Jonté Smith changes scenery in Irish deal with Ballymena
Bermuda striker Jonté Smith has returned to competitive football at club level, with Northern Ireland his latest destination.
The 27-year-old was signed by Ballymena United, of the Danske Bank Premiership, in time to make a 90-minute debut in a 1-1 draw at home to Glenavon on Saturday.
Smith, who signed on undisclosed terms, had been without a club since departing Woking, of the Vanarama National League in England, as a free agent in the summer.
The last hurdle was to receive international clearance so that he could don the No 27 at the heart of the Ballymena attack.
His last competitive football had come on international duty with Bermuda during the Concacaf Gold Cup qualifiers in Florida in July, but he hit the ground running with his new club, who share the Sky Blues nickname with England’s Coventry City.
He was given a warm welcome by the fans at Warden Road, but an even warmer one by the opposition — a boot to the head by Glenavon defender Mark Haughey proving the talking point of the first half.
After lengthy debate over whether the foul occurred in or outside of the penalty area, a free kick was taken and midfielder Leroy Millar was just wide with a header.
No matter, Smith had made his mark.
He later had a shot on the turn go just wide and then played his part in a move that saw Jude Winchester go close with a shot from distance.
An entertaining first half ended with Smith having a header saved as Ballymena laid siege on Declan Brown’s goal.
“I feel I trained well and felt comfortable and all has gone well from there. It was a bit of a rush to get it all cleared this morning ahead of tomorrow's game, but I believe it all came through with a minute to spare and I'm glad to move forward as a Sky Blue now.”
Northern Ireland will make the fourth country that Smith has ventured to ply his trade as a professional footballer — after Finland, Norway and extensive spells up and down the leagues in England — and he feels those experiences will hold him in good stead.
“I moved from Bermuda to play football when I was 16 years old,” he said. “I've played in both Finland and Norway, so travelling is not new. I love to experience different cultures and environments and so settling in here won't be a problem. I'm looking forward to meeting the fans tomorrow and giving them a performance. As a striker I pride myself on goals over all else, and goals is what the manager wants, so that's what I'm here to do.”
Matthew Fitzpatrick gave the visiting side the lead on 51 minutes, following up on a rebound, and Ballymena battled hard without providing the same quality as in the first half.
A deserved first point of the season was earned in the 90th minute when a goalline clearance fell to Ryan Waide at the back post and he levelled matters with a deflected strike.
The point improved their position in the 12-team division to tenth, having lost their first two.
Manager David Jeffrey hopes the signing of Smith can add some impetus — especially in the wake of injuries to two key players.
“Following on from David [striker David Parkhouse] and Josh’s [midfielder Josh Kelly] injuries, we knew we had to make every effort to see if we could strengthen outside the transfer window, given the potentially lengthy period we will miss them,” Jeffrey said.
“David was signed to lead the front line, but was unfortunate to be on the end of a tackle that has curtailed his start with us. We were against the clock to identify, bring across and observe any new players, but Jonté came with good recommendations. He was as keen to have a look at us as we were him and he has taken part in training with utmost professionalism.
“Ultimately from what we have seen, every box has been ticked for both him and ourselves. I am absolutely delighted and have to say thanks to those who worked tirelessly until late last evening and then picked the baton up early this morning to ensure paperwork was completed to have him cleared in time for Saturday.”
Smith is the third Bermudian in modern times to cross the Irish Sea in pursuit of professional football, after goalkeeper Freddy Hall (Limerick) and former Bermuda captain Danté Leverock (Sligo Rovers).
Ballymena are next in action tomorrow when they face Harland & Wolff Welders in the first round of the Toals Co Antrim Shield. Kick-off is 3.45pm Bermuda time.