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Cambridge United forward Sam Smith reflects on footballing journey to the Abbey Stadium via Manchester United and Reading





Sam Smith could easily be the poster boy for the good that can come from picking yourself up, dusting yourself down and going again.

Released by his boyhood club Manchester United aged 16 and then again by Reading in 2021, he could have been forgiven for becoming disillusioned with the beautiful game.

But in a true testament to his strength of character Smith has bounced back emphatically at Cambridge United, scoring 21 goals in all competitions last season before carrying on from where he left off in August with four goals to win the inaugural Love Cambridge Player of the Month award – as voted for by the club’s supporters.

The striker's performances throughout August earned him the Love Cambridge Player of the Month award, which he collected at Scudamore’s Punt Station on Quayside in the city. Picture: Keith Heppell
The striker's performances throughout August earned him the Love Cambridge Player of the Month award, which he collected at Scudamore’s Punt Station on Quayside in the city. Picture: Keith Heppell

Reflecting on the heartbreak of not making the grade at Old Trafford, as well as the transition of moving almost 200 miles south to pursue his dream, Smith said: “I grew up in the academy at United.

“A lot of us lads went to the same school. Marcus Rashford was one of my friends, Axel Tuanzebe was there, Angel Gomes who is now in France, Scott McTominay played with us and so did Dean Henderson. They were all good lads.

“Being around the best young players in the world at that age is key. The lads who didn’t go on to get a scholarship at United just fell out the game, just from the pure disappointment.

Sam Smith has scored four goals so far this season, including this volley against Burton Albion. Picture: Simon Lankester
Sam Smith has scored four goals so far this season, including this volley against Burton Albion. Picture: Simon Lankester

“Luckily for me I’ve got a really good family and they kept me going. Mentally it was difficult, but I think it can also build you up mentally and it builds your character. Moving from Manchester all the way down south at 16, it’s difficult, but it’s part of what you’ve got to sacrifice when you’re young and you want to make it as a footballer.

“They (Reading) came to one of my games at United. I knew quite early on I wasn’t going to get a scholarship because they’d just turned Marcus into a striker – he was unbelievable.

“I wanted to keep on progressing and Reading offered me a trial. Eamonn Dolan (academy manager), who sadly died a few years ago, was influential in the academy and he helped me massively. He made me feel welcome and I ended up having a great time there. I owe a lot to the people there.”

When Smith arrived in Berkshire it was not the end of the connection with the red half of Manchester given that former Red Devils defender Jaap Stam was in charge of the Royals.

Sam Smith joined the U's on a permanent deal in the summer of 2021. Picture: Keith Heppell
Sam Smith joined the U's on a permanent deal in the summer of 2021. Picture: Keith Heppell

The forward said of Stam, who handed Smith nine of his 11 appearances in a Reading shirt: “He was a great guy, a great manager and he had a good coaching team with him.

“I was 19 at the time but he really helped me to understand the game and my position. I learned a lot from him.”

But having returned from loan spells with Oxford United and Shrewsbury Town in 2017/18 to find Stam had been replaced by Paul Clement, Smith found himself on the periphery.

Further loans followed, one of which was with Cambridge United, while another saw him help Cheltenham Town to pip the U’s to the Sky Bet League Two title in 2021.

And it was in that summer when Reading informed the now 24-year-old that he was free to find himself another club.

“When I broke through into the first team in my first season at Reading, I came back and there was a new manager,” he said.

“At the time he (Clement) wanted experience up front. I just wanted games so I had a lot of loans – some good, some bad. But it was a lot of learning and it helped to build my character. Everything I learned from those loans helped to kick my game on.

“I’d exploited all the loan options and the club made it clear they were going through financial fair play – there was a lot of problems there. I just needed a home to re-establish myself.”

Sam Smith scored 21 goals for the U's last season. Picture: Simon Lankester
Sam Smith scored 21 goals for the U's last season. Picture: Simon Lankester

‘Home’ – it transpires – is the Abbey Stadium. Smith enjoyed his previous loan spell with United in 2019/20, firing in eight goals from 30 appearances before being struck down by glandular fever.

And so while there was plenty of interest in his services from elsewhere, Smith was packed up and heading back to Cambridgeshire following conversations with head coach Mark Bonner.

“I loved it (the first time at Cambridge). I think that was one of the reasons when my deal run out at Reading and I was a looking for a new home, when Mark Bonner came in I didn’t even question it.

“I played half the season because I got glandular fever but I enjoyed everything about it,” he said.

Mark Bonner was instrumental in the forward's decision to sign for Cambridge United. Picture: Simon Lankester
Mark Bonner was instrumental in the forward's decision to sign for Cambridge United. Picture: Simon Lankester

“Everyone knows how well Mark Bonner has done here. He’s a great coach and when he rung me, we had a meeting and I was impressed. I could see this was a club on the up and I could come here, get games, try to learn and improve.”

He certainly hit the ground running. Upon penning his two-year contract Smith had a total of 19 senior goals to his name – a tally he surpassed last term.

Bonner’s influence has played a “big role”, as did Michael Duff (now Barnsley manager), who offered the frontman plenty of useful pointers during his stint at Cheltenham.

“Mark has played a really big role, that’s clear, and someone else who helped me massively was Michael Duff at Cheltenham,” he said.

“I spent the second half of the season there and we ended up winning the league.

“He really helped me learn that when I am playing as a striker that there are certain positions I need to get into and how to become ruthless.

“I’ve always been a good finisher, it was about getting into those right areas at the right times.

“The system we play here (at Cambridge), and the counter-attacking football, now I’m playing out wide a bit more but it’s still my job to get into the box and try to contribute.

“It’s about positioning and sniffing out chances.”

Inevitably a 20-plus goals a season striker is going to attract attention from other suitors.

But while there was some speculation surrounding his name this summer, Smith remains a United player and if his start to the new term is anything to go by he is more than happy in his current surroundings.

“There was obviously some interest from other clubs in the summer but it didn’t happen and I’m happy at Cambridge,” he said.

“It’s gone now and I’m just focused on this season and hopefully I can help the team kick on and finish as high as we can.

“With the squad we’ve got I feel we can improve on last year – it’s an exciting time to be at the club.”

What I Love About Cambridge

Cambridge United has teamed up with Cambridge BID to give supporters the chance to vote for their Love Cambridge Player of the Month, supported by the Cambridge Independent. Sponsors Love Cambridge is part of Cambridge BID, a collaboration of 1,200 businesses working together to promote and improve the city of Cambridge.

Sam Smith’s four goals throughout August saw him clinch the first prize with more than 65 per cent of the vote.

Here, the striker reveals some of his favourite things about the city.

Q: What are your favourite places to visit in Cambridge?

A: “My favourite place is a little cafe called Stir near where I live. I go there every day. I get chili jam on a bagel with poached egg and smashed avocado – the coffee is really good there as well. I normally go at lunch after training or on my days off.

“And David Lloyd has got a great spa where a lot of the lads go every day for recovery. We go in the ice bath, the sauna, the pool and the gym. In terms of Cambridge those are the two places I go to regularly.”

Q: What are your favourite things to do while you’re in and around Cambridge?

A: “I’ve done punting. I like the scenery in Cambridge, all of the older buildings and the universities – I’ve explored them. And there are some good walking routes as well.”

Q: What does in mean to win this award?

A: “It means a lot, especially as it’s voted for by the fans. As a team we’ve had a good start and it’s been good for me personally as well.”



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