Grant Smith has hailed his experience playing Non-league football as key to his rise after signing for League Two Lincoln City this week.
But the former Boreham Wood stopper has admitted there were times during his early days playing for Hayes & Yeading that he questioned where his career was heading after being released by Brighton & Hove Albion.
“I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’” admits the 24-year-old on his first Non-League appearance in 2014.
“Without a doubt it was a 100 per cent shock to the system. I was going from a very decent Championship club in Brighton to Hayes where they were groundsharing with Maidenhead at the time. You’re training Tuesday and Thursday nights too.
“It’s not until you realise that, especially for a goalkeeper, the main thing is experience and getting game time. You gain the pressure of playing when a manager’s job is on the line and results matter. I’m thankful for the opportunity they gave me.
“Sometimes you’ve got to take a step lower and get a full season under your belt for people to notice, and that’s when you can climb back up the ladder.”
A year later Smith dropped down a division to sign for Bognor Regis after a successful loan spell, and it was there where he started to make an impression.
The Rocks finished a point behind champions Hampton and also reached the FA Trophy semi-final that season before Boreham Wood snapped him up in 2016.
One of Smith’s best attributes is his pin-point kicking which became a feature of Wood’s style as they reached the play-off final last season.
He kept 18 clean sheets on their way to Wembley, earning an England C call-up last year, and scooping Goalkeeper of the Year at The NLP’s National Game Awards last month.
“Last season ended very sour with that defeat [in the play-offs],” says Smith. “You start your summer and that’s all you can think about. We had a great couple of years there and overachieved. It was another great experience.”
“Bognor was my first year where I had a full season without missing a single game of football. I think I played 66 games that season and people began to turn their heads at me a bit more.
“Looking back on it, I would take my route to where I am now over being at a pro club playing U23s football.
“There’s so much you learn going through Non-League and I think that carries a big weight when you step up.”
Smith will now link up with one of the most promising managers in the Football League in Danny Cowley at Lincoln. It is no surprise the former Concord Rangers and Braintree boss was key to Smith’s decision to sign.
“He was a big part of it; he’s one of the best in the business at the moment. The club is in an upward spiral, everything about it, the fan base and how well they’ve been doing.
“I quietly believe I’ve got more than enough to step up and play every week.
“It’s been my ambition for the last few years to get into the League and I’m delighted I could finally make it happen.”
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday
For all the latest news, interviews, features and match reports from Steps 1 to 6, with exclusive access and behind the scenes news from your club throughout the summer, become a subscriber to The Non-League Paper, here: http://bit.ly/NLP-Sub