Saint Smyth of the ‘Bridge – Charlie Smyth’s story

Mayobridge’s Charlie Smyth recently signed for NFL side New Orleans Saints. Michael McMullan spoke with two men who know him well, clubmate Tom O’Hare and former coach Philip McEvoy

CHARLIE Smyth is in dreamland. Five years ago, a fresh-faced 17-year-old punched send on an email asking for a shot at the NFL.

It took a while, but last Friday he got way more than a reply. The New Orleans Saints touched base with something real.

Their scouts saw what they needed and slid a contract under his nose. And there he was. Saint Smyth, the latest kicker on their roster.

His phone has been red hot since. Messages of congratulations flashed in from everywhere.

In a succinct social media post, he told followers the work starts now. It’s about moving from a player to a starter. Kicking in the big time is the carrot he’s dangling.

Currently back home, another former Down ‘keeper, Patrick Kielty, has invited him to pull up a seat on Friday’s Late, Late Show.

Thursday’s call is to his alma mater, St Colman’s College and NFL coach Tadhg Leader’s fully subscribed open session for kickers with aspirations of following in Smyth’s footsteps.

Last Friday’s news was life-changing but for Smyth, sport has always been about kicking.

Playing as an Ulster winning goalkeeper was a later vocation. Until Cathal Murray handed him the number one jersey for ‘The College’s’ MacRory Cup team, he plied his trade outfield.

COOL HEAD…Charlie Smyth in the colours of Down

Tom O’Hare chats about the recent banter of former Mayobridge manager Ciaran McKeever joking about himself and Pat Joe Magee being those who’d get a few bob from a cut if there was a finder’s fee from the amateur world of GAA to life in professional game.

“He always had a great kick,” recalls O’Hare.

A coach with other youth teams around the club, O’Hare did have Smyth under his wing for a brief one-game spell for the club’s third team.

Some of the young guns would’ve stepped up but Smyth’s flame burned too bright and was soon elevated.

“From no age he was over kicking 50s, from when he was 14. He did put a lot of practice into it.”

From day dot, it was football and he couldn’t miss. He was surrounded by it. Charlie’s father Leo has been refereeing for the last three decades after calling time on his ‘Bridge playing career.

His mother Julie teaches in the local primary school where Charlie would then spend time coaching the club’s players of the future.

Charlie is the middle child of three. His sisters Mollie and Caitlin are part of the club’s camogie team. Sport is in the family.

Their grandmother, Lena Smyth, who O’Hare called the unofficial Queen of the ‘Bridge, received the 2023 papal Beni Merenti medal for services to parish.

“That tells you what sort of people they come from,” he said. “They’re good charitable community people.”

A Gaeilgeoir, Smyth followed his mother into teaching before his American dream of kicking ball in New Orleans.

Having not played at minor level for Down, Conor Laverty and Marty Clarke used him as a sweeper-keeper in their Ulster u-20 winning team of 2020.

It was Ciaran McKeever who handed him the Mayobridge ‘keeper jersey with the licence to trot upfield for free-taking duties.

O’Hare laughs about doing umpire one night for a game against rivals Ballyholland when a teenage Smyth stood over a long-range free. The opposition voice boxes began to bellow a chorus to put him off before Harps’ stalwart Paul Murphy chipped in.

“He said, ‘shut up, he’s got this in his locker,’” O’Hare recalls. “And he had, he put it over and it was some kick.”

They are going to miss him around Mayobridge and across the county.

“We’re sorry to see him go,” O’Hare said. There is the disappointment in one hand, yet pride in the other.

Like his former Down goalkeeper coach Philip McEvoy, O’Hare knows there was to be a long career as the county’s number one. Then there is Smyth’s presence around the club. He’d be pulling pints in the club bar or lending a hand in the youth club.

It’s a positive news story. Everyone in the area is excited. There is a pride in Smyth being the first GAA player to cut the mustard in a game that has hooked many fans in Ireland.

“I actually seen him last night and was he just delighted,” O’Hare said.

“When we heard last year that Charlie was going, no one really understood. Then, when you look at what that international pathway is, it’s massive.

“For him to get that it’s great but Leo was saying how the hard work starts now.”

Smyth will soon head back over the Atlantic and into a training camp where the climb towards a place on the roster begins. Basking in just signing an NFL deal is not an option.

“He’s a very level-headed young lad,” O’Hare added. “He wouldn’t have any airs or graces about him. He understands that he has to put the head down and get in the work.

“Everyone would have been rooting for him with this pathway. But he’s coming up against other kickers. So it’s cut throat and he’ll have to be ready for that.”


It’s a Friday night in July. Down u-20s are dipping their toes into their successful 2021 Ulster campaign.

Charlie Smyth kicks four points to sink Cavan on the 3G pitch tucked at the back of Kingspan Breffni. Two are frees, the others are 45s. The years of practice have paid off.

In his match report, Paul Fitzpatrick, from The Anglo Celt, highlights Smyth’s kicking as “magnificent”.

