Saturday, 4 August 2012

Tommy Smith: Olympic games or Cambridge United Away?

Tommy Smith made a welcome return to the Ipswich Town side today after his New Zealand team were knocked out of the Olympics.

The Oly Whites ended their London 2012 experience bottom of the group, but that won’t have been too disappointing for the side which also included Chris Wood (Bristol City) and Ryan Nelsen (QPR).

But was Tommy’s involvement in this tournament a good thing or a bad thing for the club that pays his wages? I’ve seen fans debate either side of this argument and wanted to offer an opinion based on my experience whilst watching him this summer.

 I was at the City of Coventry Stadium last week to see Tommy Smith become the only Ipswich Town player to feature in these Olympic Games and was able to speak to him after the game.

He seemed genuinely proud to be a part of the competition and, despite a disappointing defeat to Belarus, he was in good spirits. He explained what an honour it was to have been able to do that with family (his parents and girlfriend made the trip up from Suffolk) and Ipswich Town fans supporting him – he repeatedly thanked us for being there, ‘I’ve seen lots of blue shirts, it’s been amazing’.

At the time he was looking forward to his next match against Egypt at Old Trafford, ‘I’ve never played there before, it’s a dream come true’ and, of course, the final match against Brazil was on his mind too. These are experiences he’ll never forget and that is my first reason for saying I believe he absolutely did the right thing in taking part in the Olympics.

It is important games like this that can ‘make you’ as a player, how much did playing for the Republic of Ireland benefit Matt Holland? And I don’t recall anyone questioning his commitment to our club. Hopefully, the experience will have added to Tommy’s ability to perform under pressure.

There is also the argument that the quality of football Tommy was involved with this summer will be much higher than if he’d played in our pre-season friendlies. With all due respect to Cambridge United and Luton Town, Tommy will have learnt so much from playing against tournament favourites: Brazil – surely no-one can deny that?

So how about the game itself? How did Tommy do?

To be honest it was probably one of the slowest football matches I’ve ever seen and the passing ability of both sides left a lot to be desired. It was sloppy and, as you’ll have seen if you watched any of the matches, New Zealand seemed to lack the finishing touch despite having good possession of the ball for the majority of the game.

In defence they were okay, but only okay. The goal seemed like poor marking, not Tommy, and it was a shame that that goal that made the difference in the end. I felt Tommy did, occasionally, seem to lose the man he was marking, something I’ve often seen him do in a Town shirt. But, in general, he was solid, showed a lot of intelligence and most of all I was impressed with the way he organised the team.

Tommy was given the captain’s armband for the World Cup qualifying matches earlier in the summer and he seemed to be carrying the influence he’d had then into these games. I hope this is a skill he’ll continue to show on the Portman Road pitch.

The only other concern was that Tommy, by his own admission, began to look very tired towards the end of the game. He explained that it was his first full 90 minutes since he’d played in the Solomon Islands (for the World Cup Qualifiers) but he was sure it would get easier now. As we said to him, it was a great way to get fit for the season!

His fitness levels therefore will be great after the number of games he has played this summer, but that - of course - plays into the hands of fans who are concerned he will become tired too quickly because he hasn’t had a summer break.

Well, I put that to Tommy after the game and the thought had clearly not even crossed his mind. He said, ‘I had a bit of a break after the World Cup (due to a hamstring injury picked up in training with Ipswich Town) but I’m raring to go now’.  

Tommy’s only 22, he’s not in desperate need of a rest and – from what he said to us – I don’t think he wanted one. He’s keen to work on his fitness, something most Town fans would have put at the top of their list for every single first team player to work on over the summer. So, again, I feel the summer of playing will have benefited Tommy, and therefore will benefit Ipswich too.

I can only see it as a positive that he has been allowed to take part in this once in a lifetime opportunity and am glad the club have supported him in it. But I’m glad he’s back now and, judging by the half time score against West Ham, we have missed him!

Here’s to what will possibly be Tommy’s most important year yet, the year he proves himself.

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