PICTURE by Brian Jones/The New Saints FC.
WHEN it comes to discussing the finest players to have been produced in North Wales in recent times, this young man is surely up there with the best.
It feels as though Leo Smith has been around for a long time by now, due to the rave reviews he’s received over the years, and yet he is still only 22 years old.
The naturally gifted central midfielder, who is from the small village of Tremadog near Porthmadog and is a fluent Welsh-speaker, has enjoyed a great career to date and I recently had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about it.
Smith, who says his love for football started from a very young age, regards Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard and Ballon D’Or winner Kaka as his heroes, adding that the fellow midfielders “had everything”. His own football journey started with Wrexham AFC. It was there he worked his way up through the academy ranks, from the under 14’s side to the first team where he eventually signed a two-year professional contract.
Talking about making that jump to the first team squad, Smith said: “It was a big step from the youths to the first team and that’s when you learn much more about football.
“The physical side of it and it gets much more tactical also. It was amazing being able to play for Wrexham in many ways. It was more special coming through the academy as I felt that was also better for me with the fans getting behind you more and wanting you to do well.”
Wrexham are of course going through some very exciting times at this moment in time. That is because Deadpool’s Ryan Reynolds and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s Rob McElhenney have finally completed their takeover of the club. That move has seen the Hollywood A-listers invest £2m into the National League side and get fans across North Wales and beyond talking about what could be a very bright future ahead at the Racecourse.
Asked about whether or not he still keeps an eye on the goings on at Wrexham, Smith replied: “Of course I still look to see how they get on as that’s where my career started. I was disappointed with how it all ended, but thats football!
“Wrexham is such a big club and personally, I’ve said for many years, for them to have a better chance of going somewhere they needed something like this to happen to them. It will be exciting times for everyone involved with the club.”
Smith later moved a little closer to home as he signed on loan for Llandudno FC ahead of the 2018/19 JD Cymru Premier season before enjoying another campaign in the top-flight with Caernarfon Town for the second half of that season.
Come the end of that campaign, he departed Wrexham in a permanent move to Caernarfon Town – where he became a much-loved figure at the Oval and really carved out a reputation as a fantastic player in Wales’ top-flight.
It was there, he says, he “fell back in love with the game” – despite having to drop down to part time football.
Talking about those spells post-Wrexham, Smith said: “The move to Llandudno came across as I spoke to Sam Ricketts who was the manager at the time and told him I wanted to go out on loan to get game time. I felt i got that in a way, but it was a difficult time with results going against the club etc (They were relegated to the JD Cymru North at the end of the 2018/19 campaign).
“I felt the second loan move to Caernarfon helped me gain much more confidence and happiness with football. Sometimes, you can lose a bit of love for it if stuff isn’t going for you, that’s why I wanted a loan move to get game time where I wasn’t getting it in the end at Wrexham.
“The permanent move to Caernarfon was were I felt I didn’t have any pressure or that i didn’t put pressure on myself. I was able to fall back in love with the game, and truly show my football ability.
“I moved back home and was working too, which was the first time I was in a part time role with football. But, playing for Caernarfon was great, with all the lads, management and staff at the club and especially with the fans who certainly help whilst playing. They become the 12th man home and away.”
Whilst with Caernarfon for the full season in 2019/20, Smith scored four goals in 20 starts as the club finished finish fifth in the JD Cymru Premier table and caught the eye of many supporters, fellow players and managers alike with his performances from the midfield.
And it also, unsurprisingly grabbed the attention of other clubs too. Smith’s rapid journey back into full-time football came full circle in the summer of 2020 as he signed for highly-successful The New Saints (TNS).
Despite missing out on the JD Cymru Premier title for the first time in nearly a decade last season (Connah’s Quay were crowned champions on Points Per Game system due to the Coronavirus pandemic bringing the season to an early end), Scott Ruscoe’s side have marched their way back to the top in the 2020/21 campaign. The season, on hold since December but set to return next month if Covid-19 guidelines permit, has seen them lose just one of their 17 matches to date and they have also scored 49 goals, conceding just ten.
Smith has contributed greatly to that redemption already, proving to be a fantastic creative within the side – providing five assists in his 16 league appearances to date. He’s also contributed one league goal – it would have been two – but unfortunately his wonder-goal in a 2-2 draw against Bala Town (courtesy of Sgorio below) was expunged due to the game being abandoned in the 88th minute because of a floodlight failure.
Talking about that moment, Smith said: “That goal was easily my best goal in my career so far. Obviously, I was disappointed as I knew it wouldn’t count at the end of the season, but never the less it was caught on camera so i have now have a record on it!”
Another gutting moment for Smith came last season when he was selected for the Cymru C squad – but the game was unfortunately called off due to the pandemic. He says he “was proud to be chosen” and that it “does make me want to continue working hard to be picked for it if the game comes again this year”.
But, the midfielder bounced back to begin his European days at TNS in unforgettable fashion, scoring in the memorable 3-1 win over Slovakian side MSK Zilina.
And when the Saints advanced to the Second Qualifying Round to face Faroe Islands-based B36 Torshavn, Smith proved to be the hero again – albeit short-lived in the end. With his side heading out of the tie, he came off the bench and scored a great goal to take the game into Extra Time. Unfortunately, despite Dean Ebbe scoring in the 112th minute, B36 struck back through Stefan Radosavljevic’s goal in the dying seconds forced penalties, which eventually saw TNS crash out 5-4 on the spot kicks.
Talking about his experience, Smith said: “They were definitely up there with my career highlights, it was such an amazing night coming on for my Europa league debut to make it 2-1 at home and then going on to win 3-1. The second game I came on to make it 1-1 to take us into Extra Time where we took the lead but they equalised last minute and went on to win on penalties. But, it was an amazing feeling playing in such a competition.
“One of the other highlights in my career has to be scoring my first goal for Wrexham away at York with all the fans behind the goal. I got a booking for celebrating with the fans but I’d take that any day with how I felt at the time!”
A question which often arises among followers of the JD Cymru Premier and the National League is; just how similar are the two? Or in other words; could a Cymru Prem side cope in the National League and vice-versa?
Many have drawn comparisons but seemingly many more have criticised, stating that England’s fifth tier is far above the standard of Wales’ top-flight.
Giving his views on this, as a player who has played in both divisions, Smith said: “The difference between the two leagues is I think every team is full time in the conference (National League) and that helps with everything in football.
“On the football side, you get some teams who are very direct and then the others are a very good footballing side.”
In TNS, Smith has seemed to find himself a club where he can thrive once more and showcase the unquestionable raw talent he possesses. He’s undoubtedly been one of the stars of the season in the JD Cymru Premier so far and has ran the show for the Saints on many occasions.
He should prove to be a real key player as the Saints look to recapture the title from the Nomads, who are the only team to beat them so far this season, come the end of the 20/21 campaign.
Reviewing the move to Park Hall so far, Smith said: “I always stated that I wanted to work harder than ever to get back to being full time again. When TNS approached me I felt it was the perfect time and move for myself to go for a bigger challenge and be part of them pushing to win back the title this season.
“This season has been going very well for us as a club and for me personally too. My hopes now are to continue to work hard and keep my standards and performances high. Also to win the league and I’ll do everything to help the team to achieve that once we can get back playing in the league.”
A fantastic player who many Wrexham fans feel should have been given more of a chance during his time at the Racecourse, many Caernarfon fans sorely miss at the Oval and many followers of the JD Cymru Premier admire.