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Gone but not forgotten:
Tommy Smith
Position: Striker
From: Youth team
Record: Played: 124(41) Scored: 36
To: Sunderland - undisclosed fee - September 2003
Career stats: Soccerbase
See also: Past player profiles
He was: One to watch

Stick him on the wing, then...?

It was always an option. It always is an option, when you have an attacking player of very obvious talent and much less obvious use. When you feel that they ought to be in the side, that their pace, trickery and general thrill-seeking would be desperately missed...and yet you can't quite justify their presence in the all-important forward line, ahead of more functional footballers. When the alternative is a gradual dampening of a once-fizzling career....

Of course, right midfield needn't be a graveyard. I was never particularly convinced that Nicky Wright's best position was on the wing, yet his sheer exuberance meant that it made little difference where he played. As a striker, though, you really don't want to hear that you might be better elsewhere, further from the limelight, further from the real purpose of the game. It's not good news. It's not the kind of damning criticism that condemns you to the bench or, worse, the reserves...but it's not exactly a vote of confidence either.

For Tommy Smith, an initial burst of promise, and a hefty dose of pure talent, was enough and yet, at the same time, not quite enough. Enough, in that he was included and even relied upon, a home-grown player capable of producing something special and unexpected, a name to quote in the "one to watch" section of the newspaper questionnaire. And not quite enough, in that he was ultimately unable to move on to bigger and better things, either as part of the Watford first-team or via a move to the Premiership. Somehow, he became caught in no-man's-land, between right midfield and the forward line, between knuckling down at Vicarage Road and making a fresh start elsewhere. There may still be a happy ending, of course...but not yet, not here.

As a spindly, straggly youngster, he made his debut way, way back in the 1997/98 season, providing glimpses of obvious ambition - my memory, perhaps inaccurate, is of slightly random dribbling that was usually concluded by a hefty shoulder-barge from a defender - that had yet to be allied with sufficient strength or experience. Which, bearing in mind that he was about twelve at the time, was utterly forgivable and even rather encouraging. Great careers have been built upon much less.

And, for a while, a great career was indeed a distinct possibility. A few months later, that career began in earnest with a substitute appearance at Queens Park Rangers and a classic poacher's goal, mis-hit inside the six yard box to grab three points that had seemed destined to escape us. Ironically, it was precisely the lack of such predatory instincts that was to hamper his progress later on, but back then, as he netted with only his second touch of the match, there seemed little that could hold him back. It was one of those wonderful moments, the kind that send supporters away full of excited chatter and bright hopes, and Tommy Smith's contribution to the "You Are My Watford" book testifies to a similar effect on the player himself.

There were spectacular glimpses into the future during the Premiership season too. A fabulous strike against Middlesbrough, for a start...cutting past challenges to whip a beauty into the roof of the net, capping a quite brilliant individual performance. And there was more where that had come from, most notably in a dazzling display against Manchester United as the curtain began to fall on our season in the top flight. He scored, he ran the United defence ragged with pace, skill, intelligence, he looked every inch the superstar-in-waiting. And he was ours, to enjoy and to cash in on a rainy day.

The following season was the highlight, though. While Tommy Mooney ultimately grabbed the plaudits for his goalscoring, Tommy Smith could justifiably claim to have deserved the title of "Player of the Season". He was the brightest light in an increasingly drab campaign, that initial ambition undiminished by the addition of the strength and experience that he'd needed. There was still much to develop, of course, and the spindly youngster had yet to add to his game rather than merely improve it. But my word, he was already more than just a prospect. And he was already worth more than we were paying him, and more than we could offer him.

The rest is a considerable confusion. While the statistics reveal that Tommy Smith still scored eleven times during Luca Vialli's short reign - only one fewer than the previous season - they don't record his rather patchy form, nor his failure to do enough to earn the top flight future that he evidently craved. Having turned down a lucrative contract - and we probably won't be using that sentence again for a while - he seemed unsettled, or perhaps those uncertainties merely provided a convenient metaphor for a dip that might've happened anyway. Whichever, he was caught, no longer producing enough on the pitch to attract significant interest, nor able to get his head down and work to recover form. It wasn't quite happening.

And it didn't quite happen. Ray Lewington's transformation of the team benefitted many players, but not Tommy Smith...for this was suddenly a much more functional side, less accommodating towards bright but erratic talents. He needed to find a job and get on with that job, but he was never that type of player. There were still some considerable high points, and anyone who's tempted to accuse him of coasting really needs to watch the video of the Sunderland game again, but there was evident dissatisfaction on both sides. He was an active and lively player, yet Tommy Smith never did acquire the habits of an out-and-out striker, and he never did overcome the temptation to elaborate...and that was why he was often a joy, why it was often suggested that he'd be better employed as a winger, and why he was eventually allowed to slip away from the club, something that had once seemed absolutely unthinkable.

The debate about Ray Lewington's team selection for the FA Cup Semi-Final against Southampton rather sums things up. For Tommy Smith, you can completely understand why he'd be upset at being left on the bench, having contributed much - including two vital goals - in previous rounds. And, as a Watford fan, sentiment leads you to agree. But the manager was right, for Michael Chopra's penalty area instincts were simply more likely to contribute to a victory, to do a job. A hard decision, and a slightly sour note on which to (effectively) end a Watford career that had glittered even as it began to fade. But still right.

What remained was just anticlimax. As the team returned for pre-season training, Tommy Smith, still on a week-to-week contract to ensure that Watford would receive a fee when he finally left, was reduced to the role of travelling salesman, on trial at a different club each week and occasionally returning to train with the Hornets. Eventually, Sunderland came to his rescue, a move that will hopefully be beneficial for all concerned. Hopefully...for Tommy Smith is still a much, much better player than his fringe status suggests...and a much, much more loveable figure than recent events, and his likely reception on his return, would have you believe.

Not a happy ending, then. But there's still time.

Ian Grant