FORMER Ashridge Park player and St Crispins pupil Reece Smith turned his dream into reality when he made his National League debut for Maidenhead United in March.
81 minutes into Maidenhead United’s away contest with Dagenham & Redbridge, Magpies manager Alan Devonshire turned to Smith on his bench and asked a three-word question: ‘Are you ready?’
“When he turned around and asked me that, I was really nervous,” Smith admits.
“It was a shock, having not played at that level before, and then suddenly I’m making my debut.
“That’s all I have ever worked for and it’s come down to this one moment where I make my first appearance.”
The Reading-born youngster had had his eye on that moment for as long as he can remember. His career in football began at Ashridge Park’s Under-7s team, where Kevin McGill was his coach.
“It was obvious to me that Reece was a gifted and talented player from the first time I saw him play,” McGill recalls.
“The most enjoyable time was around under-11s, when I used to be on the same side as him in training on Friday nights, and I could see how he understood how to play two touch football, to pass and move.
“His natural energy and athleticism shone through – I called him the ‘Ashridge Iniesta’.
“As he progressed through the years it was clear that he was practicing his skills more than the others, working on his ball control and passing with his weaker foot.”
The attitude that Smith carried throughout his development is what his former P.E teacher at St. Crispin’s School in Wokingham, Ian Nelson, believes set him apart and helped him reach where he is today.
“It didn’t matter whether it was a P.E lesson, a training session, or a game, his attitude did not change,” remarks Nelson, who previously taught current Queens Park Rangers defender Rob Dickie at St. Crispin’s.
“He was always really positive, he was never too hard on himself if he made a mistake, he didn’t moan at other people.
“He just always got on with it and he looked as though he enjoyed football no matter what level he was playing at, and that’s what I would say made him stand out.
“He’s coachable, people will work with him and he will listen.”
Smith joined Eldon Celtic at the beginning of the 2013/14 season, accelerating his development with high quality coaching, and a spotlight of the top division of youth football. By under-16s, he had caught the attention of Maidenhead United, and started playing for them too, on Sundays.
It was at this time that he met Aaron O’Brien, assistant coach of the Magpies’ senior team. After moving up to the under-18s and having a good first season for both Maidenhead and his new college team, Berkshire College of Agriculture (BCA), O’Brien gave Smith the call to join the senior team for pre-season training.
“It kicked on from there, that’s when I first met the gaffer [Devonshire],” Smith continues.
“That’s where I trained throughout that second year and I was playing all the games for the 18s and the college.
“I really developed over that summer, both technically and physically as well, so I came back feeling more confident.”
Now at 18 years-old, Smith is training with talented players with plenty of Football League experience, such as Chelsea academy graduate Rohan Ince, and under the guidance of a vastly experienced manager in Devonshire.
“There are so many unbelievable players in that team, and you learn so much from just training with them and watching the games, seeing how the players in my position play and move the ball.
“Just to be coached by the gaffer, he’s an England and West Ham legend.
“I pinch myself every day and I never take any session for granted.”
18 months after first training with the senior team, Smith’s big opportunity arrived as Devonshire sent him on for the final ten minutes of Maidenhead’s match at Victoria Road. 2-1 down, Smith replaced Josh Coley on the wing, looking to help rescue a point for his team.
“When I came on it was an amazing experience,” recollects Smith.
“All the nerves went, and I took the experience in.
“It was amazing and something I will never forget, but when the full-time whistle went, I was really annoyed because I wanted to keep on playing.
“I loved every single second of it, and I could tell you what happened at any one second of that game.”
Although the score remained the same, Smith’s dreams came true on that Tuesday night and he youngster is full of praise for those that made that night so special for him.
“All the players were talking me through the game and trying to help me, telling me where to be.” Smith continues.
“I felt confident, knowing I’d had the right guidance from my coaches in the youth team.
“It was the best experience of my life and I owe it all to everyone at Maidenhead.”
McGill believes Smith will be more than able to continue thriving in professional football.
“As a Lincoln City fan, I’ve seen quite a bit of the National League in recent years,” states McGill.
“I’ve no doubt he has the ability to play at this level or higher.
“If he gets the chance to establish himself, I think he could make a decent career in the game.”
By Cameron Wyper