Gary Connaughton reporting from Tallaght Stadium
Every professional footballer will tell you that setbacks are par for the course for those hoping to make a career in the game. Be it injuries, a loss of form, or simply falling out of favour, all young players can expect bumps on the road over the course of their development.
Will Smallbone knows that better than most.
Having broken through at Southampton as a highly rated young prospect, injuries have derailed what up to that point had been a steady rise through the ranks for club and country.
It looked as though he would become a fixture in the Southampton team at one point, becoming an important part of the side when the season resumed after the break due to the coronavirus campaign back in 2020. However, injuries then took their toll.
First it was a hamstring issue at the start of the following season, something that limited his availability for a number of weeks. He would then rupture his ACL at the start of 2021, keeping him on the sidelines for ten months. Since his return, playing time at club level has been rather hard to come by.
Despite this, there were no doubts about his qualities after seeing him in action for the Ireland U21s last night.
Smallbone put in a brilliant performance in the 3-0 victory over Bosnia & Herzegovina, scoring two goals over his 90 minutes on the pitch. It was the first time he had played a full game since his ACL injury almost 18 months ago.
Powerful, low shot from Will Smallbone finds the net underneath the body of the goalkeeper to give #IRLU21 a 1-0 lead against Bosnia & Herzegovina #COYBIG | #WeAreOne #rtesoccer pic.twitter.com/sLJBFLRJbh
— RTÉ Soccer (@RTEsoccer) June 3, 2022
Second goal of the night for Will Smallbone, an easy tap-in at the back post, to put #IRLU21 3-0 up against Bosnia & Herzegovina. Good work in the lead-up from sub Ollie O'Neill #COYBIG #rtesoccer pic.twitter.com/0k4mXn6XaV
— RTÉ Soccer (@RTEsoccer) June 3, 2022
Speaking after the game, he summed how special it was to score a brace after all he has been through over the last couple of years.
I’m buzzing. If you said before the game that I’d get two goals and the win I’d have snapped your hand off. I had a chance at the end and I would have loved to put that away to get my first international hat-trick, but three goals and a win is a good start...
It’s my first 90 minutes for a long time after my knee injury. Hopefully now I can put that behind me, get a run of games and hit the form that I know I’m capable of hitting.
Smallbone certainly still has plenty of time to fulfil that potential he showed earlier in his career. At 22-years old, he will be hoping to put his recent injury issues behind him.
The game against Bosnia was a good start. The midfielder was named man-of-the-match for his efforts, an honour he very much deserved. Drifting in from the right flank, he showed some beautiful touches and played some excellent passes to split open the visiting defence. His eye for goal was also very much on show when it came to finishing the couple of chances that dropped his way.
This was perhaps the first step in the next stage of his career, something he is keen to progress to. After all, there have been some dark times during his road to recovery.
It was really tough. People underestimate at times how much the big injuries can affect you mentally. I had a good group with my family, girlfriend, and friends around me, they all helped me through that time.
Now, it’s hopefully a time to forget about that period and kick on in a football sense. I want to get as many games, goals, and assists under my belt as possible...
Tonight’s performance can only help me to push on in my own career and try and make something of it now. Before my injury I felt like I was really hitting my stride, but to get a big injury was a huge setback at such a young age, I wasn’t really prepared for it. Now, with a run of games I’m hoping to get back to the form that I showed before.
Monday's game against Montenegro will provide an ideal opportunity to take that next step. Three points in that game would put Ireland well on their way to securing at least a play-off for the Euros, with Smallbone sure to play a key part once again.
He has the talent to become a massive player for Ireland at both U21 and senior level. Now, all he needs is the opportunity to showcase that.