sky at Wembley. Extra significant to you because you were named Man of the Match. What are your memories of that whole day?
A lot of butterflies, because I wasn’t featuring too much around that time. So when the gaffer (John Sheridan) goes ‘yeah, I’m gonna play you’, it was almost like ‘does somebody want me to fail right now?’ Putting me in a game like this, against Matt Ritchie, who was the man at the time for Swindon. I remember messaging my friend at 2 in the morning, saying ‘bruv, I can’t sleep!’ I remember speaking to my cousin as well. Before you know it, the game started and it was just surreal, because Wembley’s got that open space, it’s wide, so you just know you’re in a different environment. It was around the time Barcelona played there (in the previous year’s Champions League final against Manchester United) and I suddenly understood how they stretched it. Getting Man of the Match at the end and just taking in the atmosphere, seeing family happy, Mum happy. Growing up, you play Wembley doubles or World Cup doubles, so being there, my cousin felt like he had played at Wembley as well, because wherever I go, it’s like a dream for him at the same time. So all-round, it was a lovely one, that. Everyone was excited for me and it just felt a nice accomplishment.
You mentioned your manager at the time, what was your experience of working with John Sheridan?
In the beginning, again, it was difficult, because I had never been around anybody like that. He’s shouting a lot and says some things where you’re like ‘is that how you’re talking to your players?’, so it was a different environment to adjust to. I’d been finding my feet at Yeovil and I was flying, then I go to Chesterfield and now I’ve got this manager dealing with things in a way that wasn’t conducive to getting the best out of me. Then when I looked at it down the line, it was the element of building resilience, because not everybody’s gonna deal with you in a certain way. There were a lot of ups and downs but I actually cherish him for being the way he was, when I look back at it. It was a true learning curve but the things that he would say were always right, it was just the delivery of it for me at that time, being new to football and different football people. Even when I left Chesterfield, I thought ‘this guy was telling us the truth’, and sometimes the truth can make people uncomfortable. I know I could play under him again, because I now understand that it wasn’t anything personal with it, it was just his way.
You got to play internationally around that time as well, describe what you found when you first joined the Jamaica squad. What are the details about the experience that stick in your mind?
Just happiness, you know? Enjoyment. Being in the national team was a sense of joy, because a lot of the country kind of look up to you. Not in a hierarchy way, but they just want something to enjoy and be happy about, where yes, there’s the element of poverty and stuff, but ‘our team’s out there and they’re representing for us’. So it was just like ‘how can we help the country be in a state of happiness now, how can we contribute?’
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For the World Cup ’98 kind of era, Deon Burton talked about how someone on the team coach on the way to the stadium would be on the microphone, hyping the players up! Was there anything similar you saw, where the atmosphere’s coming to life in a unique way?
There was never anyone on the coach with a mic, but what you’ve got to understand with Jamaica, when I say happy and fun, it’s just standard for everyone to start singing songs. You say one word, and before you know it, everyone’s singing this song or that song. Everybody just bounces off each other, so you go there and it’s just like feeling regenerated and rejuvenated. The enjoyment that you get from being around all the players, I think it’s better than having an ice bath! The recovery that you get from the laughter and all these things is brilliant.
From your career overall, do any individual opponents stick in your mind, either for teaching you something new, or the way they were, what they said?
Febian Brandy was the one that taught me so much, because I was new to the game, so I played him at Walsall, one of the first times when I was at Yeovil. It was just like ‘oh wow, this is Football League’. Having to play against Jason Puncheon as well, and those were the times he was on some bad boy mission as well! He was cutting inside and sticking it top bins, so if you didn’t put him on lock, it was long! There would always be someone who would teach me something, even Rohan Ricketts when he came on trial one time at Chesterfield. He did one drop shoulder on me that I’ve never seen before, but I’m like ‘that’s what you’re gonna learn at somewhere like Tottenham’. The likes of Leroy Lita when he came to Yeovil, he did something I’ve never seen anybody do. He pinned me, but wrapping his left arm around me, grabbing onto my shorts, to a point where I can’t even move, and if I do anything, it’s a red card! A whole host of players all bringing their own contributions, I’d say.
