Ex-Brisbane captain Matt Smith makes a splash in Thailand
If former Brisbane Roar captain Matt Smith ever gets carried away with his lucrative lifestyle at high flying Bangkok Glass FC in the Thai Premier League, there is a sobering reminder nearby of what he came from -- along the grimy roads from Bangkok's Don Muang airport.
That's where you'll find the no-frills, student accommodation at which Smith stayed eight years ago when he was an unknown defender for Great Britain at the 2007 World University Games in Thailand.
Far away from Bangkok's tourist spots, there was no time for sightseeing trips to ancient temples or the floating markets.
"Playing six games in 11 days meant that when we weren't training or playing, we were sleeping," Smith told ESPN FC. "We finished eighth out of 16 teams. The majority of the squad were on scholarship in the U.S. system and were hoping to get picked up by pro clubs afterwards."
Less than a month earlier, Bangkok had co-hosted Australia at the 2007 AFC Asian Cup. But this wasn't on Smith's radar as he embarked on a six month backpacking trip around Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam that would change his life.
In Laos, he met his future wife, Aicha. Several months later, they moved to Queensland where Smith made the dramatic rise from semi-professional player -- with state league clubs Palm Beach and Brisbane Strikers -- to one of the A-League's most successful ever captains and a fully-fledged Socceroo.
He was rejected three times in A-League trials before coach Ian Ferguson from North Queensland Fury gave him a six-week contract in 2009 that would turn out to be a stepping stone to the all-conquering Brisbane Roar side.
"I never stopped wanting to get better and always had that hunger to do well," he said.
That same appetite has driven Smith to succeed in his first eight months in Thailand. Just past the halfway point of the season, Bangkok Glass have defied expectations to share the TPL lead with more fancied Buriram and Muang Thong United.
Smith has played every minute of all 25 games in different competitions, and has chipped in with four goals, to be named in the TPL's Best XI by more than one local media outlet.
"The style is quite different to the A-League and I'm learning all the time," he said. "The TPL is less physical and I've found out in my time here already that I cannot challenge and tackle like I would in Australia.
"There are more teams in the league, with promotion and relegation, so the clubs' mindset is also different. And the scheduling has meant that we have some busy periods, sometimes with games every three to four days in a two month period."
Last Sunday's 3-2 home victory over Chiangrai United extended Bangkok Glass' unbeaten run to six matches. After playing in the AFC Champions League qualifiers in February -- including a 3-0 win against Malaysian champions Johor Darul Ta'zim -- Smith is on course to take part in Asia's elite club competition with the Glass Rabbits next season.
But the 32-year-old, who won three A-League championships with Brisbane Roar between 2011 and 2014 -- two as captain -- admits that his adopted nation of Australia is never far from his thoughts. His former club face Western Sydney Wanderers in the FFA Cup Round of 32 next Tuesday.
"The Roar and the A-League are always on my mind because I had so many good experiences and am still in frequent contact with people like Thomas (Broich) and Bes (Berisha)," he said. "But I do not regret the choice to leave because I felt it was the best thing for me and my family."
The Smiths have three children under the age of seven who go to international private schools in Bangkok. Three years ago, they had their marriage celebration on the Thai island of Koh Samui.
Having signed a two year contract, he's one of five imports at Bangkok Glass, who play at the 13,000 capacity Leo Stadium, 40 kilometres north of Bangkok. Two of the foreigners are Spanish, like head coach Ricardo Rodriguez -- the former Malaga assistant boss who has also worked in Saudi Arabia.
"Before I arrived I was told that Bangkok Glass were among the best run clubs in Thailand and it's met my expectations," he said. "The club has its own stadium, training facilities, player accommodation and restaurant. The support staff, sports science used and preparation are impressive.
"We are building and performing well as each week progresses. It should be an exciting second half of the season."
With three international caps all won under previous national coach Holger Osieck, Smith is probably not on the radar of his former Brisbane Roar boss Ange Postecoglou who has shown preference to younger centre-backs like Trent Sainsbury and Matt Spiranovic.
But with the national coach due to visit Kuala Lumpur later this month, he could do worse than to make a side trip to Bangkok to watch the Sussex-born defender.
Like another late bloomer in national captain Mile Jedinak, Smith is the personification of determination and persistence. Before coming to Thailand eight years ago, he was working part-time in an English supermarket as he finished his masters' degree in sports management.
"I was one of the lucky football players who got a chance later on in life but so many didn't," he said.
Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.