The new-look ‘keeper adds one in Down’s semi-final win over Fermanagh. Waiting in the final are Monaghan.

Farney boss Andy Callan had enlisted former Armagh goalkeeper Philip McEvoy to look after the ‘keepers. The other part of the remit was scouting the range of opposition kick-outs coming down the tracks.

“I watched every single kick-out and possession he had to the championship up to that point,” McEvoy said of his trawling through video footage to check for patterns or any chinks in the armour.

“He was sensational even then. It was his technique and his ease, Beggan-esque I suppose. The way he was striking the ball, that drew a lot of attention to him.”

On the night of the final, McEvoy saw up close in the Athletic Grounds. He could fully appreciate the ability that saw Smyth land two more frees.

It was enough to help Down to a first title at the grade in 12 years and earn their goalkeeper the Ulster u-20 player of the season.

“He was a real stand-out player across that championship and it was his first real stint in nets,” McEvoy said.

“I thought, jeez, it would be a joy to coach someone like that because he had all this talent and potential.”

McEvoy didn’t have to wait long. James McCartan called him into the Down senior management setup and also called Smyth into the fold.

“You could see from the very outset, training with him up close, that he had a natural kicking technique and the real power behind it,” McEvoy said.

It wasn’t unlike Rory Beggan who Smyth modelled himself on and idolised.

TITLE TIME…Charlie Smyth celebrates winning the Ulster U-20 title with Down

While many other goalkeepers opted for power, drilling through the ball, Smyth’s “languid and soft” approach was highly effective.

“The power he generates just through his striking action and his follow-through was just out of this world,” added McEvoy.

“As soon as you’ve seen it you know there was something there that was just natural kind of talent and above and beyond the norm really, so that kind of developed over that championship,” McEvoy continued, explaining how he spotted it from the first kick in the u-20 video footage from the previous season.

McEvoy and the other Down senior ‘keepers would sometimes just look at Smyth in action after training. He’d be doing his thing, kicking balls. Kick. Another ball. Place it. Repeat.

“It was just poetry in motion,” McEvoy said. “He was always very keen to learn more about his kicking technique and try and develop it as best he could.”

It was the same with the other aspects of goalkeeping. For a converted outfield player, he had a smooth diving technique and thrived on the challenge of the high ball.

Smyth had set himself the target and had the “unwavering belief” of playing against Beggan when Down were drawn to play Monaghan in Clones in the Ulster Championship.

In the end, experience from Kilcoo’s All-Ireland run helped tip the scales in favour of Niall Kane.

There was disappointment, but it was only the beginning and McEvoy laid the cards on the table. He told Smyth a long-term career as the Down goalkeeper was within his grasp. It wasn’t if, it was when.

“He was dead focused on proving himself to be as capable a goalkeeper as possible and as good a kicker as those in the land,” McEvoy continued.

“He’s going to the next level now after becoming a professional athlete. I coached him for a year with Down and he’s matured so much since then.

“That is a testament to him because it doesn’t get much more pressurised than playing for a professional contract.

“We obviously shared a couple texts during the week and he’s just absolutely buzzing. He’s as down to earth as he always was, there’s certainly no air or graces.”

It was the same after coming into the Down senior camp, not content with his club performances. Smyth wanted a pathway to smooth out any blemishes.

“That was even after winning the u-20 Ulster player of the championship, he downplayed that as much as he could,” McEvoy points out.

Polishing his game was about persistence and the simple principle of working hard. Add in the obvious talent.

In McEvoy’s book, it was the perfect mix to help with the rigorous NFL trial process.

“I’m delighted for him and I know anyone that knows him is delighted for him as well,” he said.

“The major thing with Charlie is that the psychological side of his game is massive for him. He has put a mountain of work into that from the very first day I met him. He spoke about always trying to get the best out of himself.”

Like O’Hare, McEvoy wasn’t totally versed in NFL the extent of the new opportunities open to Irish athletes.

“If anyone was ever going to do it (sign up with a club) it was someone like Charlie who works that hard, has that natural talent but also realises he’s always looking to improve,” McEvoy concludes.

“It was a pleasure coaching him and, no doubt, the NFL coaches seen that in him as well.

“I’m sure they’re looking forward to working with him as well, hopefully it’s a bright future ahead for him.”

New Orleans is a long way from Breffni Park where McEvoy first set eyes on the Saints’ recruit.

O’Hare can recall Smyth’s interest in the Green Bay Packers. His father, Tom senior, the club’s president, would be in the Mayobridge club when the NFL was being beamed onto the television.

“I remember him saying one night ‘Charlie, will you turn that shite off, it’s the stupidest sport in the world’ but he’ll have to watch it the next few months ahead,” Tom junior says with a chuckle.

Mayobridge seniors begin their league campaign on Friday night against Warrenpoint. If there is any truth in stories O’Hare has heard filtering the around the ‘Bridge of the orders for Saints merchandise, there will be more black than sky blue in the attendance.

Time will tell but one thing is certain. If Charlie Smyth makes it all the way to Superbowl Sunday, Mayobridge will be rocking and singing and praying.


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