Tommy Smith would be open to the prospect of an emotional return to Vicarage Road to play for Watford for a third time if a move “was right for them and right for me”.
The Cardiff City player, who turns 34 later this month, is set to become a free agent this summer when his contract with the Premier League outfit expires and he would consider a second return to the club where he first made his name if an offer was to be forthcoming.
“I’d never say never,” the two-time Hornets Player of the Season said when asked about the idea of rejoining the Hornets again. “Football is a funny game and I honestly felt when I left the first time what are the chances of ever coming back to play.
“But I’ll be a free contract, I’ll be listening to any offers and I would happily come back to Watford, absolutely. If it was right for them and right for me I’d have no qualms about that at all.”
Turning to his brother Jack, who also started his career at Watford, Tommy added: “I’m sure you’d be the same, it’s a great club and you never know, I could end up anywhere.”
The brothers have strengthened their connections with the area by taking over the sales arm of a firm of estate agents and when they spoke to the Watford Observer last Monday, they also reflected on their Hornets careers and looked ahead to what the future may hold.
Having made his Hornets debut in November 1997 after rising up through the youth ranks, Tommy went on to make almost 150 league appearances, scoring 33 league goals, before joining Sunderland on a free transfer in September 2003 after turning down the offer of a new deal under Gianluca Vialli.
A year at the Stadium of Light and two seasons at Derby County followed before he was brought back to the then Premiership club for £500,000 by Aidy Boothroyd in August 2006.
The Hemel Hempstead-born player scored another 27 goals in 123 league starts during his second spell at Vicarage Road, becoming an increasingly key figure in the squad before the Hornets sold him to Portsmouth for £1.8m in August 2009 after Tommy had been on the verge of moving to Reading.
Following Portsmouth’s Premier League relegation, Tommy helped Queens Park Rangers into the top-flight – confirming their rise with a late goal at Vicarage Road in April 2011 – before he also helped guide his current club to the same level under former Hornets boss Malky Mackay.
Tommy Smith with former Hornets loanee Adam Johnson. Picture: Action Images
This season has been a difficult one though. Tommy has not featured at all in the Premier League, making just three cup appearances, but while he is entering the latter stages of his career, he is not ready to hang up his boots yet.
“I’m turning 34 next month so I certainly feel I’ve got a good couple of seasons left,” he said. “I feel fit, I feel great to be honest. It’s been a really frustrating season for me but on the other hand it works in my favour that I’ve had probably a bit less stress on the body so I feel raring to go.
“It’s frustrating watching football every week and not playing, I’m not used to that. I’m the same as Jack, my contract’s up, so I think I’ll be looking for a new challenge in the summer and I’m really looking forward to it.”
His brother, who is also expecting to become a free agent this summer when his current deal at Millwall comes to an end, added: “I think when you have a season like that it does make you realise how much you miss not playing. It’s hard to sit at home and watch the results come in on the TV and you haven’t got that buzz and the feeling of winning games and being involved and you miss a lot of the banter and everything, you don’t feel as involved as the lads that are playing. It’s not easy.”
Although he has spent the past two years playing in Wales, Tommy’s family are settled at their home in Berkhamsted. The player would like his next move to be in or around London but he knows that may not be possible.
“You’ve got to go wherever you’ve got to go, that’s football,” he acknowledged. “But first and foremost, I’ve got kids at school that I won’t move now. If I move club, certainly my family won’t be moving so ideally you want to commute and be in and around London, absolutely. That will be the main focus.”
Tommy continued: “If you had the choice, certainly for us the choice would be local. And there’s enough good teams locally to be there with the likes of the Watfords, Readings, Brentfords, teams like that. Leyton Orient are great now, so hopefully there will be a bit of interest that will work out for both parties.”
Tommy has been a professional footballer for 17 years, more than half of which were spent at Vicarage Road. Looking back on his two spells with the Hornets he reflected: “I’ve got some really fond memories. It’s obviously my first club, I came through as a kid, made some great friends who I’m still in touch with now – some still playing, some not. It’s the club that I made my debut at, lots of highs – FA Cup semi-finals, player of the years – and lots of lows – relegations – but just fantastic memories.
“The big thing for me and the hardest decision was coming back for the second stint and it was a real ‘do I, don’t I?’ I felt sometimes it’s harder to go back a second time, particularly the way I left – I’m not sure a lot of people understood why I left.
“That was probably the toughest decision for me but the biggest one of my career that I’m the most happy about. I really enjoyed the three, four seasons I had when I came back and they’re probably one of my fondest memories of my career so far looking back.”
Asked what factors he had to weigh up before opting to return, the Hornets’ 14th highest scorer of all-time explained: “Being local you can’t really get away from Watford so if you have a bad game you’re getting reminded of it all week and it always seems to hurt you a bit more.
“All professional footballers, if you lose or you don’t play well on a Saturday it’s hard enough to forget but when you’re bumping into people and they’re reminding you of it every day or ‘why did you do this?’ it hurts you a bit more and it’s harder to forget. Coming back, I had to be prepared for that again.
“When you move away, you haven’t got those kind of pressures. I think that was the biggest thing for me; I think I found just before I left, the enjoyment wasn’t quite there, and I didn’t want to come back and not enjoy it. Because I had such a great time at Derby for a couple of years before I re-signed for Watford, it was always going to be hard to emulate that but it certainly did.”
Jack Smith in action for the Hornets against Chelsea in 2004. Picture: Action Images
Jack’s Watford record is less significant – it was limited to 28 first-team appearances – but it set the 30-year-old defender on a path that has seen him make 304 appearances in all competitions for the Hornets, Swindon Town and the Lions.
He explained: “I was disappointed with how I left in the end. Possibly with hindsight I could have stuck around for six months after because I had a year left on my contract when Boothroyd said I could leave. But from what I’ve heard he looks for a reaction and I think I took it a bit too literally.
“When you’re a bit younger I think you get offended when people tell you ‘I don’t want you’ whereas now it will be ‘I’ll show you’. But at the time I was like ‘fine, I’ll go somewhere else’ and obviously the next season they went and got promoted to the Premiership. So I went from potentially a Premiership player and got relegated with Swindon to League Two,” Smith added with a wry smile.
“That’s the only thing I look back on and think maybe that could have been different. Obviously I only played 20-odd games for Watford but as Tom said it’s your local team where I was from eight, nine and to just play one game for them was good. I played against Chelsea and stuff and they’re good memories and they set me up for a good career and a good grounding.”
Despite living a short distance up the A41 when he is not in Wales, Tommy hasn’t returned to Vicarage Road a great deal since he left in 2009. But he was in the stands with his son to watch the win over Ipswich Town last month and it was an experience both enjoyed.
“It was nice, really nice to come back and be able sit in the stands and watch it,” he said. “That’s the first time since I’ve left I’ve been back to Vicarage Road really bar playing and it was really enjoyable.
“I’m trying to get my son to support Watford and buying him a shirt. Obviously all his school friends are Tottenham and Chelsea but I’m like ‘no’, I want him to support Watford. I’m working on him,” he added with a smile.
To read about the Smith brothers' move into the world of estate agency, click here.