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  • Writer's pictureTanner Coad

Keegan Smith: How the former A-League prodigy made his way to the Devonport Strikers

NPL Tasmania reigning champions Devonport Strikers, the state's sole representative in the Australia Cup final rounds, want to create history on the road against NPL Queensland side Gold Coast Knights tonight. In an interview with Front Page Football, goalkeeper Keegan Smith expressed how he is welcoming the challenge after last year's efforts fell short against his former side, the Wellington Phoenix.

Devonport Strikers celebrate their 2023 Lakoseljac Cup victory. (Tanner Coad)

"We're excited to get up to the Gold Coast, and this year is a bit different, and I feel like we are looking at it as more of an even keel," Smith told FPF recently.


Smith's career could have panned out very differently, with his childhood not involving the round ball initially.


"Like every other young New Zealander, I wanted to play for the All Blacks when I was five. I played touch rugby for a year, but I wanted to do something else. My dad is a massive football fan, and once I went and started playing football, I never looked back," he added.


Smith was first scouted for his first taste of professional football at a U17 Nationals tournament, which led to him earning a scholarship with A-League club Wellington Phoenix.


"I had quite a good game against one of the tournament favourites, and from that moment onwards, there were two Phoenix scouts behind my goal, which I had noticed. At the conclusion of the tournament, where we ended as semi-finalists, my coach asked me to come down to Wellington for a trial," Smith said.


"I trained twice with the Reserves and twice with the first team, which was very eye-opening. Just training with players like Glen Moss, Kosta Barbarouses, and Roly Bonevacia, players that are so much better than I have ever seen with my own two eyes. I must have done alright because they asked me to move down two weeks later."


Smith credits his homestay family in Wellington for helping accommodate him after he left home on his 17th birthday.

"Amy and Shaun (the couple that hosted Smith) were actually fantastic, and they really looked after me. I still keep in touch with them to this day."


The goalkeeper made his A-League debut while still in high school on the opening day of the 2017/18 A-League season, as Wellington drew 1-1 at home to Adelaide United.


"Ernie Merrick was there when I first moved down, and with Oliver Sail on international duty and Lewis Italiano not available, I thought this was my opportunity," Smith explained.


Smith only made six appearances for Wellington, but his brave gamesmanship against Brisbane Roar's Italian veteran striker, Massimo Maccarone, in October 2017 made international headlines.


Before a penalty in Brisbane's three-goal comeback in Wellington, which ended in a 3-3 draw, Smith, with his limited experience, dove into his toolbox of mind games and blew a kiss to Maccarone. Unfortunately, it didn't work, as Maccarone converted the penalty and completed the comeback. The goalkeeper explained his thinking as the Italian stepped up from twelve yards.

Wellington Phoenix goalkeeper Keegan Smith blows a kiss to Brisbane's veteran striker Massimo Maccarone. (Fox Sports Australia)

"I thought, you know what, I may as well try something here to put him off but to be completely honest, I didn't know who he was or that he had played in the Premier League for Middlesborough and represented Italy. It was just classic goalkeeper gamesmanship, trying to put the taker off," Smith said.


After the penalty was converted, the Fox Sports microphones nearby seemingly picked up Maccarone telling Smith to shut up.


"Massimo put it into the top corner and gave me quite a verbal serve after it. But it comes with the territory," Smith explained.

"If I had saved that penalty, I'm sure he would have gotten plenty of stick online, but if you live by the sword, you've got to die by the sword. I wasn't too fussed about the serve; it's within his rights, but I don't know if I would change my mind if I knew who he was."


Smith's time with Wellington ended in 2018 when Marko Rudan was appointed the new manager, and he was told by the now-Western Sydney Wanderers boss his services would no longer be required.


"I had been frozen out. Because I was on a scholarship contract, I was told that when Marko came in and assessed me, he obviously thought I wasn't good enough. He pretty much said sling your hook, and you'll be training with the Reserves; you won't be training with the first team anymore. Often in the mornings, the first team would be training on the field, and I would be on an exercise bike watching on," Smith said.


"My options; I was told I could either sit on my contract, wait it out, and train with the Reserves. But I wasn't going to be playing any games. Players have been in positions like this before and have persevered.


"I thought to myself; I need to go find some games because I had gone from playing youth football straight into the A-League. In New Zealand, you have the ISPS Handa Premiership (now folded), which is played all across the country, where I sort of missed a step in my development. That's how a couple of people saw it as well, and I sought out to play as many games at that level to mature as a player and a person."


