Former All Whites captain been a polarising figure in New Zealand football but is busy making amends, writes Michael Burgess.

When Tommy Smith asked to address an All Whites football team meeting it was not unusual. But his message was.

As he stood and looked across the room at his teammates, some of whom he had known for a decade, others he had barely met, Smith cleared his throat.

He requested that if anyone had a problem with his presence in the team, that they come forward and talk to him, or discuss it with him later.

"I said 'listen, if anybody wants to have a chat with me about anything, I'm here'," said Smith. "But no one took me up on that so I took it as everyone was happy with me coming back into the group. If some of them had issues, I would have been happy for them to talk about it. I offered them that chance but no one came forward."


What would prompt such a gesture? It's something that Smith has never discussed - in detail - until now.

Alongside Winston Reid and Michael Boxall, Smith will be in the heart of the All White's defence today, trying to defy the odds and stop the ominous Peru machine in Wellington and earn a place at next year's World Cup in Russia.

He's a key figure, an experienced professional and a-heart-on-the-sleeve-kind of player, epitomising every that is valued in New Zealand sport. But over the past four years he's also been a polarising figure; one of the most talked about players in modern All Whites history.

Smith made an instant impact as a 20-year-old at the 2010 World Cup, a standout in defence in that memorable tournament. He progressed quickly, and by 2012 he was given the captain's armband, becoming New Zealand's youngest skipper. But within a year things had turned sour between Smith and the New Zealand Football hierarchy, to the point where he sensationally threatened to retire before the 2013 World Cup playoffs with Mexico.

"In hindsight, that was a silly thing for me to say and I do regret saying that now," says Smith. "It was never really my intention; I got that frustrated with how things were going that I said something in the heat of the moment that I shouldn't have said."

The dispute arose when the Fifa window for those 2013 matches was shifted forward, meaning it overlapped with a weekend of club games in England.

West Ham agreed to fly Winston Reid by private jet to assemble with the All Whites in Los Angeles, but the timing and location of Tommy Smith's Ipswich match meant he couldn't arrive until after the deadline for the training camp.

"I asked if I could play my club game and then meet up 12 hours later but there was no compromise there whatsoever," says Smith. "It was just 'no, it's not happening, you're coming' and I felt it was unreasonable. I get paid by my club and that's my job. It is great thing to be involved in the All Whites and it's a bonus but I felt they could have provided a little bit of leeway. I don't think I would've have even missed a training session; it was flying in in the morning, instead of the previous evening. I took umbrage with that and tried to go through the right channels but they weren't budging."

Smith relented, and was captain for the two matches. An under-prepared All Whites side, missing the injured Reid, were thrashed 9-3 on aggregate. Smith played well in the difficult circumstance but cut a frustrated figure after the Wellington match. He made himself unavailable for the next match against Japan and in August 2014 New Zealand Football revealed Smith had been given a year's leave from international football.

He returned a few months later - to play China and Thailand in November 2015 - and talked about taking steps to mend relationships with the senior players. But the second chapter didn't last long; he was unavailable for the following game against Oman in November 2015 for personal reasons, which were later revealed to be an engagement proposal to his girlfriend while various family members were visiting England. He then pulled out of the 2016 Nations Cup in Papua New Guinea. The All Whites were already missing a stack of talent, and Smith's decision was the last straw for coach Anthony Hudson.

"Tommy has not been able to commit to us again, and as a result I will not be selecting him for the All Whites going forward. It is too disruptive to our preparation," the coach said.

That looked the end of the road for Smith, at least while Hudson was in charge. Yet he was given yet another chance earlier this year, after successfully burying the hatchet with Hudson over coffee in London.

"I reached out to him and asked if we could meet, to see if there was any way forward," Smith said. "We got through a few of the issues that I felt were affecting us off the pitch and he explained that things were different now and how professional things had become here. It really opened my eyes and impressed me - that's why I wanted to come back and be a part of it."

Forgiven, yes, but it took a long time for fans to forget. Despite his undoubted prowess, many supporters questioned his loyalty and dedication to the cause. He was an opportunist, only interested when the big games come around.

"I could see where people were coming from but they didn't know all the ins and outs," said Smith. "I didn't really want to go into it publicly because there were a few individuals that I didn't agree with, in the background of NZF. But the personnel have all changed now and I couldn't ask for anything more from an off-field perspective."

Smith also points out that his commitment wasn't questioned earlier in the decade.

"For a good three-year period I hardly missed a game," he said, referring to the 24 times he played between March 2010 and November 2013. "At the 2012 Nations Cup I played every game at that tournament - five in nine days which wasn't healthy for me. I lost about six kilos due to the playing conditions. You could see that the commitment has been there from me but at that moment I didn't feel I was getting enough back from New Zealand Football."

Looking back, Smith is philosophical about his time away.

"It was a buildup of everything that had happened," he says. "I did need that time away and what has helped is that the people have changed behind the scenes. It did me good as well. It gave me a chance to nail down my place at Ipswich and improve my game there. Obviously I've missed out on caps and tournaments and I may live to regret that in the future ... "

But for now Smith is focused on the massive Peruvian challenge, starting at Westpac Stadium today. "It's great to have a full-strength squad which we haven't had for a long time," he says. "We're quietly confident we can go and cause an upset."

Magician from Macclesfield

Tommy Smith was born in Macclesfield, England, before his family moved to New Zealand when he was eight.

They lived in Papamoa, before relocating to Auckland so Smith could play football at Westlake Boys' High School. He was spotted by an Ipswich scout and gained a scholarship, then a contract, moving to the East Anglia club as a 16-year-old. He's still there, the longest serving player at Portman Rd with 266 games. Smith is settled, and has set up his own academy, the Tommy Smith Soccer School.

"It's a one club town so you are well known but the people are very good," says Smith. "They leave you to it, the most you get is people asking for a photo or to sign things - they never come and bug you."

He still harbours ambitions of reaching the Premier League with Ipswich. The club reached the playoffs in the 2014-15 season, and have finished just outside them on several other occasions.

"As a club and the players, we all want to be in the EPL," said Smith. "We have come close on a couple of occasions and hopefully we can give it a good go again."