A tale of belief and perseverance
Jonté Smith smashed a half-century on his debut for Dorking Cricket Club and was immediately asked if he would like a trial at Sussex.
“No, no, this is just recreation for me, I am a footballer,” was the 16-year-old’s immediate response.
His father, Clay, opened the batting for Bermuda at the 2007 World Cup and he is even named — sort of — after former Gloucestershire and South Africa star Jonty Rhodes.
But for him, it was always about making the grade as a professional footballer in England.
He was running and kicking balls from eight months onwards, according to mother Nicky, who played for Bermuda at a netball World Cup in Birmingham.
“For a whole six months at about 1½, he would wear nothing but his football boots to nursery,” she said.
“He had a ball in his hand always, so that he could kick it wherever he went, and we even have professional photos where he refused to put the ball down.”
Jonté travelled from Bermuda with his dad to attend a Manchester United summer camp at the age of 8.
“He was the youngest player there and he did so well that they asked for him to come back the next summer,” Nicky said.
“It was a great experience for him, but at that time we didn’t have British passports and so we thought it was a waste of time and money getting his hopes up.”
But Jonté was not willing to take no for an answer and by the age of 15, he had formulated his own detailed plan for making the move to England the following year, by which time the family had British passports.
“My response was that he had to get a minimum of seven GCSEs and then we would arrange for him to move,” Nicky said.
“He achieved eight and I had friends in England, Beatrice and Dexter Smith, who agreed for him to stay with them while he attended sixth form in Surrey.”
This was the summer of 2010 and, nine years on, he achieved a longtime dream by scoring a hat-trick for Cheltenham Town in their 4-3 Leasing.com Trophy victory over West Ham United Under-21 — the first goals of his professional career.
He was signed by the Robins at the start of September on a deal until January, but the 25-year-old’s journey has been far from straightforward, with several knock-backs along the way.
When he first began studying in England, he made a 40-mile round trip from Whyteleafe to Dorking each day.
“Coming from an island of 21 square miles, we really had no concept of how much he had to travel just to go to school,” Nicky said.
“Clay dropped him to England just after his 16th birthday and he travelled on his own for the first six weeks until we could visit at the end of the summer to ensure he was settled.”
Newdigate was his first senior football team and he also attended Premier Football UK camps, run by David Jervis, who also arranged trial matches.
His parents and younger sister, Hailey, arrived for their visit, but quickly decided to relocate from Bermuda.
“When I saw the commute, I realised that Jonté had held up his part of the bargain and now I needed to hold up mine,” Nicky said.
“We couldn’t expect someone else to help him to get to the next level, so we started searching for accommodation.
“We had just built a house in Bermuda and had only been living in it for a year, but that didn’t matter.
“The house was a material possession and we had vowed when we had Jonté that if he had the chance to play professionally, we would give him every opportunity.
“Of course, his father was convinced it was going to be cricket!”
The family found a house and 13-year-old Hailey enrolled in the same school as Jonté, having initially only thought she was going for a brief vacation.
Jonté was watched in action for Newdigate by a Sutton United scout and promptly joined their under-18s, but he also had a trial lined up at Stoke City.
“David Jervis believed in Jonté and arranged the trial with Stoke,” Nicky said.
“We needed to get there first thing one morning, so I remember we travelled at 3am from Dorking.
“Jonté did well there and they asked for him to come back after their under-18s went on a small tour so that they could look at him again.”
Another club had also been in touch, however.
“He trained with Crawley Under-18s while he waited for the Stoke decision and during one of the trial games, [first-team manager] Steve Evans happened to be there watching,” Nicky said.
“Jonté scored a couple of goals and Steve asked their under-18s coach Simon Rusk, ‘Why haven’t we signed this lad?’ So they offered an under-18 contract, which we gladly took, as Stoke was not guaranteed.
“This was also close to where we stayed, so we could take care of him.
“I have to also slip in there that his father was still trying to push cricket during the summer before all of the football took place!”
Since joining Crawley, Jonté has appeared on loan for Metropolitan Police, Eastbourne Borough, Havant & Waterlooville and Gosport Borough, spent time playing in Finland and Norway, followed by spells at Gloucester City, Lewes, Welling United, Cray Wanderers and, for the second half of last season, Sky Bet League One side Oxford United.
He has also won 12 caps for Bermuda, maintaining a long family tradition of excellence across a range of sports.
