Tommy Black came through the ranks at Arsenal alongside his older brother Michael, and the promising midfielder had trials with England schoolboys in his youth. Part of a successful Arsenal youth team, Tommy signed a professional contract with Arsenal in 1998 and spent a further two years at the club managed by Arsene Wenger. Black arguably spent the best years of his career to date at Crystal Palace whom he joined in 2000 and the Palace fans immediately warmed to him. A succession of loan spells was followed by a move to Southend United that didn’t go exactly as planned, before spells at non-league clubs. Now a player-coach at Hemel Hempstead Town, 30 year old Smith is still confident that he has the ability and ambition to play at a higher level once more.
Tommy you were one of the first batch of youngsters coming through under Arsene Wenger during his early years at the club… Did you see much of Arsene Wenger in those days and what was he like as a coach?
We had very limited time with him the ones who were coming through, because he was very keen on young players earning their opportunity to play with the first team. We had separate changing rooms where you had to aspire to get into the first team changing room, so he was very much if you do well then you’ll get your rewards. He was always honest with me, he always pulled me aside and had a chat with me as a young lad and told me what he thought of me and what his expectations were of me, so he was very good yeah.
Was there a great emphasis on youth in those days, or is it simply a modern development at Arsenal?
He was always big and into youth development. It was still early days, so I think he was still assessing the actual role of the youth system and what Arsenal’s youth set up was when he first came in, but he certainly wanted to bring players through. The hard thing with Arsenal is sometimes they demand success and when you try and nurture a player it is hard to keep the fans happy when they demand success straight away.
How were you treated by the first teamers of the time, like Vieira, Bergkamp, Adams and the Ian Wright’s of this world?
They were all very good to me, I never had any problems at the club. As young kids anyway you don’t say boo to a goose, you’re quite quiet even if your personality’s quite loud, so you pretty much do as you’re told. They try and bring you on, they talk to you, they try and educate you and pass on their knowledge. There was such experience there and players themselves who had come through the ranks, like Tony Adams, Ray Parlour, so they appreciated what we were going through at the time and tried to help me.
I know it’s hard to choose but would you say that there was a best player that you played with at Arsenal?
Probably not you know, there were different players who had different qualities, that’s including the players when I was in the youth team and playing in the reserves. It’s very tough, you’ve got Thierry Henry whose pace was electrifying and he was individually fantastic. Then you’ve got people like Dennis Bergkamp who was totally different in many respects, you could make any run you wanted and he’d find you. It’s tough to say, there were that many good players that it’s difficult to pinpoint one.
Who would you say had been the biggest influence throughout your career?
There have been loads actually. I’ve always followed my brother (Michael) and he’s been a massive influence on me and is probably the reason why I play football. My older brother was also at Arsenal coming through the ranks and I sort of followed him to Arsenal and he’ll always be someone I talk to as he’s got a fantastic knowledge of the game and ask opinions of. Obviously coaches have influenced me along the way, but what I’d say in terms of inspiration and motivation I’d always talk to Michael and he’d advise me the best way possible and nine times out of ten he talks a lot of sense.
Do you remember many of your first team appearances for Arsenal?
It was probably about ten years ago as I left there when I was twenty / twenty one. I remember I played at Everton, I was on the bench for a few, I think I played at Newcastle as well.
Do any stadiums that you have played in during your career stand out for having a really good atmosphere?
The one that sticks out is probably actually when I made my debut in the squad at Arsenal. We played, funnily enough in the Champions League, Arsenal played Panathiniakos away. And I just remember it being very hostile, when we turned up the day there was a big thing in the paper about Arsene Wenger taking all of his kids out there to play in the game because it was pretty insignificant. I just remember as much as the press thought it was insignificant, we turned up and there were three hundred fans outside when we had to train the night before and throwing things at the coach windows. So for an insignificant game it was quite intimidating, and the passion that they showed at the turnstiles that night and obviously the Arsenal fans that had travelled there as well. It was a real experience for me especially being my first experience in that environment and the stadium was awesome.
How do you rate the current Arsenal team and do you feel it is equipped to win the title this season?
I think they’ve got a great chance to be honest with you. I’ve not been there for a while now, but I will always have an affiliation with the club. I think they’ve got a very good opportunity, they’ve worked themselves back into the title recognition and with none of the big teams left to play, they’re still going to drop points against each other and it’s about Arsenal maintaining their form and grinding out results when they need to.
Tommy you soon moved on to Crystal Palace where you spent your longest period of your career… How did you enjoy your time with Crystal Palace?
