Leeds United: Crazy period can’t taint Smith’s time at Elland Road

Matt Smith
Matt Smith
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QPR striker Matt Smith spent one season at Leeds United, before being sold to Fulham – three days after signing a new deal at Elland Road. He tells Phil Hay about a turbulent time in the Whites’ history.

There was a time when football’s grapevine fed on news from Leeds United. These days Matt Smith’s old team-mates have fewer tales to tell. Thorp Arch is up and running again, the canteen serves food and Smith sees the workings of a functional club. “The players I know there seem very happy,” he said. “It sounds like there’s been quite a change.”

Massimo Cellino

Massimo Cellino

Smith, now at Queens Park Rangers, is a long way on from his own career at Elland Road.

Next August will mark four years since he was flogged to Fulham in a way which baffled him and frayed tempers in Leeds.

From Smith’s perspective, he was sold less than a month after signing a new contract. The club’s support were goaded by United promising a last-minute signing before the transfer deadline but instead Smith and Dominic Poleon were sold.

The eight months prior to his exit, the first eight months with Massimo Cellino on the scene, went like that. Smith calls that period “crazy but character building” and still maintains that a year with Leeds gave him the grounding he needed to play in the Championship.

QPR's Matt Smith (second left) celebrates scoring earlier this season.

QPR's Matt Smith (second left) celebrates scoring earlier this season.

The lingering disappointment is that 13 goals in his first and only season, the 2013-14 term, did not convince Cellino to keep him.

“I had aspirations of staying at Leeds and that was pretty obvious on the basis I’d signed a three-year contract a couple of weeks earlier,” Smith said. “One minute you’re wanted, the next you’re not but for no apparent reason.

“The whole thing was weird. It tooks ages, literally months, to get that contract agreed. I signed it and then three days later I got a call to say the club wanted to sell me, with no real explanation.

“It’s a blow to your confidence. I was thinking about kicking on, about building on my goals, and that message was the last thing I expected. It was late in the window and it was hard getting my head around it.

“I wasn’t the finished article or anything close but I felt I’d done well, to say it was my first season in the Championship. But it really doesn’t taint the time I had at Leeds. It was character-building and that year set me up to play in the Championship. That relationship doesn’t feel tainted.”

Smith can divide his season at Elland Road into two; the first half when Leeds sat in the play-offs under Brian McDermott and the second when Cellino’s protracted takeover provided the backdrop to a brutal period.

McDermott was sacked and reinstated in the space of 72 hours but never regained his authority and waded through some horrible results.

Leeds conceded six at Sheffield Wednesday, four against Reading and Bournemouth and five at home to Bolton Wanderers. The club finished a distant 15th.

“It could hardly have been more stable before Christmas,” Smith says.

“We were in the play-offs and it all felt pretty comfortable. I’m not going to blame the second half of the season purely on his (Cellino’s) arrival but the place went crazy for six months. A lot of what happened did affect the players.

“It’s okay saying players should concentrate on their jobs but when half of Thorp Arch shuts down, when you’re not getting fed at the training ground any more, when staff are leaving, when wages aren’t getting paid on time, it becomes difficult. The environment you’re used to gets taken away.

“Players and managers are trained to say ‘the off-field stuff is nothing to do with us, we concentrate on the football’ but that’s a stock answer I’m afraid.

“It was a crazy period, that’s the only way to describe it, and from a personal point of view the way I left the club was hard to understand.”

It has not done Smith’s prospects much harm. The university graduate and former non-league player spent three years at Fulham, who paid Leeds £750,000 to sign him, and moved onto QPR in a £500,000 deal last summer. There is a trend to each of his moves in which limited opportunites yield a steady return of goals. QPR manager Ian Holloway has started Smith in only three league games this season but the forward is Rangers’ top scorer with five. He might feature from the outset when Leeds go to Loftus Road on Saturday after Jamie Mackie was sent off at Preston North End last weekend, a decision which Holloway chose not to appeal.

QPR need form from somewhere after five games without a win. Fate conspired at Preston as two red cards, contentious penalty appeals and an 88th-minute goal led to a 1-0 defeat but Rangers carry a certain amount of threat, especially at Loftus Road. In the space of four days Wolverhampton Wanderers and Sheffield United were beaten there in October. Smith claimed the winner against Wolves.

“It’s been a tough month but in some respects we haven’t been getting the rub of the green,” Smith said. “A lot of things went against us at Preston and to have held out with 10 men until the 88th minute kind of sums up our luck. It felt pretty unjust.

“But we’ve been strong at Loftus Road and we’ve beaten some top teams there.

“To take six points off Wolves and Sheffield United shows what we can do. Personally I’m happy with my goals so far. I haven’t started too many games but I’ve been able to chip in and most of the goals have counted for something.

“Obviously I’d like to start this weekend but not just because it’s Leeds. I want to nail down a spot.”

QPR’s defence has been weakened by injuries to James Perch, Grant Hall and Nedum Onuoha, who scored a messy opening goal in Leeds’ painful 3-0 defeat at Loftus Road on the first day of last season. Leeds, however, have concerns too.

Pablo Hernandez pulled a hamstring in their 1-1 draw against Aston Villa, a match which Eunan O’Kane, Stuart Dallas and Pierre-Michel Lasogga all missed.

Despite improved results, United are still in the process of emerging from a barrage of league defeats.

Recent trips to Loftus Road have not been dull and the last two left the ears of Garry Monk and Steve Evans burning as the away end turned on them and their players.

“It’s going to be lively,” Smith said. “This is usually quite a defining period in the season and everyone wants to get momentum around Christmas.

“It’s been quite an unpredictable league so far with a few exceptions but it feels like it’s starting to take a bit of shape.

“We’re very confident at home but Leeds have shown what they can do.

“Neither team’s going to hold back.”