Jack Miller looks at the changes former GB star Richard Smith has brought to Hampstead…
Injury may have derailed his bid to become a double Olympian for Great Britain, but Richard Smith is now hell-bent on transforming club side Hampstead & Westminster into one of Europe’s premier outfits.
The north-west Londoners head into the winter break fifth in the National League standings, dropping one place in the table this week after a gut-wrenching 4-3 defeat to high-flying Surbiton – where, despite Smith’s first goal for the club, two Surbiton strikes in as many minutes after half-time cost them dear.
Recent wins over East Grinstead and Reading consolidated their flying start to the season, and after five consecutive seventh-place finishes in the Premier Division, Hampstead & Westminster finally look like breaking their mid-table hoodoo.
But director of hockey Smith, or ‘Smudge’ as he is affectionately known around Paddington Recreation Ground, is not satisfied yet and is desperate to secure a shot at European hockey next term.
“We’re really excited about the season so far and our ambition is to finish inside that top four,” he said.
“We had some really competitive games just before the break and we are keen to keep building on what we have done this year.
“We’re just continuing to gel and get closer together as a team every week, getting more familiar with how everyone plays.
“We’ve been playing some nice stuff but it’s really about making sure we turn those performances into results. There’s a good feeling around the club at the moment.”
Smith made his Hampstead & Westminster debut in the season-opening 7-2 demolition of struggling Canterbury, three years after joining the club.
An ever present since his international debut in 2009, the 29-year-old defender discovered he was carrying a horror knee injury while representing England during the 2013 European Championships. He found his articular cartilage was damaged which has prevented him from playing hockey at the highest level ever since.
Hat-tricks for Michael Watt and penalty corner specialist Matt Guise-Brown won that particular game, with Smith not enjoying the debut he dreamed of as he picked up a yellow card.
But after two spells under the knife in early 2014, the defender admits he is relieved simply to be back out playing again.
He said: “I’m really pleased with how my body has held up for the first half of the season.
“The first few weeks were tough getting back up to speed, but I’ve been feeling better as the weeks have gone by and there’s not been too many side effects from my surgery.
“There have been a few good battles as well, playing against both old teammates and some of these young guys that are running around far too quickly.
“It’s not really an injury that is reparable as such. There is no real blood-flow in that area and so it’s not like an ACL or meniscus injury that is more common.
“The hope was that the two graft surgeries would be the best thing for my knee in the long run, in terms of playing as long as possible. There were other options that didn’t have as good odds of lasting, but could have maybe got me to Rio.
“I went into it all with the thought of trying to compete for a place in the GB side, but it was always a bit of an unknown.”
Smith stepped away from the British centralised programme once it became clear his knee could not handle the Rio Olympics, the bone beneath the graft bruising heavily as he struggled to regain fitness.
But he did not spend his recuperation idly, instead stepping into the vacant director of hockey role in north-west London.
And having spent time with Royal Racing Club de Bruxelles, Smith is convinced Hampstead & Westminster have the foundations in place to compete with the best on the continent in the near future.
Building on the structures he witnessed in Belgium, Smith has overseen the arrival of Trinidad & Tobago international and current Great Britain Under-23 head coach Kwan Browne from Canterbury.
The 38-year-old Browne took over from Michael Johnson as player-coach of the men’s first team, before starting a flurry of recruitment in the summer.
South Africa international Guise-Brown, Ireland Olympians Michael Watt and Chris Cargo, Wales number one David Kettle, and rising GB stars Sam French and Will Calnan were just some of men to join the Hampstead revolution.
And based on the results so far, Smith can only see the club going from strength to strength in their quest to join the Northern Hemisphere’s elite.
“It feels fantastic to be doing well for Hampstead who have been so good with me,” he said.
“They were so supportive of my ambition to get back fit again – both in terms of wanting to play for them, but also wanting me to get back into the Great Britain side.
“I used my layoff as well as I could at the club, and I’ve really enjoyed taking on this director of hockey role and trying to bring in both coaches and players to take the wider club forward.
“I was motivated more than anything else by my experience out in Belgium for Racing and seeing the club setup there.
“When I came back I was really ambitious and given Hampstead’s location and membership, I thought it could become really similar to some of Europe’s best clubs.
“So I’ve enjoyed putting my energies into that and I’m pleased with how it’s going.
“We’ve made good strides getting good coaches in; first Michael Johnson and then some other good players came across.
“And now to have a full-time hockey coach in Kwan at the club, and what he brings, hopefully we’ll just get better and better.”