After leaving the Nix, Smith had stints with Tasman United and Wellington Olympic, making 27 appearances but succumbing to a shoulder injury. He lost his starting spot at Olympic, which he described as "just another learning experience."


Smith had been selected to represent New Zealand's U23 side at the 2019 Pacific Games before the shoulder injury. He had never been picked for a New Zealand side until then but made it to the last cut for the U17s in 2018 and the U20s squad for the 2019 World Cup qualifiers and the tournament proper.


"I finally made the U23s, and five days before we flew away to Samoa, I dislocated my shoulder, and it was sort of like a double whammy. I was injured, and I was missing out on potentially the only representative New Zealand side I would ever make," Smith said.


"Up until that point, things had come relatively easy to me with not being dropped or having to really fight for a position against two or three other keepers. But there were mixed emotions being in the Premiership, as you obviously want to be playing professionally full-time. That's not to say playing at Tasman was a waste of time."


Between 2019 and 2020, Smith shuffled around clubs in Wellington, in both the Premiership and Central League, before his career came to a crossroads with another shoulder injury. He also admitted his mental health was beginning to take a hit.


"The moment I left the Phoenix, I had some realisation that I had never thought seriously about what I want to do outside of football. Playing professional football became quite intense as I was in the public eye, and it seemed to be that everything was going on track. Before I knew it, it was all sort of taken away from me," Smith said.


"The only way I was gaining any self-validation in my life up until that point was through football. I was feeling quite down after the dislocation, and I couldn't quite put my finger on it. My therapist explained to me that if you only validate yourself through one sort of activity or one thing that you do, it's going to be hard when that one thing is taken away from you to feel good about yourself. After speaking to someone about it, honestly, it was great."


Smith credits his old friend Calvin Lee, who had become a player agent at Lee Fratelli, for helping him find his next move in a trip across the Tasman, signing with NPL Tasmania champions Devonport Strikers.


"After coming back from injury in Wellington, my prospects from there were drying up, and I was thinking of moving back home to Auckland to start studying full-time. I was thinking if I'm studying full-time, I could probably play football with my friends in a local team," Smith explained.


"We had a bit of a conversation about what I was still trying to do in football, whether I still want to play seriously, and after talking to a few clubs, Devonport made me an offer after Nathan Pitchford (former Devonport goalkeeper) had retired."


Smith says the move to a new country has exceeded all his expectations, as he has won two Milan Lakoseljac Cups and was crowned an NPL champion last year. Devonport is on course for more silverware in 2023.


"It's been great. The club has been fantastic, and everyone across Tasmanian football is so welcoming. I felt at home straight away, and that helps so much when you're here to play football. If things are taken care of off the field, you just have to worry about what's on the field," Smith said.


Devonport's last Australia Cup outing was against Smith's former side Wellington Phoenix, and he says that he was joking with the team last year about the likelihood of drawing his former side.


"In the lead-up, I had been bantering the boys saying, 'Oh watch, we are going to get the Phoenix', and obviously drawing them at home, the boys gave me a bit of stick, but after it all settled down, you just start thinking about it, and I thought what are the chances! Now here I am, playing against them in the Australia Cup. The way my mind works, I was just thinking about some what-if scenarios. Imagine knocking them out on penalties or saving a couple," Smith said.


"Obviously, the result didn't go the way we wanted, as I would have loved to have a blinder and keep a clean sheet, knock them out of the cup. But that's just the way football goes sometimes. But it was good to see some of the boys I used to play with from my time at the Phoenix (both first team and academy).


"I felt like that was a great experience for some of the boys around the club and even the juniors seeing an A-League team play at Valley Road."

 

READ MORE ON FPF


An away trip to the Croatian Sports Centre to look forward to, Smith concluded our chat by expressing his excitement for what could be a historic night for the Strikers.


"It's another NPL side, and as strong as they might be, we see them as just another NPL side. The boys are ready, and some of them have gone through to the Round of 16 before, so we have our experience there, our quality. Our coach Tom Ballantyne has been doing a great job preparing us. To be honest, I can't wait to get on their pitch!" Smith said.


Devonport and the Gold Coast Knights face off at the Croatian Sports Centre in Australia Cup Round of 32 action tonight at 7:30 pm AEST.


Click here to read more of FPF's Australia Cup coverage!

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