On the Move: former United striker Matt Smith speaks to Leon Wobschall about his time at Elland Road and thanks the fans for their support.
AT JUST 25, Matt Smith’s footballing story may have several chapters still to pen, but it has been some tale so far.
His move from Leeds United to Fulham in a deal in excess of £750,000 late on Monday evening was the latest twist in the giant striker’s rollercoaster journey, which began in earnest when he left Cheltenham Town as a youngster before playing for a host of non-league sides, while also completing a degree in international business management degree.
After spells with the likes of Redditch and Solihull Moors, Smith secured a crack at the big time at Oldham Athletic in 2011, doing well enough to earn his Championship passage to Elland Road in the summer of 2013.
A tally of 13 goals last term continued the impressive upward curve of his footballing graph, which he was fully entitled to think would continue at Leeds with the ink on a new three-year deal barely dry before he found himself being sold to Fulham.
It may represent another surprise thrown up relatively early in Smith’s professional career, but while the nature of his exit from United was something that he was certainly not expecting, he harbours no sense of bitterness whatsoever.
Obvious disappointment at not being able to continue his United journey, yes, although Smith – a more articulate, thoughtful and thoroughly nice professional footballer you would struggle to find – remains eternally grateful for his association with a club he has embraced every facet of.
Not just a club, but a city in the shape of Leeds.
His new footballing life has now started in the capital and is one he is fully envisaging he will relish.
Yet he remains keen to thank those who helped him along the way and supported him at Leeds. It may have been prematurely ended, but it will remain special all the same.
Good grace has been a commendable characteristic in the career of Smith, who admitted on signing for Leeds that he would ‘always be in debt’ to former Oldham manager Paul Dickov, who handed him his craved-for professional chance at Boundary Park.
Similarly, the Birmingham-born forward took time to personally thank the man who took him to Elland Road in Brian McDermott after he left United by mutual consent at the end of May – publicly acknowledging his role in his development in 2013-14.
Now thanks are being bestowed in the direction of the United hordes, who packed out Valley Parade’s Midland Road stand to raucously cheer a Smith goal for the last time seven days ago when he headed home in trademark fashion in the club’s televised Capital One Cup derby defeat at Bradford.
On his exit, Smith told the YEP: “I don’t leave with an ounce of bitterness or nothing like that at all.
“There was a bit of surprise going from signing a long-term contract to then being told: ‘no we are looking to get rid of.’
“But that is football and ultimately it is a game of opinions. It was not meant to be this time around.”
Smith, whose debut from the bench in front of a huge crowd of 33,432 in United’s dramatic opening-day home win over Brighton in August 2013 was about as far removed from his early forays in non-league football as it gets, added: “Leeds been the highlight of my career so far, without a doubt.
“I have absolutely loved every minute of it and the way the fans have accepted and treated me has been very overwhelming and I just want to say a massive, massive thank you to them for the incredible support that they have given me over my time at Leeds, albeit it was only 14 months.
“The fans have been tremendous with me along with everyone at the club. They have looked after me really well and I am leaving with extremely fond memories. It will always be a special club for me.
“Representing such a big club as Leeds United was just the biggest honour along with having some good personal success there, in my eyes.
“It is something I will always remember fondly.
“It was just the way that the fans took to me and the support I got from everyone. The club is underpinned by some really great people.
“To work with some of those was brilliant and I will never forget it.”
Smith now links up again with one familiar face and key figure from his United career in Ross McCormack – between them, the pair managed to fire 42 of United’s 64 goals in all competitions last term.
Both will again line up in a white jersey, but it is that of Fulham, with the duo making what is sure to be an emotional return to Elland Road on December 13.
Famously back at the start of July, Smith admitted that he would be personally devastated if McCormack left, labelling him as the ‘best player in the division’.
Alongside their goals, the pair contributed 15 assists between them for goals last season, with Smith highlighting their close friendship away from the pitch as being a ‘massive help’ for the bustling forward in his first taste of the Championship. Smith’s fervent desire that McCormack would stay at Elland Road amid endless speculation surrounding the Scottish international’s future in pre-season may have not been realised, but the irony of him linking up again with his good friend is something that is hardly lost on him.
Yet equally, Smith remains determined to carve out his own niche and be his ‘own man’ at Fulham and just as he vowed not to be intimated by the task ahead when he joined Leeds, he will not be cowed at being under the spotlight of Fulham, who have endured a difficult start to the season after being rated right at the forefront of the promotion favourites ahead of the big kick-off. Smith added: “I don’t want to make it too much about the partnership with Ross. “But we did have a great understanding and it worked really well between us and we had a successful time at Leeds.
“But ultimately, I am my own man and I am really looking forward to trying to help out the team and contributing as bad as I can and continuing to improve. “I just want to kick on at Fulham and have as much success as I did at Leeds. It is a big thing for me; to relentlessly self-improve and become the best player I can.”