AS a youngster, Tommy Smith dreamt of playing for Manchester City.
He signed for the club at the age of 11 and was there for the best part of nine years but, unfortunately, that first appearance in the famous blue shirt never came.
Now, five years after calling time on his stay at the Etihad Stadium, Smith has a chance to take on the club where it all began as City head to Huddersfield Town in the FA Cup fifth round. Or, at least, the 24-year-old will get that opportunity if he does not fall victim to the rotation policy that has become such an integral part of David Wagner’s reign.
Wagner has to weigh up not only the fact today will be Town’s fifth game since the start of February but also that Tuesday brings a potentially crucial Championship game with fellow promotion hopefuls Reading.
Smith, along with the rest of his team-mates, will learn at lunchtime who has made the starting XI to face Pep Guardiola’s City and if Wagner opts to rest someone whose forways down the right flank have been such an integral part of Town’s emergence as a genuine contender in the race for the Premier League then the full-back insists he will understand.
“I would love to face Manchester City, of course I would,” said Smith when speaking exclusively to The Yorkshire Post ahead of today’s sell-out tie. “I joined at 11 and was there for a good nine years. The club changed massively in that time and is now one of the powerhouses in the world.
“I loved my time at the club and have nothing but respect for them. I would love to play but I do also firmly believe the team comes first so if the manager decides to go another way then I won’t mind, not at all.”
The raised eyebrows of The Yorkshire Post at this last suggestion elicits a smile from Smith before he adds: “No, honestly, that is the case. We have bought into the manager’s policies all season. He wants to rotate in games and we have done that to great effect this year. The lads have totally bought into it.
“Of course, the mentality of every player is the same in that we want to play. I want to play Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday in the next week but I know, for the good of the team, it is probably best to be rotated. The lads all feel the same. The manager knows what he is doing, as our results have proved this season. We listen to him and follow what team he picks.
“This is a big game but it is up to the manager and how he sees fit to do things. It is not about me, certainly not. We have another game on Tuesday and then another the following Saturday (at Barnsley). It is not about just one game in isolation, this is a relentless schedule so the manager has to manage that.”
Smith left the Etihad in January, 2012, after agreeing a deal to end his contract six months early. By now fast approaching his 20th birthday, the path to the first team was firmly blocked by the host of big-money signings that had turned City into title challengers.
He had no move lined up and spent time training with Tranmere Rovers, the club closest to his home in Frodsham, Runcorn. Trials followed at Oxford United and Stevenage but it was a call from Town, then setting up a Development squad to comply with the new Elite Player Performance Plan regulations, that kick-started a career that today could, Wagner’s selection permitting, have its 140th outing.
Under Mark Lillis, then Academy director, and senior development coach Steve Eyre, Smith’s ability soon became obvious. It is, though, Wagner who has really untapped his potential and, along with left-back Chris Lowe, Smith has become an integral part of the pressing system that has made Huddersfield the surprise package of this season’s Championship.
Last Tuesday night, Smith netted a dramatic stoppage-time winner against Rotherham United with a finish that would have made any striker proud.
It sparked memorable scenes among the 2,500 travelling fans as the Terriers remained firmly on track in their quest to end a 45-year absence from the top flight.
That is also the length of time since Town last reached the FA Cup quarter-finals and, although the odds are stacked against Wagner’s men today, there will be no lack of belief in the home dressing room ahead of kick-off.
“This is definitely not a freebie,” said Smith, when asked about taking on his former club. “We aren’t going into the tie thinking: ‘This is City so let’s just enjoy the occasion’. That is not how we approach any game. We want to stamp our authority on the game and keep this excellent run going.
“Belief is a big thing and we have it in abundance. We have won games in different ways this season. Rotherham was almost another string to the bow because we came from behind twice and then won it in the 93rd minute.
“Other times this season, we have won by playing football. Or ground out a 1-0 win. Ultimately, if you want to be successful, that is what you have to be able to do.”
As for today’s possible reunion with the club where it all began, Smith added: “It was unfortunate how it ended but I needed to get out and play football. Huddersfield were brilliant for me because they gave me that opportunity to play football.
“I had played a lot for the reserves at City but I wanted to make that step up. I just needed that chance and, luckily for me, Huddersfield were willing to offer me that.”