Matt Smith: The summer acquisition is prepared to work as hard as possible to achieve his goals in professional football. He spoke to Phil Hay
In life you gamble and often you lose. Matt Smith still wonders how life would be for him had he reacted on impulse three years ago and signed a contract with Kidderminster Harriers instead of completing his university degree.
“It’s possible that I’d have ended up with nothing,” he admits. “Sometimes the stakes are a bit too high.”
Kidderminster are a small fish in the English pond but the club means something to Smith and his family. His father Ian was once a left-back there and they reside in Worcestershire, the county which Smith calls home. Their offer appealed to a part-time football but the striker said no; a good option at the wrong time.
His free transfer to Leeds United last month underlined the fact than common sense prevailed. Smith is unlikely to use the business studies degree he gained in Manchester anytime soon but finishing his course two years ago gave his bow multiple strings. “The way it worked out was perfect,” he says. “I graduated in June and joined Oldham in July. Going to Kidderminster meant sacrificing my degree and I couldn’t bring myself to do that.”
It shows admirable maturity on his part insofar as football was a dream that Smith chased for years. He was applying for jobs at major consultancy firms in London – Accenture and the like – when a spate of goals for Solihull Moors made coaches like Paul Dickov sit up towards the end of the 2011-12 season. Alternative job offers began presenting themselves.
Solihull did not bother offering Smith an improved deal, knowing deep down that he’d be insane to sign it. Smith went north and shook hands with Dickov, signing his first professional contract at Oldham Athletic in May 2011. He was 21 years old.
Smith is the sort of player who you imagine pinching himself as he drives into Thorp Arch each morning. Signing for Leeds United was another step forward, one which has given him every expectation of a career in football for the next decade.
“I feel like I’ve earned the move, that’s the first thing to say,” Smith says. “There are times when you realise how far you’ve come, realise the club you’re at and almost can’t believe it but I’m here on merit. It’s not like I’m an imposter who has no business being in this squad.
“I’m not sure how many people truly understand the hours and effort involved in getting yourself to this level. I’m determined to be a success at Leeds and my track record with persevering is pretty good. I’ll always back myself to get there.
“The year when it all happened for me (2010-11) was a strange season all round. At Christmas time I was applying for jobs in London and going down for interviews. I was writing to all the big firms – Bain and Company, Boston Consulting Group, Accenture – with a view to starting a job when I finished university. It’s what I expected to go on any do.
“My degree leant itself to that type of work but football was something I knew I’d make a good go of if the chance presented it. And here I am.”
The key for Smith at Solihull Moors was a return of 12 goals in 14 games. He was never so prolific in two seasons at Oldham but, as he points out, he played as a substitute more often that not. His reputation spread and Smith had the prestige of being Brian McDermott’s first signing at Leeds, arriving without warning and proving how much McDermott thought of him. As a free transfer, several Championship clubs were interested.
“It’s funny how things work out,” Smith says. “Kidderminster was such a good opportunity because they were offering to take me full-time but university’s a big commitment and such a lot of money. I didn’t want to waste all the time I’d devoted to my course and I had to bear in mind that if it all went wrong at Kidderminster I’d have nothing to fall back on and only myself to blame.
“If Kidderminster had fallen flat on its face, I’ve absolutely no idea what would have happened then. I’d have been in a bad position, neither here nor there. So I guess deep down it was quite an obvious decision to make.
“As far as professional football went, there was a time when I thought ‘this isn’t happening’. But I started scoring every week for Solihull and football’s like that. Hit a bit of form and doors open. People who’ve never heard of you suddenly take an interest.
“I put my job interviews on the backburner and met Paul Dickov towards the end of the season to sort out the move to Oldham. The truth is that at Christmas I didn’t think professional football was having me. By April time I could see that it was going to happen.”
Oldham was, as they say, a steep learning curve. Smith recalls how much his lifestyle and his training methods changed in his first year there. “It’s easy to assume that if you’re good enough you’ll make it as a player,” he says. “What I learned at Oldham is that you’ll make it if you’ve got talent and are prepared to work like crazy.”
Season one at Boundary Park yielded four goals in 43 appearances and ended with a loan to Macclesfield Town. To say that Oldham’s supporters were not sold en masse would be fair. Last season brought 11 goals and, significantly, four scored in FA Cup ties against Liverpool and Everton. Smith gave Merseyside hell for a month and the calls about his availability began to increase in volume.
“I never lost heart about playing full-time but there were difficult periods at Oldham, periods where you aren’t scoring too many goals and people are grumbling,” he says.
“The first season was more about progression for me. I was on the bench a lot. I had so many appearances, 40-odd, but only four of them were starts and when I came on I felt I was doing okay. I was impacting on games but if I’m being objective I was guilty of missing a lot of good opportunities too.
“Supporters get on your back because they see what they see on a Saturday but it was my first year in full-time football and there was a massive amount of adjusting to do. From a training point of view and a lifestyle point of view, it was like nothing I’d ever experienced.”
McDermott sees Smith as a near-complete striker – tall and powerful in the air and someone who can finish with either foot. There is no searing pace in the 24-year-old’s game but his attributes complement those of the other strikers at Leeds. Smith will learn on the job at Elland Road but he is not alone there. Luke Murphy, who roomed with Smith in Slovenia earlier this month, also came to Leeds from League One. McDermott himself is relatively new to the club.
“It’s been steady progress for me and even now I’m in my third year of football and in a Championship environment,” Smith says. “It’s going very quickly.
“I wouldn’t say my stats are prolific as such but I will put chances away. And it’s not just about the goals. I need to score, of course I do, but there’s more to my game than that. I’ll do what I always do – work as hard as I can and hope for the results I deserve. I’m someone who’s shown that he’s got the desire to work his way up the levels.”