For several years, Ryan Smith was one of the top prospects in Arsenal’s youth system. In 2003, he became one of youngest players ever to represent the Arsenal first team in a Carling Cup match against Rotherham United. After leaving the Club in 2006, Smith played several more seasons in England before making the jump to America where he is currently playing in the MLS for the Kansas City Wizards.
In part one of an interview with USA.Arsenal.com’s Kevin Mooney, Smith discussed growing up with Arsenal, going out on loan and how he coped with injuries.
USA.Arsenal.com: Growing up in the shadow of Highbury, what was it like to play for Arsenal?
Ryan Smith: "When I was in school, the primary school I went to, every kid dreamed of playing for Arsenal. That in itself shows how much it meant to me."
USA.Arsenal.com: What is your biggest memory of your time with the Club?
Ryan Smith: "There were quite a few. It would be everything. There wasn’t a particular memory that stood out above everything else. Being a youth player and then becoming a pro… there’s nothing that really sticks out. I just enjoyed every minute of it."
USA.Arsenal.com: Which players did you most look up to while you were in North London?
Ryan Smith: "People like Dennis Bergkamp, Sol Campbell. Even people like Ray Parlour, Martin Keown, Steve Bould. People with real heart. Because they had the technical side, but they worked very hard as well. And they were good people. You could communicate with them and talk to them about practically everything."
USA.Arsenal.com: On the day of your first-team debut, you weren’t the only 16-year-old on the pitch. What were your impressions of Cesc Fabregas back then?
Ryan Smith: "Obviously he’s developed physically, but he plays the same way. He’s always played the same way. When you have good players around you and you’re a good player, you’re going to shine. And lucky for him – well I say luckily, he’s worked hard to get where he is – I’m just happy for him. He’s a fantastic player."
USA.Arsenal.com: Did anyone have the sense that he would become such a big player?
Ryan Smith: "Yeah, you could see it. You just knew it."
USA.Arsenal.com: You were also one of Arsenal’s brightest prospects at the time. Did you feel any extra pressure due to being so highly regarded?
Ryan Smith: "No, not really. Things like that don’t bother me. I just had a bit of bad luck with a knee injury that I sustained at a young age. I was out for about a year. It’s hard to come back from things like that, and I’m just glad that I did and I was able to play football, because the doctors at Arsenal told me my career would have limited playing years, so for me to come back and play at a decent level is pleasing for me."
USA.Arsenal.com: Are you still recovering from that injury?
Ryan Smith: "I think I’m alright now. Sometimes it irritates me, some of the things that I do, but I’m fine."
USA.Arsenal.com: That game against Rotherham United finished on penalties. How did it feel to step up to the spot with the game on the line?
Ryan Smith: "It was scary! The whole of the north bank of Highbury… I put the ball on the spot and I’m taking my paces backwards to tale this penalty. At 16 years old it was quite daunting, but luckily for me, I tucked the penalty away and we won that game. That was a fantastic night – a night I will never forget."
USA.Arsenal.com: During your development you have gone out on loan a few times. How valuable are loan moves in the development of young players? Any drawbacks?
Ryan Smith: "It’s a good thing and a bad thing. When you go on loan, it depends what system and style and approach the manager of the team that you’re joining – how they want to play. If you are a ballplayer, and by that I mean you like to play with the ball on the ground and play total football so to speak, and you join a team and they play that style then great.
"But the problem with players who go on loan from Arsenal, they tend to join teams that are more direct, that knock it into the front man. It’s a very direct way of approaching a game. Sometimes the midfielders miss out because the defenders are only knocking it into the front man. So you spend most of your time trying to chase lost causes and second balls.
"It depends on the mentality of the player as well. It could be a good thing if you join a team that plays, but if you join a team that doesn’t play and you don’t really do what you normally do, which is play the actual game itself and do it well with the ball on the ground, then people say “Aww... he didn’t do anything when he went there” and stuff like that. It’s a difficult one, but that’s my view on it."
USA.Arsenal.com: How instrumental was Arsène Wenger in your development as a player?
Ryan Smith: "Huge. It’s self-explanatory based on what he’s produced, but at the same time, I won’t sit here and say that he doesn’t have his moments because he certainly does like any manager does. But he was huge in every way shape and form. And he gave me my chance so I don’t have a bad thing to say about him at all."
USA.Arsenal.com: Did you pick up anything special at Arsenal that you may not have picked up elsewhere?
Ryan Smith: "Yeah, because that’s the way I play. No matter where I go, that’s always going to be the way I’m going to play because it suits me best. I owe everything to the coach and what I learned at the Club.
USA.Arsenal.com: Like many members of the Arsenal squad this season, you have struggled with injuries during your career. How do players cope with long-term injuries – both physically and mentally?
Ryan Smith: "Family, friends and your own mental strength are key. And what you do when you’re not at football. They’re the main components. If you’re injured and you go out drinking on the weekend or do things like that, you’re not going to get anywhere. You need people around you and you need to have a level head and really knuckle down because it’s not as easy as when you’re fit – you can just turn up at training and everything is fine. When you’re injured you need to get back in shape to be able to compete at the same level as the people who are training and are fit."1 May 2010