Nathan Smith: Port Vale boss rates young defender as future Premier League player
Port Vale centre-half Nathan Smith may not necessarily have been dreaming of a career in the Premier League when he was growing up as a boyhood Stoke City fan two decades ago.
When Smith was born in April 1996, the Potters were a Championship side - and the Premier League, formed when Stoke were still a third-tier team, was only three years old.
But move forward 20 years to his being voted the EFL's Young Player of the Month for August and - if the judgement of League One Vale's manager Bruno Ribeiro is anything to go by - Smith has a decent chance of one day making it to English football's top flight.
"I'm very happy with him," Ribeiro told BBC Radio Stoke. "For me, he is already a Championship player. In a few years, then Premier League.
"He is fantastic. He is strong, only 20 years old and he is still learning every day. He works very hard at his game."
A thigh injury to summer signing Kjell Knops, one of several new defenders brought in by Ribeiro, forced the new Vale boss into giving Smith a chance in pre-season.
But he has taken that chance so well that, in less than two months, he has become a fixture in central defence, been rewarded with a three-year contract extension and now picked up his first award.
In five league matches in August, Vale won three of them, picked up 10 points, conceded just two goals and Smith scored his first goal - the winner in a 1-0 victory at home to Rochdale.
Smith exceeds expectations
"I'm on top of the moon," Smith told BBC Radio Stoke. "This is an award that will always mean a lot to me.
"This was the high end of what we were planning when I reported back for pre-season in June. The target was just to get in the first team, play some games and maybe go out on loan. This has exceeded my expectations."
Having spent the whole of last season on loan in the National League down in Devon with Torquay United, Smith was not sure what to expect when Vale manager Rob Page left for Northampton and the Potteries club turned instead to Portuguese former Sheffield United and Leeds United midfielder Ribeiro.
Along with Ribeiro, in an unparalleled summer of change in Burslem, in came 15 summer signings, most of them foreign imports.
Yet Vale, 12th under Page last season, are now fifth in League One, having conceded just nine goals in eight games. Four of those came in one bad afternoon at Bury - and, even then, Smith did enough to earn a personal tribute from Bury's former Vale striker Tom Pope, who labelled him "as brave as a lion".
Not only that, of the 13 goals the club have scored in 10 games, in all competitions, five have come from Smith and his centre-back partner Remi Streete - three by Smith.
"Together they play very well," added Ribeiro. "I am very pleased with them."
Smith's loan: What difference did it make?
"I have to say thanks to Bruno for giving me the opportunity this season," said Smith, born in the nearby Staffordshire village of Madeley. "But what I have most to say thanks for definitely is last year at Torquay.
"That was a big learning curve for me. The step I needed to go forward."
Having stayed locally the previous season, when he was loaned out further down the non-league pyramid to Stafford Rangers, Smith endured a traumatic first half of the season at Plainmoor.
Torquay were in real relegation trouble, winning just three times in 23 games before Christmas, two of which came in their opening three matches.
But a late season run that brought 10 victories in 16 matches allowed the Gulls to stay up in relative comfort, the steadfast Smith making 39 appearances, while earning another tribute from Torquay manager Kevin Nicholson as being a 'freak of nature'.
Vale chairman Norman Smurthwaite, who now has a potentially profitable asset on his hands, has already gone on record as saying that Smith went to Torquay a boy "and came back a man".
"Living away from home made me grow up quickly," said Smith. "But, in my eyes, the key thing is playing games."
By way of advice to two fellow Vale youngsters both out on loan at National League sides this season, midfielder Ryan Lloyd at Chester and goalkeeper Sam Johnson at Gateshead, Smith added: "Playing first-team football week in, week out is the key to success. If you're sitting around, you're not improving."
Successful young winners
The list of former winners of the Young Player of the Month award who have gone on to play in the Premier League is a long one, going right back to the first, Victor Moses, in December 2009.
Significant progress at Premier League level has also been made by Charlie Austin (March 2010), Connor Wickham (April 2010), Steven Caulker (November 2010), Danny Ings (April 2011), Jonjo Shelvey (November 2011), Wilfried Zaha (October 2012), Sam Byram (February 2013), Dele Alli (August 2014) and Demarai Gray (December 2014).
But Smith is keeping his feet firmly on the floor for now.
"It's a bit too early for that sort of thing," added Smith. "But to have my name alongside names like that will give me a lot of confidence in future."