I really enjoyed it, the fans were fantastic to me. I think I was the kind of player they warmed to. I worked hard, I was pretty positive when I got the ball and I think when fans see that they react to it. I really enjoyed my time there, it was very disappointing when it came to an end, but it had to come to an end and I think it probably was the right time to move on.
What was the difference between the Championship and the Premiership and do you feel you had to adapt yourself as a player?
Not really, you can see for yourself now when you watch the Championship it’s just as strong. What I would say is that I didn’t see it as a step down at all, I saw it as a step forward in furthering my career as a footballer. I may have had a long career at Arsenal, but when you’re twenty / twenty one you want to kick on and you want to start achieving at an early age. So I definitely saw it as a step forward, and the players who were there when I arrived, you had Neil Ruddock, Jamie Smith, Andy Linighan, Dean Austin, players that were renowned Premiership players at the time. I certainly thought it was a step forward.
Can you remember any notable highlights during your time there?
There’s been quite a few, I remember we beat Leicester in a cup game down at Leicester’s old ground (Filbert Street) and that would definitely be a highlight, no-one expected us to win down there but we beat them 4-2. Obviously, funnily enough staying up in the first year I went there, we weren’t playing great at one stage in the season and on the last day we had to go to Stockport and get a result and that was certainly one of the most memorable occasions. And then obviously when we got promoted to the Premier League it was a fantastic day out down in Cardiff and a well-earned result and we got our just rewards.
Obviously Palace are struggling now having gone into administration, what are feelings about the current situation there?
It’s a shame, it’s another club I hold quite close to my heart and it’s a terrible shame what’s going on there, but we went through a similar situation there I think before Steve Bruce came in as manager. So I think they’re fully aware of what it takes to come out of a situation like that and hopefully it can be resolved as soon as possible, because it’s a fantastic club, a big club, they treated me fantastically, so you want to see clubs like that do well.
Is Paul Hart the right man to keep Palace in the Championship?
I think with the players they’ve got, they’ve got a young squad, I know Paul Hart’s been around the last few years, but initially he started off at Nottingham Forest training the young kids there, and they’ve got a lot of young kids at Palace. Also Dougie Freedman has gone in with him who I know very well from my time at Crystal Palace. He’s got a very good head on his shoulders, he knows the game, he’s very articulate in what he wants to achieve so I think it will be a very good partnership.
Tommy since leaving Palace you have had spells at a plethora of clubs… Just how competitive is it to get contracts with clubs in the lower leagues, given they have smaller squads and smaller budgets to spend on players?
It wasn’t too difficult, I went on loan a lot when I was at Palace, so I built up a good enough reputation so that a few clubs were interested. I chose to go to Southend, and in hindsight I’ll never regret it but at the time I’d probably have chosen one of the other options given how things went there. But it wasn’t too tough, I made a decision to go there and unfortunately it wasn’t the right one at the time.
I understand you’re at Hemel Hempstead now?
Yeah, I took a job as player coach at Hemel Hempstead. I injured my ankle at the beginning of last season and when I came back it was very difficult to secure a contract somewhere because the season was half way through. So this offer came up, where I want to have a look at the other side of the game as well as playing and keeping fit and doing what I enjoy doing best, so I jumped at the opportunity. The one thing that this has taught me is that the fire is still burning in my belly and at thirty years of age I still want to carry on playing.
As well as carrying on playing is coaching something you will look to do in the future?
Definitely, I think that if you asked most footballers that it would be something that they are interested in. You know, we’ve had so many people influence us, as players why not try and pass on that knowledge yourselves, I think it would be selfish not to. It might not be the right thing in the future, but I’ll certainly give it a go and it’s something I’m interested in, so hopefully I’ll be pretty good at it as well. But hopefully that’ll be a little way off yet as I’m still fit and young enough and I feel that I’ve got a lot more to offer.
What sort of level do you think you could still be successful at now?
I’m pretty self-confident, to be honest with you I could still play at Championship level, I don’t think that’s beyond me. I know I certainly have the ability, it’s just a case of getting that opportunity again and really once given that opportunity taking my chance. I know what I can achieve in terms of how good I feel I am and I’m sure I’d be an asset to anyone interested in taking me on.
When you do finally hang up your boots how would you like to be remembered as a footballer?
As an honest hard working footballer, as well as having a little bit of ability and the passion to drive on. You know, just being honest, hard working, and someone who pleases people and gets the job done.