With his lumberjack beard and extensive tattoo collection, Andy Smith looks like he could handle himself if things turn ugly.
But even he found Bulgaria a pretty tough gig.
“I always remember it. We’d gone back to the house to watch a game on the television and then, wooah, all of a sudden the windows started to come in. There were all these guys outside, mafia types, with fireworks trying to smash down the fence. It was mad, believe me, not something you’d think was going to happen. There you go, though, it did.”
Smith, the former Sheffield United centre-forward, has learnt to expect the unexpected during a career which has taken him from Bramall Lane to Port Vale via Portugal, Belgium and plenty of other places in between. But a spell at Ludogorets, where he spent six difficult weeks with his mentor Bruno Ribeiro, proved the ultimate test of perseverance, restraint and footballing nous.
“Bulgaria was difficult because all sorts of other stuff was going on as well,” Smith told The Star earlier this week. “We went in there and the people in charge wanted to start changing the times of the training sessions so their wives and girlfriends could also watch. We just stuck to our guns and did our own thing, we didn’t alter the schedule or anything. Then there were players getting signed we didn’t even know about. Once, when we were having a coffee before training, this guy was sat on the next table and asked if I’m okay. ‘Fine,’ I replied and then he wondered where abouts the changing room was. He’d been brought in to play and we had no idea who he was.”
Fifteen months after their Balkan adventure ended in acrimonious circumstances, Smith and Ribeiro now find themselves at Vale Park where, after an encouraging start to the new season, tomorrow’s visitors to Bramall Lane sit fourth in the table having won three of their last five League One games. The two men, who met when Ribeiro joined United from Leeds in October 1999, have worked together at clubs including Moura AC, Pinhalnovense and Vitória Setúba. It is an unlikely partnership but one which, as recent results demonstrate, certainly works.
“I always remember when Bruno first came to United,” Smith explained. “He was a bit older than me but always had time for us younger lads. Whatever we wanted, whatever advice we needed, Bruno was always ready to help out. We both ended-up going in different directions but always kept in touch. So, when the opportunity to work with him again came-up, it wasn’t something I was ever going to turn down.”
Smith, aged 36, made 10 appearances for United before joining Glentoran 14 years ago. Returning to England with Preston North End marked the start of a nomadic journey for the Lisburn-born striker who also represented Motherwell, Stockport County and Bristol City ahead of a switch to Union Royale Namur. After leaving Wallonia, Smith was signed by Carrick Rangers and Crusaders before taking-up a posting which, he explained, changed his life.
“Bruno had done back to Portugal and was working over there at Moura,” he said. “Injuries had started to catch-up with me a little bit and so he phoned and asked if I fancied going over, doing a bit of coaching, and getting fit. I actually ended-up getting fitter than I’d even been after going over there. It taught me so much. We stayed together, ended-up going to Bulgaria and then back to Portugal. I think we complement each other well, we bounce off each other, and that’s why we’re still together now.”
Like United, who will be without the suspended Chris Basham for tomorrow’s game, Vale overhauled their squad during the close season. Unlike United, however, Ribeiro’s makeover focused on recruiting foreign talent with Christopher Mbamba, Rigino Cicilia and Anthony de Freitas among those heading to Staffordshire following his appointment in June.
“Because we’ve worked in lots of different places, we’ve got lots of contacts abroad,” Smith, Ribeiro’s first team coach, said. “So that was something we wanted to exploit. To be honest, it doesn’t matter where you’re from. So long as you’ve got the right talent and character. That’s what counts.”
Smith, who was capped 18 times by Northern Ireland before hanging-up his boots, has helped the overseas contingent settle-in.
“I know what it’s like to be somewhere where you don’t speak the language or know the culture,” he said. “Because I loved football, it didn’t matter to me where I played, I just went where the games were and it was a brilliant experience. Because I’m someone who likes a bit of banter, I had to get to know the local culture and how they went about things.”
Smith has worked under a variety of different managers, Neil Warnock, Terry Butcher and Sammy McIlroy included, since turning professional in 1999. In his eyes, though, Ribeiro is clearly the pick of the bunch.
“I’ve picked things up from all of them and all of the clubs I’ve been at. I’ve taken something from them all,” he said. “In Belgium, the players were so detailed in their preparations for matches while in Portugal, they were much more laid back. They’d turn up to work like they were on holiday which was difficult for me, a typical British player, to get used to at first. But then they’d turn into these technical monsters and their ability would shine through.”
“Bruno is a mixture of both,” he added. “He’s very meticulous and clever in what he does. For instance, he won’t ask the players to use a system we’ve not trained on for at least three weeks. That way, if they give everything and get beat, well it’s down to us as staff. We’ll take the responsibility for it, not them.”
Returning to Bramall Lane will be a poignant occasion for both men but, Smith acknowledged, not one shrouded in sentiment.
“I’ve got nothing but good memories of my time at United,” Smith said. “It’s a club that shouldn’t be where it is and I’m still in touch with people like Nick Montgomery. But, make no mistake, when the game kicks-off, there won’t be anyone who wants to win more than us. That’s what being professional and ambitious is all about.”