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How I impressed QPR boss Ian Holloway and why I still get the tube to matches: Paul Smyth

 

By Paul Ferguson

As a young professional footballer living in the bright lights of London, west Belfast lad Paul Smyth could easily get carried away after the seismic year he has just enjoyed.

The fear of failure is keeping him grounded, though. He knows he may never be given a second chance.

Twelve months ago, the then 19-year-old was still playing Irish League football for Linfield. Despite his diminutive frame, he was a big fish in a small pond.

Smyth needed a breakthrough and it came in the form of Championship club Queens Park Rangers, who signed the striker on a two-year deal last August.

Since then, he has gone on to score on his QPR debut against Cardiff City on New Year's Day and followed that up with a further seven starts and six substitute appearances along with a second goal in a 4-2 win over Sheffield Wednesday.

Smyth caught the eye of Michael O'Neill, who fast tracked him into his senior squad for the South Korea friendly in March and, after being given an eight minute role cameo role, the former Linfield hero ended up scoring the winner with just his fourth touch of senior international football.

Now the exciting forward has been rewarded for his efforts with a second cap against Panama.

As the 20-year-old chats enthusiastically and candidly in Northern Ireland's plush Panama City hotel, 5000 miles from home, Smyth is aware that he is living the dream.

"I'm just trying to keep myself calm because it's all hit me at once, it really has just flown in," he admits. "It's been an incredible year, I've loved every minute - but at times it has been tough because moving away from home is a big deal.

"I was 19 and I know a lot of people don't think that is that young but I think it's big moving away from your family. Once I got there I knew I had to make the most of it - I thought if I go home now, I'll never get to taste it again.

"But I don't think I'll ever forget my first training session. I was supposed to train with the under-23s and they had a game, however I wasn't registered to play then. So I had to train with the first team and it was small-sided games.

"I was just running around trying to kick everyone because I wanted the manager (Ian Holloway) to know who I was. I was just being a nuisance. Ever since that day, he kept me with the first team squad. He gave me a chance against Cardiff and I just tried to play that game as though I was playing for Linfield. I've been flying ever since."

With the Blues, Smyth prided himself on being one of the fittest members of the squad, but he was given a rude awakening during his first week of professional football when he realised his levels were nowhere near what QPR required.

"The difference in fitness levels was the first thing I noticed apart from the physical strength," states Smyth. "It was a joke - it felt like I was unfit to what their standards are. I had to work hard, take a few extra hours in the gym, try and build up my fitness gradually. I couldn't do too much as I didn't want to burn myself out but I had to put the extra hours in.

"I feel myself getting there and hopefully this pre-season will improve me even more."

Smyth, even after a year in the professional ranks, also needs to bulk up and increase his 60kg frame. QPR have given him his own individual diet and fitness programme, but he admits he really struggles to put on weight and he has also doesn't want any additional bulk to affect his great attribute - his pace.

"I have my own individual fitness programme, not because I'm weak or anything like that. It's just because I'm small, smaller compared to other players," adds Smyth, who is this week rooming with another Irish League hopeful, Gavin Whyte.

"QPR have everything there to make you the best player you can be and, even though the jump from Linfield to professional football has been ridiculous, what I try and do is embrace it and reach the targets I have set myself."

Smyth has been helped on his professional journey by girlfriend Rebecca Wallace, who moved over to London with him and shared his new life experiences.

He remarks: "I'm right in the centre of London - it's a massive, massive city. So much bigger than Belfast. One thing I obviously miss is family but what I keep telling myself is that they are a phone call away or 50 minutes on the plane.

"But it's massive having my missus with me - I think that she played a big part in making me settled. I don't think she liked it at the start because she's very close to her mum but she's got a job at a school and absolutely loves it now.

"London is massive and there's so many things to do. But in actual fact I don't go out that much in the centre of London anymore because you are constantly being barged out of the way. However, I still get the tube to games. Nobody knows who I am yet so I'm able to travel the three stops in my QPR tracksuit and no-one seems to bother me. People probably think I'm a wannabe or a supporter decked out in a tracksuit."

With a positive, disciplined and infectious attitude, Smyth is on the right track for even greater success.

And by staying true to his Belfast roots, he's most certainly not going to get carried away.

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Our coverage of Northern Ireland's tour to play Panama and Costa Rica is brought to you in conjunction with BetMcLean.

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