George Smith believes he has ‘reaped the rewards’ for having the courage to take a step backwards into non-League football after he signed a two-year deal at the Cobblers.
The 20-year-old left-back was this week snapped up by Town for an undisclosed fee from Vanarama National League side Gateshead.
The move came 12 months after Smith had seen a contract offer withdrawn by his hometown club Barnsley, following the Tykes’ promotion to the Sky Bet Championship.
Then just 19, Smith had played 25 times in the Oakwell side’s league one promotion campaign, but after being released he was without a club.
He could have easily then hung on to try and find a deal with another League club, as many players do, but instead he acted quickly and opted to drop two divisions into the National League, signing for Gateshead last June.
The player acknowledges it ‘was a big decision’ for him to make, but also admitted with some honesty that he simply felt he ‘wasn’t going to cut it at that level at that time’.
The year with Gateshead proved to be a profitable one for Smith as he was a regular first teamer and made 38 appearanes for The Heed as they finished eighth in the National League.
His performances caught the eye of the Cobblers scouts, and he now finds himself looking forward to a two-year stint at Sixfields and re-establishing himself as a Football League player.
“It was a big decision in fairness,” admitted Smith when asked about dropping out of the League and signing for Gateshead.
“I felt I had to bite the bullet, and I said to myself that it is going to be one step back, and two steps forward. To take the step back, and have a full season playing in the Conference, playing games every week at first team level.
I felt I had to bite the bullet, and I said to myself that it is going to be one step back, and two steps forward. To take the step back, and have a full season playing in the Conference, playing games every week at first team levelCobblers defender George Smith
“Don’t get me wrong, it is a completely different standard from being in the Football League, but I would be playing there (Gateshead) and that was all I really needed, first team football.
“So to do that, and for it to then all come to a head at the end of this season and what has happened over the past couple of weeks, it is really pleasing for me, and I am proud of myself for doing it.”
Recalling the moment in the summer of 2016 when he was told by Barnsley that the contract they had offered him just weeks before was being withdrawn, Smith admitted it wasn’t a huge surprise to him. He also admits his return to Sky Bet League One with the switch to the Cobblers has come ahead of schedule.
“Having the contract withdrawn was a little bit of a blow, but Barnsley did get promoted that season up into the Championship,” said Smith, who joined the Tykes youth system at the age of 12 and progressed through to their first team.
“I kind of had an inkling in my heart of hearts that, regardless of whether that contract stood or not, I wouldn’t have been playing the next season anyway.
“I would have probably gone out on loan or been pushed aside kind of thing, so I think it was a bit of a blessing in disguise for that contract not to happen.
“I then dropped back, backed my ability, to get better, and it has taken a year for it to kick in.
“I never expected it to just be a year, I expected it to be a couple of years out and progressing as the seasons went on, but it has happened sooner rather than later, which is great.”
There are plenty of teenage and 20-year-old footballers out there still waiting to break into first team football, with many happy to play in reserve team or age-group football.
That wasn’t the case for Smith, who admitted age-group football wasn’t for him.
He wanted to be playing first team football week in, week out.
“I played a few under-21 games when I was younger, about 17 or 18 years old, and I thought to myself ‘this is kind of easy’,” he said.
“I thought ‘you’re not progessing yourself, you need to play first team football’.
“That’s what I thought, and obviously I have gone out and done it and have now reaped the rewards as such.”
Smith revealed this week’s move to Sixfields was a surprise to him, with the Cobblers making contact with him for the first time only last week.
“It came out of the blue,” said Smith. “I got a phone call from my agent saying Northampton are really interested and then got a text from him an hour later saying ‘they want you to come down and meet up’.
“Last Thursday (May 11) I came down and had a chat with Justin Edinburgh and (head of recruitment) Andy Melville, and we spoke to see what he (Edinburgh) had to say about me, what he saw this season coming for me, because obviously I want to be playing games if I can.
“I don’t want to be coming here and just be sat on the bench, and Justin said that if I am playing well, and doing well in training, then I will play games.
“That is why I have come here, and is what I want to do.”
So, was he impressed by his new manager?
“Massively,” admitted Smith. “He is an ex-professional full-back, so what is not to learn from him?
“I have signed a contract here and I am going to have all that time to learn from him and see what he has to say, and to to be tutored and get better as a player.
“I am still at a young age, I will be turning 21 soon, and touch wood I will hopefully have many years ahead of me.
“I just want to get better and I want to keep progressing.”