It tended to get slightly lost amongst all the hype and hyperbole surrounding Ross McCormack’s 29 goal annus mirabilis – but Matt Smith, last summer’s signing from Oldham, had a quiet little miracle year of his own last season, though used sparingly – as often off the bench as a starter – but to what stunning effect.
The bare facts of Smith’s first season at Elland Road are that he made 20 league starts, 19 appearances as a sub and scored 13 goals. Even if you lumped the sub and starting appearances together to get 13 goals from 39 games, that represents only just under one goal every three games – no mean feat for a player equipped to act predominantly as a target man, providing flick-ons and knock-downs for smaller and nippier strikers. The other factor, of course, is that this was Smith’s first season at Championship level and therefore a decided learning curve. And he did learn – you could see it happening. As the season progressed, he gained in confidence and know-how, becoming a more effective performer the more games he got under his belt.
Playing with (nominally) better players must have been of assistance to the lanky forward as well, but it should be remembered that Matt Smith was performing well in a team that, generally, under-performed and frequently struggled. There were glaring functional deficiencies in the Leeds United team unit, for the whole duration of the campaign. Service from the wings – the meat and drink of any tall striker – was sporadic and disappointing, the loan signings of Kebe and Stewart being, by common consent, failures. There were times as well that the whole team looked shapeless and clueless, and Smith especially was frequently called upon from the bench to provide a Plan B for a side that had shot its bolt and was floundering horribly – this happened on far too many occasions last year.
Apart from that one notorious lapse at Sheffield Wednesday, when Smith came on as the obvious remedy to an appalling first-half display – only to be sent off after sixty or so seconds – the former Oldham forward generally made as much of an impact late on in games as might be expected, particularly given his inexperience and the pressure of performing for a club like Leeds, a pressure that saw some of his club-mates, notably Noel Hunt, fail to make any real impact.
Based on what we saw of him last season – and subject to any further signings yet to be made in the forward areas – I would expect to see Matt Smith build on a highly promising first season and look to secure for himself a regular starting berth, perhaps as part of a “Little & Large” up-front pairing. Even if the recruitment drive heralds the arrival of more forwards at the club, I’m convinced that Smith will play his part – the improvement in his game throughout last season gives ample cause for such optimism, and the fact that Premier League Crystal Palace came sniffing around speaks volumes for his potential too. It should be remembered as a fact of some significance that, only the season before he joined Leeds, Smith gave the Liverpool defence a terrible time in an FA Cup tie at Boundary Park, scoring twice as the Reds were knocked out by three goals to two.
Matt Smith can be the type of forward that any defence will simply hate playing against. He is blessed with the height and physique which will enable him to bully defenders, imposing his game on them, roughing them up and getting his head to the ball as often as possible. He just needs to be that crucial bit wilier, so as to concede fewer free kicks when refs feel he’s being a little too combative – but that will come with experience. He is a good finisher, surprisingly adept on the floor for such a tall guy – and he has that attitude, a bit of a mean streak, which so endears any player in a white shirt to the demanding fans at Elland Road. We do love a trier, someone who wears his heart on his sleeve. Matt Smith has those qualities, and he will have learned much from his on-field partnership with Ross McCormack. But the Scot is gone now, and Smith will have to work with new partners and, perhaps, be a little more selfish, looking to create and take chances for himself.
The King is dead – long live King Matt? It would not surprise me at all.