When you’ve joined a new team, have you had an initiation to do, and if so, what have you gone for down the years?
I don’t think I did one at Yeovil the first time around. Chesterfield I did one; I sang something in the beginning and then I remixed it with ‘Here Comes the Hotstepper’ (Ini Kamoze)! No one knew that was gonna come, because when I was singing, it was very slow. I think I did the same song at Dagenham as well, and then at Dulwich, I did one from Dexta Daps, Masicka, ‘Leader’.
You’re someone who has been heavily involved in ventures outside of playing, what have you currently got going?
I’ve got two companies, so one is One Nathan Smith. I went on my self-discovery journey in India, to try and understand what suffering is and how I can help people best understand their emotions and develop them to create the life that they want, and I developed that company. So now we teach life skills to apply in everyday life. I like to say sometimes life skills that I’ve learned on the pitch and learned to apply off it. It’s a holistic point of view we look at, because football’s always a mental thing alone, it’s always physical, and a spiritual element as well. Just understanding the nature of the world and what it’s made up of, and then when you understand that, you’re able to use it in a way to best serve you and create the life that you actually want. One of the things I’ve been working with people recently on is the whole mental health situation. Once people are able to understand the core basics of the world and what it’s made up of, they’re then able to understand what their emotions are and how to best use it, so when those situations come up, they understand that they’re forming attachments and placing meaning on things that are very much meaningless. Society has constructed things in a way that ‘this has to be meaningful, and that has to be meaningful’.
My second one, Vegan Food n Vibes, is one I wanted to bring, because I always saw that there was, for me, a lack of enjoyment when it came to plant-based foods. A lot of people looked at it as something that was very boring, and I do get it, some people prepare meals that just look like ‘meh’. One thing that’s always allowed me to find that balance is being in the kitchen cooking, trying out dishes, so I wanted to create a company which raises awareness of healthier foods, with fun and togetherness. We’ve got a food show, which various people come to, whether you’re a vegetarian, meat-eater, it doesn’t matter, it’s not about the separation. We did a live show as well last year, and that was a live band, with a three-course meal. Music plays a key part in just allowing people to relax, so you’ve got the good foods, and there’s no alcohol in the place as well, so it allows people to just enjoy everyone’s company. By the time they left, they were like ‘I didn’t think I could go out and have a good time without drinking’. So I just wanted to create an environment that helps raise awareness of healthier foods, with fun and togetherness.
Finally, as you look at it now, what do you want from the future? In a football sense, are you feeling like you wanna keep playing for a while yet, do you still have that same enjoyment?
In the simplest of terms, I want the future to hold a happiness for everyone. That’s why I’ve created all this, because I know what my mission is. My mission is to provide a voice for the misfits, so people that are misunderstood and wanna do better. So my objective, even when I’m at football, I just want my teammates to be happy. Everything I’m doing is because I wanna see the world in a happier place. I do understand certain things are going on in the world, and that’s not something that I’m trying to neglect, but if I can do something to help people feel better about themselves, that’s my objective.
Yeah, I still wanna play. My whole lifestyle has changed everything, in the sense of there’s still players younger than me that can’t beat me in a race. There’s still players that don’t have the same aggression as me, because I know how to use my emotions to ramp myself up. There’s also the thing where I wanna go on because people look at someone on a plant-based lifestyle and say ‘oh, this can’t happen, that can’t happen’, so for me, it’s a thing of standing up for those people, to let people know that the world has changed. You can’t keep trying to neglect something that can provide real healthiness and longevity. Once upon a time, players would finish at 30 years old and they wouldn’t play again, but we’re going longer now.
Interview by @chris_brookes