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The Ben Smith column: Life at the top - and playing at Old Trafford

Reading the title of this week's column, you may be wondering "What does a lower league journeyman like him know about life at the top?"

Until relatively recently you would be right in thinking not a lot. However, that all changed last season when we drew Manchester United away in the fifth round of the FA Cup. This experience made me realise a top level player's life is not all glamour and luxury.

The day after beating Torquay away in the fourth round I was at home watching the draw for the next round. I wanted to play West Ham or Arsenal but I can’t say I was disappointed with Manchester United! As soon as that draw was made my phone was ringing off the hook for about two hours. Bearing in mind I normally get about three calls a week this was quite a shock. Everyone was ringing for tickets and wishing me luck.

Straight away I was looking forward to it but I was also worried and felt under pressure. We had a competitive squad and I had been nowhere near the team at the start of the season.

I had managed to work my way into the team and played in most of the big games since October but I never felt like my place in the team was secure. There were also three or four games before we played Manchester United.

Attacking role

I was desperate not to get injured but I knew I couldn’t hold back as this would hinder my performance and probably mean I would be left out of the team. I also play in a very attacking role behind the striker, was the manager really going to go to Old Trafford and play such an aggressive formation?

In the weeks leading up to the game I was doing interviews for Radio 1, Talksport and Five Live. There is a clear pattern here - it seemed like they were insinuating I had a face for radio!

I also found out how comments you make pretty innocuously can suddenly turn up in the national press. After the previous round Chris Coleman had been really critical of us.

I gave my opinions to the local press saying something along the lines of him being a bit patronising and disrespectful to us. You can imagine my surprise when these quotes turned up in The Sun, after all Chris Coleman is a big boy, although I stand by what I said.

As the game got closer and closer I was getting more irritable and tense something which my girlfriend was bearing the brunt of.


That game was consuming my thoughts all day everyday. People kept saying to me to go out and enjoy it but all I could think about was how I didn’t care where or who I was playing I wouldn’t enjoy it if we got hammered.

To coincide with this my form started to taper off a bit. The Saturday before the big game we played Wrexham at home. We were 2-0 down at half time and I got subbed.

I didn’t feel my performance was any worse that anyone else but the manager decided to change the formation and I was sacrificed. I sat in the stand for the second half and watched how we turned the game around to win 3-2. On one hand this was great but on the other hand I was wondering where this left me.

We played Wrexham again on the Tuesday away. The manager made numerous changes to the team and I was one of them. Looking at the other players left out it looked as though we had been rested but after Saturday I was far from confident that was what was happening with me.

Sir Alex Ferguson was at the game. This made us realise how serious he was taking us. The game was a pretty uninspiring 0-0 draw.


Now I was getting really nervous, I thought I had missed the opportunity to play in a really big game like this in my career but I had another chance.

However my place was far from guaranteed. I had about thirty people coming to watch the game who were spending a lot of money. This was making me feel under even more pressure to play.

We travelled up to Manchester on the Thursday. Before we left we had a press conference after training on the Thursday. As I’m sure you can imagine these normally consist of one man and his dog.

However, on this occasion there must have been seven or eight camera crews and about one hundred journalists. I think I doubled the amount of interviews I had done in my life that day ranging from the obligatory comparison of cars with the ever insightful Sun to a really enjoyable interview with Henry Winter in the Daily Telegraph.

We then went straight to Old Trafford to look around the ground. Thankfully the pitch wasn’t as big as it looks on the telly. Being on the pitch and looking round made it all feel real and really sink in that in less than two days if selected I would be playing at Old Trafford.

Hardly slept a wink

We worked on the shape of the team on Friday and realistically there were five or six players going for three places. Everyone else’s place was nailed down.

The manager gave nothing away and I was genuinely unsure of whether I would play. I hardly slept a wink on Friday night due to a mixture of excitement and tension. The game was on ITV so just to add to the anxiety the game wasn’t kicking off until 5.15pm.

That day is the most nervous I have ever been leading up to the game. However, it wasn’t due to the fact we were playing against one of the biggest teams in the world it was because I didn’t know whether or not I was playing and I was so scared that I may be left out.

The gaffer eventually named the team about three hours before kick off and I was playing. I will always be grateful to the manager for picking me although I don’t think he did it as a favour to me I think he felt I was the best person to do the job.

I was so relieved, immediately my nerves started to subside and I was just left with the normal nervous excitement I have before most games.


The game itself was a bit of a blur and just felt really surreal. This was summed up in the second half when I put in a quite robust tackle on a player in a red shirt. I looked up and it was Wayne Rooney. I was just thinking to myself: "What am I doing on the same pitch as him?"

We eventually lost 1-0 to a strong Manchester United side that finished with Hernandez and Rooney upfront. We started off the game a little nervously but grew into it as the game wore on and were genuinely unlucky to not get a draw. We even managed to dominate possession for spells in the second half. I ended up playing eighty two minutes and was satisfied with my performance.

The morale of this whole story is that the pressure I felt leading up to this game is the pressure that these guys at the top level are under every week. After that game I could relax and go back to my life of anonymity something which I was glad to do.

Manchester United on the other hand were flying straight out to play Marseille in the Champion’s League, we were playing Southport at home! Yes some of these top players could be a bit more discreet but from then on whenever I have seen pictures of another top player letting off some steam I have more sympathy for them than most.

Suffice to say it was a good job that the press were no longer interested in us Crawley boys as some serious steam was let off after that game!

If you are on Twitter please follow me @bsmudger7

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