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Jacob Gardiner-Smith - Life as a Pro Footballer

Who are you?

My name is Jacob Gardiner-Smith and last season I was playing for Wycombe Wanderers as a professional footballer. I've just had a serious knee operation so I'm currently out of action.

Who are your biggest inspirations?

Ronaldinho has got to be up there, for his footballing ability. Then my good mate, Luke O'Nien. I look up to him a lot and he plays for Sunderland at the moment. He's ledge and I've honestly learnt so much from him, he's 'model pro' material - literally, he's next level. Away from football, I can't think of too many who I'd say are role models. Those 2 stand out to me then from United, obviously Pogba and Herrera.

How did your journey to becoming a footballer start?

It started when I was 6 or 7 playing Sunday league football for my local team, Chorleywood. Then when I got a bit older, in year 6 at primary school, I started getting picked up by scouts. It was only development centres everywhere really, it wasn't academy. Then I went for a few trials, like at QPR and Watford and nothing really worked out.

My first opportunity really came abroad when I went to Russia and I was 16 at CSKA Moscow. I spent a year there and then signed on professional terms at Zenit Saint Petersburg for 2 years. That's it in brief but it wasn't easy as a kid, the biggest thing that was holding me back was my size, I was about 4 foot tall back then, so skinny and small.

What was it like playing abroad?

It was wicked at first. I went out for a trial in October, around 2016 or 2017. I remember going out for a week and playing out of my skin. I think it was the standard, I was so excited and so ready to prove myself - with better players, I felt like I played better. Sometimes you play at a higher standard and you can't keep up but I felt I was playing better.

I trained with the B team for a week mixed with the U23s. The B team manager pulled me to the side at the end of the week and said I need to see you play in a game. He invited me to a winter training camp in January so I went to Spain with them and played against lots of big times like Real Betis, Sevilla and Cadiz. I did really well on trial and impressed them again there but that was tough, that was the hardest I've ever trained in my life.

Morning session, I'd come off the pitch with blisters from the running, the keep-ball, everything and then lunch, sleep in my room for an hour then an evening session: possession, running, everything. When we were there, I couldn't afford to have a late night. I couldn't afford to eat the wrong things or not take a sleep after training. It catches up with you because everyone else is doing the right thing. If you're not doing it, you stick out like a sore thumb.

What was it like when you returned to England?

I came back and I was confident (in a good and bad way) that I'd find a club. I was a bit immature and inexperienced as to how cutthroat football is. How, it doesn't matter where you've played or who you are, the game owes you nothing. Just because you're good enough and just because you deserve something, in football, that doesn't mean you get it. There are 1000s of boys who are good enough to play at a level and deserve to play at a level but they don't get it because football doesn't work like that.

I went on trial and stayed at a club for too long - I got told I wasn't getting offered a contract with a week to go before the season started and found myself scrambling. I dropped into non-league. I was told to come to St. Albans City in the Conference South. Play minutes, I'll do well and work my way back up. Went there, couldn't get on the pitch, it wasn't the right place for me. I had to drop down another league further to Hendon.

It's a big step down the ladder and for your mental head-space, it's not good - I was coming from training with Champions League players like Hulk and next minute I find myself playing in step 3 of non-league. It's a big jump and if you're not head-strong enough to deal with it and take the rough with the smooth, it can really affect you and some people don't make it back up the leagues.

How has injury affected you?

I remember getting injured and straight away knowing that it was bad. You hear it, you feel it. I knew I'd done my ACL and didn't realise I'd done a lot of other bad things as well. The first 5 or 6 days were surreal, I'd wake up from sleeping and think 'I've actually done it'... you don't actually comprehend it and its seriousness.

It's such a big thing, you're not really thinking about how long you're going to be out for. The weeks after were hard; it starts to set in that every single day you've got to limp around on crutches. You can't just do simple things easily, every thing is a chore. I had my surgery. I remember getting the results of my scan before I had my surgery and breaking down. I've cried loads of times about it and I'm not ashamed to say it but that's completely natural. Your body is going through a lot of trauma when you get injured.

Now I'm in a space where I've got a routine, I know I've got certain rehab to do. The main thing for me is making sure I do what I need to do every single day even when I don't feel good. You're going to have days where you feel good and days where you feel bad. It's about being consistent.

How do you motivate yourself?

Self-belief and grit. I've always had challenges and had a lot of setbacks and disappointments in my whole playing career. My family have always told me to keep going: with a 'you'll get there eventually' and 'it's always possible' attitude. That resonated and stuck with me. It's hard to impose yourself in certain games that are up in the air, when your team aren't playing the football you want and the manager is asking you to do certain things. I've just got to keep persevering because if I keep working hard, eventually it's going to pay off.

Who would your dream teammate be and why?

My dream teammate would be Pogba just because I'm a bit of a fanboy for him. Then best players I've played with in England, it's tough, I'd say: Dominic Gape is very good, same with Curtis Thompson. They're both Wycombe players in the Championship now. Then abroad, you've got crazy players like: Dzyuba, captain of the Russian national team and Javi Garcia, who played for Man City.

What would you be doing if you didn't play football?

I haven't really thought enough about it but I definitely want to do something with languages because I want to learn more. I speak Russian but I want to learn French, so something to do with that or something in sport. But I couldn't be a coach.

What is your favourite YG item?

Definitely the hat for me but I'm a big fan of the black hoodie too.

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