Robbie Earle – Nathan Smith and hard-earned Port Vale experience


Congratulations, in advance, to Nathan Smith who, at just 23, will bring up 200 appearances for the Vale in Saturday’s home game with Crawley.

I am sure he’s a much better player for all those matches. I’m speaking from experience here because I’m also on that list of the ten youngest players to have reached 200 for the Vale.

It made a massive difference to me because I learned the game properly by playing with men.

I remember getting the rollicking of my life from my team mate Eamonn O’Keefe because, after receiving the ball late on in a game, I turned inside and lost possession.

As Eamonn ‘explained’ to me, at the end of a game in a situation like that, you always turn to the outside, never in. That’s because if you do get tackled then the chances are you are at least going to win a throw in or a corner. But turn inside and lose the ball and you’ve potentially left your team in trouble.

That is the sort of thing I would never have learned from playing youth football when a player might turn inside beat a couple of players and score. Great goal, but so what? It doesn’t really matter because you are not doing it under the pressure of a first team game.

Fail to track your runner in an under-18 game and your coach won’t be happy, but it doesn’t really matter.

But you feel very differently if you do that in a first-team game when you’ve just cost the bloke next to you his win bonus, and he’s got a family to look after and a mortgage to pay. It wasn’t just about not letting the team down either.  When I was first breaking into the team, I could pretty double my wages in bonuses if we won three or four games in a month.

Sky Bet EFL League Two: Port Vale v Walsall – Nathan Smith battles with Josh Gordon

I learned about how to win games, and was lucky because there were some great pros at the Vale to teach me. They included Phil Sproson and Russell Bromage who had come through the youth system at the Vale and are also on that list of youngest players to reach 200. 

They were five or six years older than me and, in their mid-twenties, already had that experience, aura and professionalism of lads in their 30s. They commanded respect in the dressing room and were really helpful and supportive to me.

A few years later, I like to think I did the same role for Darren Beckford, another in the list of ten youngest Vale players to reach 200 games.  Becky could occasionally get distracted so I would help make sure he was focused.

We had a lot of good players in that team, but he was our game changer. If Becky played well, we won.   

Nathan Smith does the business for the Vale at the other end of the pitch, and clearly has been doing the business when you look at his appearance record.

He didn’t miss a league game in his first two seasons after making his debut in 2016 and is going to get to 200 appearances in all competitions within four years.  That tells me he’s a player who keeps playing through minor knocks and niggles.

It’s the sort of thing other clubs will look at when they consider whether to come in for him in the summer. It’s well documented he’s out of contract but I’m hoping he’ll be staying on.

After coming through with a team and a club that was struggling over the last three years, it would be great if he could stay just as things are looking up for the Vale. 

The  youngest players to have reached 200 games for Port Vale (stats courtesy of Vale’s historian Phil Sherwin)

22 yrs 92 days – Clinton Boulton

23 yrs 59 days – Robbie Earle

23 yrs 129 days – Phil Sproson

23 yrs 132 days – John James

23 yrs 174 days – Bobby Gough

23 yrs 191 days – Russell Bromage

23 yrs 227 days – Darren Beckford

23 yrs 296 days – Tommy McLaren

24 yrs 2 days – Stan Steele

*If he plays on Saturday, Nathan Smith will join that list in ninth, reaching 200 games at the age of  23 years and 346 days.

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