Teen keeper reveals his unforgettable first season in the Hyundai A-League
What does it feel like when star footballers in flashy cars drop you off in front of your school?
Or your mates watch you on TV in the Hyundai A-League and share videos of your saves on Facebook?
Or random strangers on buses wish you well?
Welcome to 18-year-old Keegan Smith’s ridiculously amazing life as a Wellington Phoenix footballer.
“It’s all happened pretty fast, to be completely honest. I don’t think anyone could’ve seen it happen as quickly as it did. Or happening at all,” the talented keeper tells www.a-league.com.au.
Smith’s story is the stuff of dreams.
A virtual unknown who made his name as a junior at Ellerslie FC and Sacred Heart College in Auckland, he was spotted by Wellington and plucked out of the club’s youth ranks for his senior debut on the opening day of the season.
“I didn’t have time to prepare for it. On Friday I was a normal student, then on Monday people really knew my name,” Smith recalls.
“It was unbelievable. I played in front of quite a few people at Westpac on Sunday [against Adelaide in October], and I was back to school on Monday.
“My close mates treated me the same but it was a bit weird with teachers coming up to me saying ‘you played well on the weekend’.
“It took a little getting used to because I couldn’t just tell people I played alright; they could see my games on TV!
“I made a save late in the game and all my mates were sharing it on Facebook, so I had to untag myself a few times.
“It all felt a little awkward because I don’t like to blow my own trumpet but it’s a bit hard when the school’s loving it and your mates love it because you play for the local team and you’re on TV.
“I remember one time on the bus coming home from school and a random lady wished me good luck for the weekend.
“It hadn’t clicked that she looked at me as the Wellington Phoenix goalkeeper, as opposed to just a boy in a school uniform.
“So that was a bit surreal moment getting recognised.
And having professional footballers in nice cars drop you off – rather than taking the school bus – is a bit of buzz, too.
“They’re all good blokes [Phoenix players]. Things like, ‘stay in school, make sure you finish’.
“The boys have been fantastic, giving me support and advice and even offering me rides back to school after training.
“Sarpreet [Singh] lives out that way so he’d drop me off at school.
“It was quite funny because once I was dropped off in quite a cool car and a couple of boys were looking at me like ‘whoa, who’s car is that?’ I was buzzing.
"It was quite good, actually, very good, because otherwise, I’d have to go on the bus.”
Smith has now finished school at Scots College and is studying Sociology and Philosophy at University via correspondence, thereby allowing him more time to concentrate on his football life.
“My favourite topics in school were the classics, History and English. George Orwell’s alright.
“I read quite a lot of books. The librarian at Scots helped me out. She’d let me know if any cool books came in.
“Philosophy seemed quite interesting so I thought I’d give it a crack at Uni. And Helen from the PFA has been absolutely fantastic in helping me out with this. She took me out for coffee and even paid for me!
“She’s helped so much because my parents are in Auckland so she’s helped with the technical side of applying for Uni.”
Smith lives with Amy and Shaun, a 30-something couple who are his host family. He describes them as like an “Uncle and Aunty”.
“And they’ve taught me how to cook because Mum and Dad did it all when I grew up. They have a dog. I’ve always wanted a dog. I get to pat a dog when I get home from training.”
It’s a welcome support network, given Smith’s Mum and Dad aren’t in Wellington. But he’s forever grateful for what his parents did for him and his sister.
As for football, Smith’s stats are impressive from his six appearances to date in the Hyundai A-League.
He has made three saves per game this season, the third most of any goalkeeper in the competition (Vedran Janjetovic 5, Jamie Young 4).
His passing accuracy of 76% is seven percentage points better than any other goalkeeper in the competition (Vedran Janjetovic 69%).
“I’ve got a great learning environment here,” he says.
"Even just the little things, like demanding the warm up to be the way you want it to be. Not settling for anything less that will help you perform on the day.”
And Smith hasn't been afraid to assert his presence on the park, barking orders at his experienced defenders lead by the record-breaking Andrew Durante at centre back.
He even blew a kiss to Brisbane Roar striker Massimo Maccarone before the Italian great – more than twice Smith’s age - lined up to take a penalty against him at Westpac.
After Maccarone scored there was a scuffle as the Italian gestured to Smith to show more respect.
Smith recalls the incident but is clearly happy to play it down.
“There was a bit of banter,” he said.
"It wasn’t to him personally. It was sort of to the penalty taker. But of course it became quite a big deal and it brought up my public profile a bit.
“I knew he played for Italy, I didn’t realise he’d played at the top for such a long time.
“He’s a great player of course. He’s very, very, very good. He scored two against me so I guess he won the battle on that day.
“It was the sort of stuff that gets said on a football field. A bit of banter is how I’d put it.”
It’s this “crazy” streak that Smith has taken from his heroes of the past.
Smith is a Liverpool supporter.
And one of their former keepers influenced his love of “theatrical” shot-stoppers.
"I began as a striker. I don’t remember becoming a keeper. It just sort of happened. I went in goal and I was quite horrendous.
"But I always liked the crazy keepers like Oliver Kahn and Peter Schmeichel.
“I’m a fan of Bruce Grobbelaar. He was proper crazy. I rate that about keepers.”