SAM Smith swapped saving goals for saving lives when he made a dramatic career change while he was a teenager.

Now, the former goalkeeper has won a regional award for his achievements at the Royal Bolton Hospital and is encouraging other young men to consider a career in nursing.

As a schoolboy, Sam’s dream was to become a professional footballer and, up until he was aged 18, it seemed his dream could become reality.

He was playing semi-professionally for Oldham Town, and teams such as Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers had spotted him as a local talent.

But a dislocated knee left him with a recurring injury, which eventually forced him to hang up his goalie gloves for good.

Sam, aged 27, said: “All I had known for years was football. It was my life and, apart from cricket, I didn’t do much else.

“My injury soon put a stop to all that. I carried on playing after I first dislocated it, but I had to have three operations to try and fix it.

“My knee was never the same and playing football only made it worse — it would just give way in the middle of match.”

Having focussed almost entirely on sport during his teenage years, Sam left Little Lever School with just three GCSEs.

He had a brief spell at a vehicle preparation garage, but decided “it was going nowhere” and applied for a job as a health care assistant (HCA) at the Royal Bolton Hospital.

Sam, then aged 19, was still playing football semi-professionally and says life on the pitch, compared to life on the ward, could not have been more different.

He added: “I desperately needed a career change when I was working at the garage. I just randomly decided to go for the job at the Royal Bolton Hospital.

“I was working on a respiratory ward and it was a totally different world to anything else I’d done — I was like a fish out of water.

“But once I got over the initial shock, I started to really like it. I really enjoyed seeing the patients get better and got on with all the staff.”

With the help of the hospital, Sam went on to do a diploma and become a staff nurse in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), caring for some of the most seriously ill patients at the Royal Bolton.

Sam and the team provide one-to-one care to unconscious patients with critical illnesses, such as chronic lung disease or organ failure.

The former footballer has worked on ICU for five years and says he loves the challenge of the job.

He has also been announced as joint winner of the North West Career Progress Health and Social Care Award.

Now, the only football he plays is with his two little girls, Isabelle, aged four, and Abigail, aged one, in the back garden of his home in Windermere Road, Farnworth.

Sam said: “There is no room for error in ICU and, if you do something wrong, it could cost someone their life. You really have to be on the ball.

“When people come here they are the most ill they can get and it’s great to see them improve.

“Not only that, the staff are brilliant. There’s no hierarchy or anything like that. We just all get along really well and have a laugh. They really keep you going during the difficult days.

“I do still miss football but if I’d dwelled too much on giving it up, I probably would never have become a nurse.

“I would definitely recommend it as a career to other young men in a similar position.

“I think the perception of nursing as a female profession is not as widespread as it used to be and a lot of the nursing staff in ICU and HDU are male.”

Sam collected his award last Friday at the Manchester Museum.