New boy Matt Smith has never experienced Pre-season training like this one with Leeds United, but he is benefitting from it. Phil Hay reports.
Earlier this week Matt Smith was the victim of a prank devised by Ross McCormack and Noel Hunt.
The pair crept into his bedroom in the middle of the night and woke him with a loud shout. A video of Smith’s reaction was charitably posted on Twitter.
That, in its own way, is the point of pre-season tours – an opportunity for social bonding and quick integration for players like Smith who have been with their clubs for a matter of weeks. But pre-season has also been an invitation for the striker to explain what the fuss is about; to show why it was that Brian McDermott wanted to sign him.
Three goals in two games – albeit against Farsley and an amateurish Slovenian side – went a small way towards doing that. Two headers at Throstle Nest, mixed in with several other efforts on goal, and a poacher’s finish in Murska Sobota on Wednesday showcased Smith’s ability as well as a 10-day visit to Slovenia was ever likely too.
The 24-year-old is a considered and educated type; too sensible to be fooled into thinking that his effort so far has won him thousands of admirers but he is paid to score goals and looks like he will. On the basis of his performance at Farsley alone, McDermott argued that Smith’s value was already on the rise.
“Pre-season is pre-season and I’m not making too much of it,” Smith said. “But I can’t deny that it’s nice to get a few goals under my belt.
“Fitness aside, it’s the feeling of confidence that matters more than anything else. You get five or six weeks away in the summer after 10 months of really intense football and it’s nice to know that you still know where the goal is. I believe in myself and there’s no problem there but you have to dust off the cobwebs a bit. It’s good to get on a bit of a roll.”
McDermott is as pleased as anyone to see him on it.The arrival of Smith, especially in light of Steve Morison’s sudden exit, has given Leeds a Plan A and a Plan B – a tall, strong forward to compliment the likes of Ross McCormack and Noel Hunt. Which plan Smith will become is for his manager to say or decide in due course; some assumed that a free transfer from Oldham Athletic had the makings of back-up but McDermott thinks more of him than that. Smith is equally ready to fight his corner.
The Manchester University graduate has mixed it before with sizeable clubs, most memorably against Liverpool and Everton in the FA Cup. “I’ve come here to play and, really, I’ve come here to start,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a player around – or not at my age anyway – who aims to be on the bench and settles for that.
“But that decision is the manager’s and you earn a start, you don’t just get it. I spoke to Brian at length before I signed and he comes across as a very fair guy, someone who’ll give you a chance if you deserve a chance. I think what we all know is that if we’re not in the team then there won’t be much to argue with.
“Obviously I need to play well and I need to score goals so it’s no bad thing to be off the mark in pre-season. I just don’’t get carried away about it. The goals really need to come when the season starts. What we’re all trying to do now is get fit and put ourselves in the manager’s thoughts.”
Getting fit has been the name of the game in Slovenia. McDermott has worked the players with relentless training sessions, most of them carried out under the burning sun. The temperature dropped slightly in Ptuj yesterday but still cleared 25 degrees. Smith, who is sharing a room with another new signing, Luke Murphy, had pre-conceived ideas of what he might do in his spare time in Slovenia. The intensity of the past week has put paid to most of them.
“To be fair, we’ve been literally conked out because of the training,” he said. “It’s been really hard and we’ve been asleep half the time.
“When you come out here, you think to yourself ‘what am I going to do in my time off?’ You’ve got all these plans for what you might do or where you might go. But honestly, you’re training, you’re eating, you’re sleeping and that’s it. Well, not quite. But the work’s been exhausting and it’s what you need. I feel like it’s paying off.
“This situation’s quite different for me. There are lots of experienced lads in the team which is good and a bit of a change. The teams I’ve played for before have always been a group of youngsters so it’s good to have some older heads around me, guys who’ve been there and done that at the top level. I’m someone who likes to learn and there’s plenty for me to learn here. Me and Luke are in a similar boat in a way, new to the club and looking to make an impression. I guess we can help each other settle in. I knew of Luke before we came here and we’ve got a lot of mutual friends. We’re a similar age, similar types.”
It is never necessary to remind Smith that two years ago he was a non-league player, preparing to move from Solihull Moors to Oldham. Football is not necessarily the career he anticipated when he graduated in business studies, or when he was moving from Droylsden to Solihull.
“The changes have been massive and the higher you go, the better and more professional things get,” Smith said. “You do get pre-season in non-league but it’s very different because you’re only there Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. I’ve trained more with Leeds in the last week than I’d probably have trained with some other clubs in two or three. But that’s the way things are here.
“When I think about it, the attitude of the manager was one of the biggest reasons for me coming here. There were a few clubs after me but this was a move I wanted from the start and when I met Brian, everything about him was right.
“You get a gut feeling and a gut instinct about people and I found him very infectious, very likeable. He gave more all the right vibes. I know I’m onto a great thing here.”