The Square Ball Week: Finishing Touch

In 2017-18, Free, Leeds United, The Square Ball Week by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

I’m sure every Leeds United fan keeps the same list of French players they wish had stayed longer at Elland Road.

Olivier Dacourt, who should have stayed forever. Didier Domi, if he could have been transposed to less chaotic times. Zoumana Camara, the same. Pierre Laurent. And nobody else.

Well, except one, although he enters the game by halves. As if Johnny Hallyday had wanted to imitate Cliff Richard rather than Elvis, Mathieu Smith’s name couldn’t be more French in its Englishness, or any more Anglophone about calling on the Francophone. “What name is it? Ah, Mathieu, oui monsieur. Pardon? Smith? Er, le rosbif, sir?” We have Matt’s mum to thank for a full first name to distinguish him in conversation from that Doctor Who Matt Smith, but English football to thank for giving this unlikely player a career.

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And an unlikely career. Matt Smith is famous for being an educated footballer, one of the few. I don’t know where they come from, but it’s not the English football academy system. It’s not their fault: top clubs are stockpiling children in the hopes that one will be a new Messi, and don’t want to risk any of that latent talent by allowing them to think.

Smith’s path was different, perhaps because at six-foot-four he was always thought more able with his head than his feet. His father and grandfather were professional footballers, but Smith was determinedly amateur, spending his youth career at Evesham United and Cheltenham Town, then keeping in at football as a side hobby while working towards a degree from Manchester Business School and Arizona State University in International Management with American Business Studies. He turned out for New Mills, Redditch United, Littleton, Droylsden and Solihull Moors, where strong goalscoring, an imposing physique and graduation from university attracted an offer Smith accepted from Oldham Athletic to turn professional — and go out on loan to Macclesfield Town. Smith’s honours up to this point complete the story: captain of Manchester University men’s team and their Sportsman of The Year in 2011, the same year he was called up to the Great Britain squad for the World University Games in China. It’s the sort of stuff you might keep as a memento on your desk, a talking point in the office as you begin your career in finance and await an invitation to the company five-a-side team.

Then he signed for Leeds United.

That ought to have meant fairytales, only Smith was too gentle of a giant; he might squash a toadstool house, but he’d scour the forest for forty years trying to rehome its owners. In his first season at Leeds Smith won Community Player of The Year, and his decency always cut through the murk of players Neil Warnock had left behind. At Hillsborough in January 2014, there was no malice behind the elbow that struck Reda Johnson and earned Smith a red card, just after coming on as a half-time substitute, and he looked properly distraught as he made his way unfussily off the pitch. That meant he was one of the few Leeds players to leave the ground with any dignity, as he bore no further blame for a 6-0 defeat in which every other player was properly distressing. You couldn’t be mad at Smith when Marius Zaliukas was around.

But you could only get a few goals out of him, here and there. Smith played his part on the bright summer day that heralded the world after Ken Bates, heading the ball down for GFH’s million-pound Luke Murphy to score an injury time winner that beat Brighton, confirmed Leeds United as league champions, and welcomed God back to the county he’d abandoned to Chelsea’s devils. Then there was the thrill of Smith’s first league start, at home against Birmingham, when his size panicked City into letting Ross McCormack shoot into an unguarded net, then allowed him to flick a header on to McCormack, and react first to shoot home when his partner’s shot was saved. Smith scored again in the second half, powerfully heading in Alex Mowatt’s exquisite cross to make it 4-0.

A goal like that should have you purring, but Smith was doing his best in a poor team. One of his finest goals required him to dive to the floor as he headed in a dipping McCormack cross, but it was an injury time goal of no consolation in a 5-1 defeat to struggling Bolton, so nobody appreciated it, or him, very much.

Smith’s goals were always deceptively simple, anyway. At the start of the next season, away to Bradford City in the League Cup, Smith headed in a cross from David Norris that looked easy for a striker of his stature: the ball was in front of his head, then it was all about his neck muscles. But still photographs captured Smith in the midst of an aerial twist the naked eye missed, revealing the dexterity behind movements you or I could hardly think of, let alone carry out.

We admire ballet dancers who can throw their aerodynamic seven stone bodies into the air, prancing and whirling and landing on a toe; but too many disdain the footballer who can command fourteen stone of weight distributed across two metres of flesh and muscle to rise into the air; direct it towards a spinning round object travelling through space at 50mph; move it past obstacles of blood and polyester trying to drag him down, punch the ball away, or punch him; then use his head to divert the trajectory of the speeding ball along a course that will end in a goal. And then land. Compared to what Matt Smith can do, kicking a ball is easy.

