Inspired by his father's Kenyan roots, Solomon Wanjau-Smith has gone from helping minnows Maidstone to FA Cup heroics and now dreams of playing for Harambee Stars
Solomon Wanjau-Smith is a footballer with aspirations to make it big after opting to choose a route less taken by many.
The fleet-footed striker, who is born to a Kenyan father from Kawangware and an English mother, is in dreamland after he helped minnows Maidstone United, a Vanarama South League club in the sixth tier of English football, to the third round of the FA Cup, where they will be facing League One side Stevenage.
It was a classic case of David beating Goliath in the second round, where they secured a 2-1 win against Barrow, a team flying in League Two earlier this month.
Pulse Sports had an opportunity to catch up with the 24-year-old emerging striker, who like Leicester City legend Jamie Vardy, and could be on a path to the highest level of football, albeit an unconventional one.
Wanjau-Smith and his team-mates are relishing the underdog tag as it leaves them with no pressure in the FA Cup.
“Because we are a non-league club and four divisions below Stevenage, it is almost nice for us to be the underdog,” the spirited striker says.
“We beat Barrow in the second round and have done well in the league this season with only Yeovill ahead of us and we expect to challenge them to the end for the league.
“It is so refreshing that we are underdogs which gives us no pressure. If we beat Stevenage, which I believe we can do, as well as the fans who rally behind us, anything is possible.”
Wanjau-Smith reminisces that afternoon in early December, and stresses they will approach the third round with the same mentality and hopefully get a result.
“Barrow are flying in League two. No one expected us to get a result and we did it. We will approach that game against Stevenage like we did Barrow and we are confident we can get a result," he added.
Wanjau-Smith has played in every division you could possibly think of, and playing in the extra-preliminary round of the FA Cup, which is basically the very first round of the world’s oldest football competition, is something that makes him proud.
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“I have got eight goals this season, and scored a hat-trick in the FA Cup. I am really enjoying it. The mood in the camp is good and we aspire to go hire. We have good ethos and a lot of young players which is a privilege," he says.
“For me, coming from such a low level before, I have played in the extra preliminary round which people don't even realise exist in the FA Cup and I have played at every single level below that.
“The third level will be the highest I have ever played and we hope we can get beyond that, especially playing Stevenage in the third round.”
Wanjau-Smith was born and raised in Bristol City, although for him, he did not really set out on a path to make it as a professional football player at the beginning, considering he was initially playing for fun.
“I started playing football at the age of four or five, like many people do in England, just playing for a local team with my friends," remembers the striker.
“At the age of 10, I was spotted by someone who played for my team, my close friend, was a scout for Bristol City so I went for this trial day there.
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“Bristol were playing in the championship, so it was a really demanding week as they were 300 other kids there.
"It was a six-week thing where you had to go and attend all these sessions and then at the end of it, something might happen or not, so out of 300 children, there were six of them that were offered actual trials with the academy and was fortunate enough to be one of those six.”
Wanjau-Smith stayed at Bristol City for a year before opting to join Bristol Rovers a year later, but would then return to Nelsy before joining Western Super Mare at the age of 16, where he got spotted by Southampton, who offered him a two-month trial.
“Funny enough, it was in a pre-season game where we were playing against Plymouth Argyle and Southampton were scouting one of their players and I happened to score a hat-trick and had a really good game and so they decided, to have a look at me again," says Smith.
“In the next game, we played a local side in the U18 FA Youth Cup and I scored a hat-trick again and after that, they invited me for a two-month trial, and the next game we played Aston Villa U18 and it was a completely different experience to what I was used to, the facilities and stuff."
During his trial with Southampton, he had to live in a hotel considering the town is two hours away from Bristol.
Although it was not successful, it turned out to be an eye opening experience for the budding youngster, who says that even at U18s level, games felt "like men’s.”
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“I took everything with a pinch of salt as I had no pressure considering where I had come from. It was just an opportunity given to me out of almost nothing where I had to grasp and just enjoy it," he stresses.
"Unfortunately, they did not sign me after the two months but the things I learnt there were so invaluable.
"I realised how physical things were. Yes, it's kids football, but they were like men. I had to put more emphasis on gym work, nutrition and all these stuff where before I was just playing football for fun.
"I didn’t think I would make a career until I went to a place like that where they respected me as I was playing in their team, I could then make something from this.”
Wanjau-Smith has visited Kenya once before when he was 17 in 2018, where he went to his father’s Kawangware area, and it allowed him to appreciate football for what it was.
He played in an exhibition match for Kawangware United and it made him realise the sacrifices his father had to make to ensure he built a stable life for his family abroad.
The speedy striker says it has inspired him to want to make it to the top.
“We are now living in Europe, we are very stable and have a lovely life, compared to when he had a lot of things go against him, he has still managed to get through it, and that is how in the past, it has worked with my football," he adds.