“It was a very proud moment for us as an entire family when he won his first cap, as he comes from a line of footballers in my family who have also played for Bermuda,” Nicky said.
“His late great-grandfather Papa Roy would be so proud to see how far he has come.
“He used to be outside watching Jonté shooting in our yard and telling him to use his left because we all knew he could use his right. That’s how Jonté became a two-footed player.”
Clay was also a talented footballer, but chose cricket as his main passion, going on to bat with distinction against the likes of West Indies fast bowlers Courtney Walsh, Patrick Patterson and Franklyn Rose.
Clay’s late brother, Ray, was a Bermuda middleweight champion in boxing, while another sibling, Wendell, was a prolific batsman, becoming the first player to reach 1,000 runs in Bermuda’s annual Cup Match classic.
Jonté’s elder half-brother, Clay Darrell, is a successful cricketer and footballer at domestic level.
Nicky’s mother Carol Bean also represented Bermuda at netball and then coached the national team.
Jonté’s grandfather on his mother’s side, Ralph Bean Sr — Nicky’s stepfather — was one of Bermuda’s most feared goalscorers who played professionally for the Philadelphia Atoms in the former North American Soccer League.
His uncle, Ralph Jr, played for Bermuda Hogges and great-grandfather LeRoy DeGraff, the aforementioned “Papa Roy”, was a founding member and first coach of North Village Community Club, where Jonté started playing at the age of 4 and where Manchester City legend Shaun Goater made his start.
It’s an impressive pedigree and, while Clay still hopes one day Jonté will pick up a bat again, he is extremely proud of the decisions his son has made.
“We put a lot into getting Jonté to where he is and we’re very proud of him,” said Clay, the former Bermuda cricket coach, who now works as a schoolteacher.
“I still hold hope that maybe in his later years when he finishes his football, he’ll come back and play a little bit of cricket because he was a natural.
“He was good enough if he’d stuck at it to have played cricket for Bermuda as well — and he did so at youth level.
“But I have no reservations in saying we are proud he made the choice of football, so we look forward to him moving on to bigger and better things with Cheltenham.”
Clay and Nicky returned to live in Bermuda when aspiring singer and actress Hailey started university.
“I actually went back kicking and screaming because I love England and didn’t want to miss any part of the dream,” Nicky said.
“Bermuda is a lovely place to live, if a bit costly compared with England, but the beaches are amazing and the colourful houses are unique.
“Cricket and football are the national sports, with cricket played from April to September and football from September to April.
“Cup Match in cricket is by far our biggest sporting event; there is a two-day holiday just for the event.
“Most Bermudians have an English team that they support. Clay is a big Manchester United fan and I support Liverpool, so there is a big rivalry in the household when these two teams play [to be continued this weekend] and Jonté follows his father in that respect!”
There is definitely a drive to succeed in Jonté, who has been released by both Crawley Town and Oxford United, but persistence is a trait that runs in the family.
“On both sides of the family, we set goals and stick to them, no matter what,” Nicky said.
“Disappointments will come, but that’s a part of the process. Never give up because your journey is unique.
“I often tell Jonté that the most successful players always have a story that includes adversity, so just keep pushing and believing in yourself.
“My biological father, Robert [Coddington], has also played a huge part in Jonté’s development.
“Above all else, we try to ensure we as a family always stay humble and grounded, and have God at the centre of all that we do. We give thanks and praise daily for the path and journey He’s led us on.”
A large number of friends and family members in Bermuda are willing Jonté to achieve further success in his career.
“We in Bermuda believe that it takes a village to raise a child and, therefore, everyone plays a part,” Nicky said.
“Hence, every team that Jonté has played for that club gains new fans from Bermuda.
“We just had 14 Cheltenham jerseys shipped over for friends and family to support this part of the journey.
“We are so thankful to all of those that have mentored Jonté along the way.
“Every coach, manager and agent, especially SRV Sports Group and Zib Nyatito, who have improved Jonté on and off the field.
“[Then Crawley Town chief executive] Alan Williams’s words of wisdom on the signing of Jonté’s first contract have stuck with us all throughout, and we will always have a special place in our hearts for that club and also for Lewes FC.”
• This article first appeared on the website of Gloucestershire Live on October 12 and has been reprinted with edits through the kind permission of the Gloucestershire Echo
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