Olympico

The Right Reaction

Written by: Flora Snelson
Photograph by: Lee Brown
Olivia Smart of Leeds United Women striding onto the pitch at Garforth before playing FCUM, turning to the camera and laughing

Olivia Smart has a habit of scoring ridiculous goals for Leeds United. Stupid ones struck from tens of yards out which have no right to hit the net. A weapon for the team, a dream to watch, an even greater delight to score.

One of the best came against Stockport County three-and-a-half years ago, Smart’s right foot converting a dead ball by the touchline into a missile which bore down so angrily on the County ‘keeper that she didn’t dare get in its way.

It was nominated for Leeds United’s Goal of the Month award for October 2020, but that probably meant less than her teammates’ shrieks of delight and scrubs on the head or the Bridie Hannon and Rebecca Hunt sandwich which followed.

Smart is a competitive player. The kind who would take off a runners-up medal before it settled on her shoulders and could never celebrate a consolation goal. What’s the point of a goal if it doesn’t win you a game?

Against Stockport back in 2020, Smart’s worldie sealed the Whites’ place in the next round of the FA Cup during a season in which lots of goals, eventually, meant nothing as the Division One North standings were abandoned due to pandemic disruption. The joyful celebration at Stockport showed that goals felt great – even without assurance that the campaign wouldn’t suffer the same fate as the last one, also lost to Covid – amid a landscape of lockdowns which sometimes made life feel long and meaningless.

At times, the 2023/24 season has felt like an extension of this kind of purgatory, with the Whites threatening to replicate last year’s mid-table finish. Often deployed in a more advanced position than her usual defensive roles, Smart has had greater opportunity to get goals that make you jump for joy, but this endeavour has not escaped Smart’s competitive streak, which tends towards self-criticism.

“Didn’t score!” she complained after assisting three goals for her teammates in United’s FA Cup thrashing of Chester in October. “Playing higher up on the pitch is nice for me. I enjoy crossing the ball in and picking out players.”

Then, she shakes her head: “But there’s also a lot to improve. Three assists is something to work on. I’ll try and get on the scoresheet next round.”

Smart wears her heart on her sleeve and will not give credit where it is not due. Leeds United’s 2022/23 season was the most successful in years, but their promise for the following campaign wilted in 23 minutes as, on the opening day in August, a corner sailed through Carrie Simpson’s hands onto the boot of a Stockport County player who scored, largely unchallenged by the three United defenders surrounding her. Smart smacked her hands together, then threw them up in disbelief as she shouted words of frustration, directed at no one.

But this was a team who had got used to winning and were not going to let their new season start in the wrong way. United fought back to win 2-1, and it was a clever free kick that won it for Leeds, Smart rolling the ball into the path of charging Danielle Whitham, who didn’t stop charging once the ball hit the net, sprinting away to collect hugs and congratulations from her freshly-energised teammates.

Since the departure of head coach Rick Passmoor, opportunities to celebrate – really celebrate – have become fewer and further between. Too often Smart turns, unfeeling, away from a goal Leeds have scored in order to get set for the kick off. No shrieks, no sandwiches, all heads left unscrubbed.

On Sunday, there was little promise of a scrubbing at the Whites’ home match against Barnsley which, manager Simon Wood admitted after the game, was no longer a chapter in anyone’s quest for promotion, but a battle between two teams hoping to finish “as high up in the league” as they can.

Leeds also had honour to fight for after a disappointing reverse. Smart had been happy to go into the interval with the game goalless before her side let referee decisions get to them and three second-half goals gave their Yorkshire rivals the win. “You need a reaction, and I think we lacked that today,” captain Smart said.

This season, Leeds have been behind four times at half-times, but their interval team-talks have only inspired one comeback. History suggested that Yorkshire would stay red after a well-executed header thumped Barnsley into the lead at Garforth Town on Sunday afternoon. But Leeds and Smart were primed to show the right reaction.

With an hour played, Smart stepped up to take a corner, hoping to pull her team level by adding to her tally of assists. She didn’t look disappointed to achieve only half of her aims as her high-flying corner dropped rapidly into the far side-netting before anyone could interfere with the spectacular equaliser. Ridiculous goals were back, and so were hearty celebrations, the LUTV cameras finding Smart with both arms aloft like she’s Allan Clarke and it’s 1972.

This wasn’t one of the world’s most prestigious football competitions; it was a point in Division One North. But, rightly, that mattered none to her happy teammates, who assembled to mark a deserved moment of pride for a dedicated skipper.

Though not as competitive a player as Smart, I am as ambitious a fan. I want to see Leeds United perform to the best of their ability and to rise up the leagues accordingly. If I have to wait for that, though, I’m happy enough meantime watching Olivia Smart scoring a fucking great goal at Garforth Town. ⬢

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