CHRIS Smith has been labelled the 'best centre-half' in Nationwide North after joining Worcester City.

The highly-rated 23-year-old defender switched from rivals Stafford Rangers on a free transfer today to become player-manager Andy Preece's first -- and his major -- summer signing.

Smith pencilled a contract at St George's Lane and will aim to establish himself as the cornerstone of City's new-look rearguard next season.

Preece was desperate to capture the former Leeds United schoolboy's signature following the departure of experienced pair Carl Heeley and Colin Hoyle this year.

Derby-born Smith spent one season at Marston Road after earlier completing more than 70 Football League appearances for York City.

He became a pivotal figure behind Stafford's stubborn three-man defence that conceded just 44 league goals last term, the division's best record ahead of Southport and Nuneaton Borough.

Preece was astonished to capture his number one close-season target and trusts Smith to help push Worcester towards promotion glory.

"Chris has been outstanding in every game I've watched him," said Preece. "Put him in the right position and he's the best centre-half in the league by far.

"I can't believe that nobody else came in for him. It's a mystery to me, because he's quality. We've got a player who, I think, can play in the Conference and in the Football League.

"Carl and Colin were both quality players and this lad is of the same ilk and with years on his side. I'm sure he will become a very popular player in time.

"He's just what we need at the club, a young player who can play at a higher level and is hungry for success. He's got a long career ahead of him and, hopefully, a long one with Worcester."

Despite playing the bulk of his career at centre-back, Smith can also operate as sweeper, full-back and in midfield.

His versatility meant another boost for Preece, who believes Smith and fellow stopper Barry Woolley can forge an uncompromising partnership at the back.

"Chris is young, very competitive and has got a will to win. He's good on the ball, aggressive in the air, got a lot of pace and reads the game very well. He's also very adaptable, which is great for us.

"I've seen Chris three times and he's been outstanding in every game.

"That shows you what a good player he is when he puts in solid performances time and time again.

"Barry is not much older than Chris and he's got massive potential as well. I think they will work well together. We've also got Paul Carty and Shabir Khan.

"With another signing, we are going to be very strong in that department."