My interview with Callum Smith appeared in the official Dunfermline Athletic Football Club Match-Day Programme on Saturday 16th of September, 2017, versus St Mirren. Thanks to DAFC for allowing me to publish this article on my website.
One evening, Dunfermline’s 17-year-old striker got the biggest shock of his life, after finding his name included in a list of players who had been called up by Scotland’s national side. Smith was about to embark on a journey of a lifetime, with the prospect of getting a chance to represent his country – albeit at Under-19’s level – for the first time.
Smith has always wanted to be a footballer. With ties to the junior ranks, where Callum’s dad spent the majority of his career, the local lad had been involved with football since an early age.
“I have always loved football; I have always wanted to be a footballer since I was young and when I was growing up. It started for me at Boys Club – then at Under-15’s level I came here to Dunfermline at Pro Youth level; from there, I have worked my way up into the Under-20’s squad, into the first-team and now I have made my debut for Scotland at Under-19’s level too.”
“My dad has also played football all his life. He has always encouraged me to play,” explains Smith. “My mum and my whole family have been the same – they have always supported me, helped me get to matches and they have been a big help in my career so far. I went to watch my dad when I was younger as he was playing for Hill of Beath and their ground is just along the road from my house! I used to love going to watch my dad! He has always had a big influence on my career: he has always pushed me to go places because when I was younger, I was a bit shy, so I didn’t want to try new things, but, my dad always told me “you are going there” and I am glad he did as I wouldn’t be where I am now without that encouragement.”
Looking specifically at Smith’s youth career, the youngster said:
“I started off as a central-midfielder and I enjoyed that but I realised I had good pace and my dad wanted me to be a striker so I made that move and it was a great choice. Using my pace is a big part of my game now, so I am really glad I have been converted into a striker. To be honest, [moving to Fife Elite] wasn’t much different. It was a kind of the same as a lot of Dunfermline boys got into it too so I knew the majority of them already. At Pro Youth you are training three nights a week where as at Boys Club you are lucky if you train twice a week so it definitely improved me as a player. I feel like it brought my game on as the games and the tempo is a lot faster and the players are sharper, also.”
Callum signed an initial 2-year-deal last summer with the club, as he came to start his apprenticeship with the Pars under the guidance of Under-20’s manager John Potter.
“I didn’t really know Dunfermline were looking at me to begin with but once I had been scouted, I was over the moon. I feel I did well when I came in here last year and that was probably why I got an extension to my contract [until 2019]. It just feels like time has went so quick since I first joined. I mean, I was only playing Under-20’s football last season and now I am in the first-team and getting called up for Scotland Under-19’s!”
The rapid rise of the forward has even surprised himself.
“I didn’t think I would improve this quickly, to be honest. It was a real shock for me, the last few months. It has been amazing though. It is daunting but I feel I have dealt with this quite well when I have made appearances; it really has improved me even more as a player, playing with and against experienced players. You aren’t going to improve if you are still playing at a low level – you need to test yourself and play against guys who are quicker, stronger, better, than you to aid your development.. Guys like Nicky Clark are always trying to help me: in training they will give me tips about my shooting, my movement and just how to play better in general and I feel these guys have helped me a lot also. I feel I have learnt more of the technical side of the game as I have always been quite physical, to be fair. I think it is when the ball is at my feet that I have had to improve on over the last 12 months as I have been quick and strong for a few years now.”
Speaking of his star striker, manager Allan Johnston commented:
“We always liked him, straight from the start. He was involved right from the start; he played well for the Under-20’s, he scored goals; he has definitely improved but he has still to keep on learning and listening too but to be fair to him, he has a great attitude. Just like every player, there always needs to be progression: you are always going to have strengths and weaknesses, but you need to try and improve both. Callum always takes things on board, he is a confident lad and that is great as in the role of striker, you need to believe in yourself. With the work ethic he has, he has given himself the best possible chance of having a great career.”
“It wasn’t really a surprise [how well he done last season]. John [Potter] knew him better than me and I think Pottsy has done a great job with him; the thing is though, he is still improving: I think you forget how young he actually is because he is so physically big. For a striker, the runs he is making off the ball, the composure he has in front of goal, I think it shows you how good he is and the potential he has in years to come so all the signs are good.”
Was Callum one of the youngsters looking to be loaned out this campaign – and has his start to the season changed the manager’s plans?
“Things change come pre-season. Some players come back flying, some come back and they aren’t as good as what they should be. It depends how people start the season, as that is massive. Callum came back in good shape and he doesn’t look out of place in the first-team; he looks like he has played a lot more games and as long as he keeps having that belief then he will do well.”
With Callum scoring on his first appearance this season, as a substitute against Elgin, it has boosted his confidence massively.
“For any striker, scoring goals is massive as it gives you a boost,” explains Johnston.”He is always going to score goals because of the way he plays – he is always running in behind and not just playing in front of teams, but there are bits he needs to work on too but over the next few years while he is here, if he keeps on listening and working as hard as he is right now, then he will continue his development and have no problems with his future career.”
“As soon as I seen that a few of the boys from last year hadn’t signed contracts and I saw the squad size when I came back in for pre-season, I knew I had a real chance; there wasn’t a lot of strikers at that time and then Nicky [Clark] got injured so I knew I was going to get my chance,” says Fifer, Smith. “Even though I was in the squad, I wasn’t sure if I was going to get on against Elgin; I thought I would maybe get a chance if somebody got injured, the gaffer gave me a chance and to get some minutes on the park in a first-team game, as well as score, it was amazing. When I first got told I was going on, I was slightly nervous, but, then, when I got on I was excited and you just forget about everything. It is completely different when you are on the pitch and you are going through on goal and everybody is shouting. That was new to me, but, you just need to keep a cool head and make sure you slot it home. I feel that was the goal that made me believe in myself and realise that I can play in the first-team this season.”
