Hit man Matt Smith insists he isn’t on his own when it comes to putting away the goals. Phil Hay reports.
For all their faults and deficiencies, Leeds United never allow the goals to dry up. And in terms of goalscoring, no player at Leeds United has ever been irreplaceable.
They said that Jermaine Beckford would be but his free transfer to Everton in 2010 inspired a change of formation in which United’s front five outscored the rest of the Championship.
When the tip of that attacking line – Luciano Becchio – joined Norwich City 18 months ago, the same anxiety developed. Ross McCormack settled it with a goal from every two games.
Two trends are in evidence there: the first of someone routinely filling a glaring hole up front and the second of that replacement appearing from within.
Becchio and McCormack were already on the books at Elland Road when their preferred position opened up; so too were the attacking players used to immense effect by Simon Grayson four years ago.
McCormack quit Leeds for Fulham last month, raising a staggeringly-high fee of £10.75m, and his transfer left Matt Smith as the goalscorer-elect in United’s squad.
Last season was Smith’s first at Leeds and his first in the Championship, and 13 goals was a healthy return. The onus is now on him to stand out again.
Smith accepts as much but would like a return to the shared responsibility witnessed under Grayson; the scenario in 2010-11 where one player scored 20, another 18 and two more hit double figures. Nearly half of United’s goals last season came from McCormack, and Leeds avoided relegation because of them.
“Ross was superb last season, the hottest property in the Championship,” Smith says. “He stepped up big time but as a squad we were guilty of relying on him too much.
“I chipped in a bit but no-one would deny that Ross’ goals were the key to a lot of our results.
“When we needed a goal, he usually came up with the goods but it’s not a great situation to have only one player scoring. Teams with a few steady, reliable goalscorers tend to do better than teams with one prolific player.
“With that in mind I don’t feel any pressure to replace him or produce his goals. I just think I’m one of several lads with a collective responsibility for scoring a decent number this season.
“There’s a mentality we all need to share, me included.”
Smith and McCormack are good friends and Smith suspected – as many others did – that the Scotland international would leave Elland Road after the best season of his career.
United’s owner, Massimo Cellino, came to the conclusion that McCormack had set his mind on a transfer and was not worth keeping, though a move to another Championship club did not sit comfortably with the Italian, even at an inflated price of £10.75m.
“That’s 15 goals a season to one of our competitors,” Cellino said after selling McCormack to Fulham.
“I always thought it was going to be difficult to keep him,” Smith says. “But no-one in the squad deserved a big-money move more, if that’s what you want to call it. He’d been a great servant here and very influential.
“I don’t know if you can call Fulham a sideways jump. I’ve grown up thinking of them as an established Premier League club and people won’t be saying it’s a sideways jump if Fulham get promoted this season. For Ross’ sake I hope they do and I hope we go with them.”
Promotion would continue Smith’s steady upward trajectory – a non-league player until 2011 who turned professional with Oldham Athletic aged 21 and moved onto Leeds and the Championship after two years in League One.
United’s crowd warmed to him last season, aware of his limitations but appreciative of his aerial strength and his ability to poach a goal. His attitude was generally an example too.
Elsewhere, other people took a strong interest in him. Millwall marked him down as a key transfer target this summer but had an initial offer knocked back and have not bid for him again. Much as Leeds relented with McCormack, they gave Millwall no encouragement with Smith.
Smith himself has been slightly in the dark.
“I’m a Leeds player and that goes until I’m told differently,” he says. “I’d be very sad if I was told differently. I’m very aware of how special it is to wear the badge and I’ll never take my position for granted. I’ll never disrespect the club.
“Clubs never show an interest in you when you’re playing badly so any interest is flattering to a degree but I’m not sure what was happening with Millwall because I wasn’t really kept informed. I’ve just been going about my business and I’m perfectly happy to do that.”
The 25-year-old has less than a year left on his contract and, as yet, has had no discussions about an extension. It was one of the reasons why Millwall focused on him so heavily.
“I’m not aware of any serious movement on that front,” he says. “That’s down to the owner to make that happen and it’s his opinion on me that counts.
“I’ve been pleased with my own progression but at the same time, there’s plenty of room for improvement.
“I get asked a lot about how it went for me last season but to be truthful I think more about how it needs to go for me this season. It’s that old resting-on-your-laurels thing – I can improve on my goals, my starts, my performances. It’s not like last season makes me a world-beater.
“My aim was to get better and I did that so I’m happy. The Championship was new to me and while everyone has their own opinions on the differences between the leagues, personally I think there’s a huge difference between League One and the Championship.”
His team-mate, Luke Murphy, might share that view.
Among other things this season, Smith would like a period of sustained calm at Elland Road.
The madness of Gulf Finance House’s sale of Leeds to Cellino was “character-building, an experience which makes you more streetwise” but a “difficult atmosphere to work in.”
United’s players saw their wages delayed in March and April and were left in the dark about the club’s many problems.
“We had some heavy reality checks last season but we stood up to it all as best we could, that’s fair to say,” Smith says. “It’s nice to have a fresh start with fresh ownership.
“I’ve said a few times that you can’t operate in the midst of chaos. That’s not to say that we’d have won the league without the chaos but it definitely didn’t help.
“Stability matters and by stability I mean having a situation where the ownership isn’t a topic of discussion or controversy.
“It’s settled, it’s established and not likely to change. It’s not for us players to worry about who owns the club but when the club’s between owners, certain things start to affect the squad negatively. A settled environment is of paramount importance.
“Personally, I always try my best to stay level-headed. I’ve had some great highs and some ridiculous lows in my career and at the start of it I struggled with that.
“I rode the highs and suffered the lows to an extreme level, and it’s not a healthy way to be. Too much of that and you burn yourself out. But I’m very focused on where I want my career to go.”
MATT SMITH FACTFILE
Born: June 7, 1989 in Birmingham.
TURNED PROFESSIONAL: May 2011, with Oldham Athletic.
JOINED LEEDS UNITED: May 2013.
FEE PAID: Free transfer.
Leeds debut: v Brighton, August 3, 2013.
Leeds Appearances: 43.
Leeds GOALS: 13.