With a 2:1 degree in international management — not to mention experience studying abroad and captaining the university football team — Matt Smith would have been a strong contender for a top City graduate scheme after leaving Manchester University in 2011.
Five years on, he could have even enjoyed multiple promotions through a Square Mile stalwart’s ranks. Instead, the 6ft 6ins striker opted for studs and shinpads over a suit and tie and has climbed the five divisions between the Conference North and the Championship, where he now plays for Fulham.
While many of his contemporaries were already earning significant sums as members of state-of-the-art academies, Smith juggled studies, part-time jobs and football — both for the university and five different non-league sides — before joining Oldham Athletic in League One upon graduation.
“I got a 2:1 and enjoyed my time at uni but it was tough, especially combining my studies with playing part-time football in the Conference North,” Smith told City A.M. “But they were some of the best days of my life. I met great people, came away with a degree, had a good time.”
The majority of footballers have little experience of anything but the game from their early teens; pursuing higher education is given up in order to keep hold of the raffle ticket of an academy place that keeps them in running for the jackpot of a professional contract.
Yet the alternative — and possible future — path for Smith, who has two goals in six starts this season having arrived at Craven Cottage two summers ago following a season with Leeds United, is visible in the careers of coursemates currently working in the City.
“I’m in touch with plenty of them,” says the 27-year-old. “After university, the job market is in London so all of your friends tend to gravitate towards London. I’m lucky in that sense that pretty much all my uni mates bar the odd one are London-based so in my spare time I’m able to meet up with them.
“They work in the City, Canary Wharf, all over. Some work for banks, hedge funds, all sorts. Some started up their own companies and are doing very well.”
While Smith’s background getting to grips with market theory and management accounting is particularly rare amongst professional goalscorers, he is not alone to have risen through the divisions.
Late bloomers Jamie Vardy, Charlie Austin and Rickie Lambert all worked part time while slogging in the lower reaches of English football before belatedly achieving international recognition.
For Smith, his university experience of duking it out with older opponents in unglamorous surrounds, rather than against than fellow academy kids, provided him with an education that he still relies on today.
“The difference [at academies] is everything’s at your disposal, you’re spoon-fed everything whereas you have to look after yourself at non-league level,” he says.
“When I was playing non-league, all the lads had part-time jobs. I might have had uni work, another guy might have been at the factory.
“In my opinion, it [academy football] is a bit of a false way of playing. I think I was lucky in a sense that I was playing adult football right from the get-go really.
“It’s difficult though because university does bring a lot of temptation and it’s not the healthiest way of living. You do have to be disciplined and I’d say it takes a special type of character to be able to juggle the two. It’s not a doddle.”
After four years spent balancing the two pursuits, Smith is now happy to commit to one. He is concentrating on playing football, enjoying living in central London and has not felt the need to dust off the textbooks yet.
Such is the short span of a playing career, however, that a professional reunion with former course-mates in the Square Mile could demand serious consideration in the not too distant future.
“The degree is there and it’s great, but what happens after football remains to be seen,” he says.
“At the minute I’m focused on doing my best in football and trying to make the most out of what I’ve been given and where I am right now.
“An adjustment would definitely be in order. The 8am-6pm is definitely an adjustment from my 10am-12pm now. I have to do something so we’ll wait and see.”
Fulham play Huddersfield Town at Craven Cottage on Saturday 29 October (3.00pm).
Tickets are priced from £20 adults and juniors tickets (under 18s) are just £1 in all areas of the ground. Tickets are available to purchase online at: www.fulhamfc.com/tickets or by calling the Fulham Ticket Office on: 0843 208 1234.