Just two weeks later and Smith was lining up for his first ever start for the Pars against Hearts at Tynecastle.
“I found out I was starting just before the game; I thought I was going to be on the bench but then I found out I was playing! It was a great feeling playing in front of that many people. I am quite glad they told me on the day as if they had told me the night before, I probably would have got nervous due to the fact it was a big occasion for us. On the day, it was just a big rush and that meant I couldn’t really think about anything. I forgot about everything and just treated it like it was a normal game for myself and I think that was the best way to be. I feel like I am an unselfish player and I just want to make the right choice. I felt I did that on the day [by setting up Declan McManus for Dunfermline’s second goal] and looking back now, I am glad I did choose the right option as if I had taken a shot there, we possibly might not have drawn the match. I feel that showed another side to my game, too – I am mature enough, despite my age, to pull the ball back when that is the best option.”
Speaking of his decision to throw 17-year-old Smith into such an important match, the Pars gaffer told us:
“We could quite easily have went with somebody else up front, or even just an extra midfielder, but I think that shows the level of faith we have in Cal, that we know he can step up and play at that level. He came in and done really well. The biggest thing is he doesn’t let anything go to his head; he doesn’t think “that is me made it”, he is still the same guy and he knows he needs to keep practising because he wants to be the best he can be. He is training with the first-team every day and that has to be a good thing for him; the big difference this year is that there is no Under-20’s group so we are all training together and with him playing against top defenders on a daily basis – such as Morris, Ashcroft and M’Voto – it can only help him in his development.”
Was Smith being called up to the Scotland youth side a surprise to the coaching staff at East End Park?
“No, it shouldn’t be a surprise as he is playing first-team football; there are some players involved who are only playing . Under-19’s. There is nothing wrong with that, but when you are in the first-team there are fans there, it is a high-pressure situation; you need to do well as the game means something so I think it is great he is getting so much exposure on the pitch to different teams and styles so early on in his career.”
For Callum, however, he wasn’t expecting a call-up in any way, shape or form.
“I was playing FIFA in my bedroom and I got a phone call from John Potter that I had been chosen and then I saw my name on Twitter – it was a great feeling as there is nothing better than getting a chance to represent your country. When we met up initially, we had a training session at the Oriam in Edinburgh. From there, we stayed in the hotel overnight before flying out to Serbia the next morning. We played the hosts on the Thursday and Ukraine on the Friday. We also played Montenegro. It wasn’t really a new experience for me to be honest as when I was with Fife Elite, we went to Turkey to have a training camp for two weeks, so I had experienced similar situations and scenarios before. When I found out Stuarty [Stuart Morrison – Dunfermline team-mate currently on loan to Edinburgh City] was also chosen, I was over the moon; we shared a room over there and that helped me settle in quickly as well.”
Talking over the three games Scotland had in their short trip to the South-Eastern European country, Smith said:
“We done well, Serbia were a good team. I didn’t play at all in that match. It was hard for us as the pitches weren’t great across there and it didn’t really suit our style. We tried to keep the ball on the deck whereas the other countries were playing a lot of long balls. In the Ukraine game, it was a little bit easier for us and we got an early goal. Then I managed to grab myself a goal and I equalised too to make it 3-3. The manager had told all the players we would get as much game time as he could possibly give us so I had a rough idea that I would be playing against Ukraine. My first goal was ironically a long ball over the top which I chased down to the edge of the box – it bounced in between two defenders and I just got my body in between them and I just volleyed it past the keeper into the roof of the net. My second goal, they played a slack back-pass to the keeper and I read it and because I had anticipated it early enough I was able to nip in and put it through the goalies legs. There wasn’t as much fans at these games as we get here at East End Park but that feeling of playing and scoring for your country, especially as it was my first goal and my debut, it was great and I will never forget it. We finished up by playing Montenegro and I came on as a sub at half-time but I didn’t really get any chances to grab a goal. We drew 2-2 but I felt we all played well and it was an amazing experience.”
Analysing his strikers week away on international duty, former Scotland cap Johnston replied:
“I am delighted for Callum and Stuart – it shows you we have bright talents coming through the ranks here at the club. It also sends out a message to all the other guys, especially at Fife Elite Look at what he has achieved and how much he has improved; my motto is if you are good enough, you will play. It is always great to test yourself against top teams and top players no matter who you play against. It is also great to experience new and different coaches as that can only help progress you on as a player. The only disappointing thing I think from Cal’s point of view was that he didn’t start the following game despite scoring two against Ukraine and for me, that is slightly harsh. If Callum keeps doing what he is doing, it will come [further call-ups]. If he still has the work ethic, willingness to learn and trying to improve every day in training then I am sure he will continue to get in to these squads.”
Concluding by looking to the future, Callum said:
I have gained a lot of experience, playing against lots of different players. Over there, they tried to keep the ball a wee bit more along the back line whereas here, it is about getting the ball forward and into the box as quickly as you can but I think I have learnt a lot from that. My aim now has to be to try and keep getting into the Scotland squad. I have had a taste for it now and I loved it and hopefully I can get it more as the season’s go on. My main aim at the beginning of this season was to try and break through here at Dunfermline and play as many matches as I can, scoring as many goals as I can. I have wanted to be involved with Scotland too and they have both came about pretty quickly, it is a dream come true. The atmosphere definitely boosts you; hearing the fans cheer me on definitely helps me and I hope I can repay that faith with promotion this season. We just need to keep playing the way we are playing – we have a few tough matches coming up but I think this season, we have a right good chance.”