“The players I was playing with did not have football boots or proper boots, they did not even have matching kits, but I loved the fact they appreciated football and just played football for what it is and just loved football.
“It made me get to love football to the point where when I got to consider it as a career, and there was an opportunity, I would go for it. Just loving the game and obviously respecting it by working hard hopefully gets you what you want. It has worked out now.”
Wanjau-Smith has always craved for a chance to be playing as many minutes as he can, which is why he was willing to make a sacrifice by dropping to the ninth tier of English football to kick start his career.
He wants to prove wrong those who did not believe in him early in his career.
“Even when I got released by Bristol City, Bristol Rovers and Southampton, and now when I look back at the teams I played in, it is only one player that plays in a higher division than me now."
“That might be their opinion that I can’t do it but it is almost a chip in my shoulder to show them that I will work my hardest and eventually, good things come to those who work hard which is really important.
“When I was 18, I left, I made the conscious decision to leave. At the time, I thought I would be getting a better opportunity to play than I was being given, but looking back now, I was nowhere near ready.
“As a youngster, you think you are ready but not. I went three leagues lower than that just to go and play, but doing that put me in a good stead because I was playing twice every week for 90 minutes, rather than the odd 15 minutes in games here and there.
“I also wanted to adapt to men’s football because men’s football in England is so physical and it was about learning how to use your body, how to protect the football but I wouldn't have had time to have a trial and error and eventually it would have eaten me alive (had he stayed).”
Wanjau-Smith started his senior career at Cribs, where he played for free but in efforts to just want to get to grips with men’s football.
He was so committed to wanting to make a career in the game, he was willing to start it free without pay.
“When I started at Cribs, I was playing for free. I was just getting used to playing against men because going from kids to men's football is such a big difference."
“When you go to these leagues and when you adapt to men’s football, if a team-mate has a clean sheet or win bonus and you have a playground mentality where you want to nutmeg 20 people or whatever but lose the game, those nutmegs don’t mean anything.
“It is all about winning. It changes your cogs and ethos, from let’s have a fun time playing football but let’s enjoy ourselves but aiming to win the games. Whatever my role is, let me carry it out to the best of my ability and then we will win games.”
Wanjau-Smith then left Cribs to join Slimbridge, where he at least got to start earning money, although it was just 40 pounds (Ksh6,000) a week.
His spell with the club gave him the chance to join Hungerford, before joining Maidstone in 2022, which gave him the chance to play in the Vanarama Conference league.
“It was just the opportunity to take part in step two of non-league football I was grateful about even if I was just on 75 pounds a week.”
His first season did not go as planned. He was hampered by injuries, and his absence from the pitch most weeks coincided with the club getting relegated back to the Vanarama South League, but the side is on course to win back promotion to the fifth tier of English football, sitting sixth at the time of writing.
“The first season did not go too well, we did get relegated, but this season with George Alukobi and Craig Fagan, I am really enjoying it and we have something special there."
“This season has been a polar opposite to last season where obviously it was not the best feeling where I am playing a lot more. I had a really bad injury last year playing a lot more which is the main thing.“
Wanjau-Smith started off as a winger who tried to take men on and create from the flanks whenever possible, but moving to Hungerford forced him to change position to a center forward, a position he has since stuck to.
“Before I came to Hungford, I was a winger. I loved getting at people one-on-one and scoring goals and making assists, but at Hungerford, they played 3-5-2 with two strikers and wing backs."
“I was not too sure whether defensively I could play in the wingback positions where I could run channels and be aggressive because I do have pace and I thank God my dad’s family on the Kenyan side blessed me with pace.
“I am working on my hold-up game to secure the ball better because having not played in that position when I was younger, it's a bit better. I like to play off someone and forge a relationship with a partner and I think that is where I work best.”
Harambee Stars left-back Vincent Harper is a player who is inspiring Wanjau-Smith to finally want to make it up to the Football League system.
Harper has been playing regularly for Exeter, but has been friends with Wanjau-Smith ever since their days playing together for Cribs.
“My friend Vincent Harper plays for Exeter and he just got a move from Eefly to Exeter and is doing really well and when you see fellow Kenyans like him doing well in the English youth system, it actually gives me great hope.”
“We actually played together at Cribs. He was 17, I was 19 and he was on loan from Bristol City and we played together. I would like to go higher. I would like to break into League two and the EFL system as I feel I have the attributes people look for.”
“It’s every young boy’s dream to play international football, whether it be the World Cup, the Euros as I’m English or Kenya at the Africa Cup of Nations.
“I would never turn my nose up at any opportunity to represent my country. Seeing Vince [Harper], who I have known for six years now, seeing him get called up, it is a bit unbelievable.
“I did not know how interested they were in English football and seeing him getting called up gives me hope that if I keep working hard, I could be in the gaffer’s thoughts and I could potentially get called up to represent my country.”