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27 March 2013

Richard Day looks back at the career of the Gills stalwart

Paul, born in East Ham, began his footballing career as a trainee with Southend United where he turned professional in 1990.

Having found his chances limited during his time at Roots Hall, which included a loan spell with Dover Athletic, Paul moved on to Brentford in August 1993 on a free transfer and he went on to make nearly 200 appearances for the Bees.

In August 1997 a £195,000 fee saw him join Gillingham, the first of a number of players to make the journey from Griffin Park. Barry Ashby quickly followed Smith, then came did Brian Statham while the following summer saw both Carl Asaba and Robert Taylor arriving at Priestfield for big money fee’s.

Paul’s debut for the Gills came on the opening day of the season in a goalless draw against Preston at home and netted his first goal two games later in a 2-1 victory over Walsall at Priestfield.

At the end of his first season with the Gills, in which he was ever-present, the no-nonsense midfielder was named the club's player of the year, an award he went on to pick up an unprecedented four times.

He played in both of Gillingham’s visits to Wembley for the League One play-off finals, being one of the unfortunate few to miss from the spot as Manchester City won on penalties in May 1999 before celebrating 12 months later having been a 61st minute substitute, replacing Roland Edge, as Wigan Athletic were beaten 3-2 after extra-time.

Paul had been named club captain at the start of the 1999-2000 campaign, replacing player-manager Andy Hessenthaler who had been appointed player-manager after boss Peter Taylor had moved on.

Talking at the time he said "It means a lot to me being captain. When Hessy was the captain he led by example and I hope I can emulate that by doing my best." Smith certainly did that.

In September 2001 Smudger signed a new long-term contract that was to keep him at the Club until 2005.

After the team had been relegated to Football League One following a heart-breaking last day draw at Nottingham Forest, the 34-year-old, who had been named Player of the Year, left Priestfield in July 2005 after being offered reduced wages – he had scored 49 goals in 394 appearances for the Gills, in eight years at the club.

Paul Smith salutes the crowd after the FA Cup tie against
Leeds United

In July 2005 he joined Walsall but just three months later he returned to Gillingham where he added five more appearances in a loan spell. He was also rumoured to have been interested in taking the assistant-managers job here under Ronnie Jepson.

Then in January 2006 he moved to Swindon Town who were then managed by former Gills team-mate Iffy Onuora but was released in June 2006 after the Robins sacked the boss.

He joined A.F.C. Sudbury in October 2006, but returned to league football when signing for Torquay United in January 2007 on a deal for the remainder of the season and he played eight times for Torquay as they were unfortunately relegated to the Conference.

On the eve of the transfer window in August 2007, he joined Barnet, but just one day later Bees manager Paul Fairclough decided he didn't want the player and released him.

Smith made one appearance for Great Wakering Rovers at the start of the 2007-08 season before moving to St Albans City for whom he made four starts before returning to A.F.C. Sudbury in the October.

It was in May 2008 that he joined Margate as a player-coach, forming part of a new management team headed by another former Gills team-mate, Barry Ashby, but the pair were dismissed just five months later – he had made nine appearances for the Kent club.

Just a week later Smith made Billericay Town his next port of call and he gained some crumbs of comfort when scoring the winning goal on his debut against Margate the following day.

Since leaving the Essex club he has not been involved in football.

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