That goal at Bradford was soon overtaken by two from the home team, and other matters soon overtook Smith. He’d been given the no.9 shirt for the season, and on 18th August, a new three-year contract. Leeds lost to Bradford on the 27th, and Dave Hockaday was sacked on the 28th. Leeds were managerless but busy on the 1st September, the last day of the transfer window, and sold Matt Smith to Fulham.

No wonder nobody had time to appreciate that header. Smith talked about that era this week, not saying anything that should raise an eyebrow any longer, although it still helps to have the true state of the club confirmed from within. “The players I know there seem very happy,” he [told the YEP](https://www.yorkshireeveningpost.co.uk/sport/football/leeds-united/leeds-united-crazy-period-can-t-taint-smith-s-time-at-elland-road-1-8894628). “It sounds like there’s been quite a change.” Oof.

After Massimo Cellino took over, says Smith, “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 … 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.”

Smith’s studies arguably meant he was better qualified to run the club than Cellino, and he was almost certainly better qualified to play upfront than the forwards signed to replace him. Souleymane Doukara, Mirco Antenucci, Billy Sharp, Nicky Ajose, Brian Montenegro, Adryan and Edgar Cani were all brought in that season. Not all were outright failures, and some could have made more of an impact in different circumstances, but after uprooting their lives and careers to sign for the mighty Leeds United AFC, they may have been shocked by the non-league imitation of a once great club that greeted them at Thorp Arch. That was another area where Smith was a loss; after his years playing for Droylsden and Solihull Moors, he was better prepared than most for Cellino’s austerity football.

He was also a better player than most that were brought in. He was never prolific, but always dangerous, and never unwilling: with Smith wearing no.9 and Sharp wearing no.8, Leeds had possibilities of a classic Chapman-Wallace partnership, the big guy drawing attention so the little guy could pass unnoticed, then either could score in the panic. And occasionally, like Chapman, Smith could produce a powerful header or the awareness to finish a move that isn’t achieved without singular talent.

Smith’s at QPR now, in one of the streaks of form that have periodically illuminated his time there, and at Fulham and Bristol City, since leaving Leeds. Useful and popular, he’s Ian Holloway’s super-sub this season, with four goals and two assists from the bench, and QPR are more than 2.5 times more likely to score in the last fifteen minutes of a match, when Smith is most likely to be on the pitch, than any other period. In their last home game Smith scored a header in the 92nd minute, then headed an assist in the 93rd, as QPR came from 2-0 down to draw with Brentford.

Smith could do that against Leeds on Saturday. But let’s not ask, what might Smith do against us, but rather, what might he do for us, if we bought him back?

There are gaps in Leeds United’s squad this season, with a specialist left-back and a competent goalkeeper on the shopping list. But Andrea Radrizzani has Thomas Christiansen concentrated on attack, where Chris Wood’s goals have been lost, and Caleb Ekuban, Pierre-Michel Lasogga, Kemar Roofe and Jay-Roy Grot have all been tried, with differing qualities, faults and results. Most is expected of Lasogga, who has a positive knack for goals and assists, but a negative habit of watching games from the sidelines, even when he’s in the middle of the pitch.

Smith resembles Lasogga in physique but not in feet, and the idea of plugging the big Frenchman into the diminutive force of Saiz, Alioski and Hernandez feels counter-intuitive. I can imagine Saiz, failing to get a nimble one-two out of Smith’s JCB feet, waving an imaginary card at the referee to get this oaf sent off his playground. But I can also imagine Saiz’s face lighting up when he sees Smith heading one of his crosses into the goal, from the back post, from the front post, from a yard out or twenty yards away: put a precise pass from Saiz on Smith’s head, and watch it hit the net. Then, when he’s done those, switch him to volleys and let the fun continue. Alioski, Ekuban and Roofe all missed the cross that Saiz put on the line of the six yard box against Aston Villa last week, much to Samu’s chagrin. But he didn’t need those three: he needed one Matt Smith.

It’s a retrograde idea, maybe; a blow to soccer purism, perhaps; a too romantic view of a player fortunate to have stepped above non-league, probably. But Smith made that step, that Jay-Roy Grot has not, and there’s not much about football in the Championship that he doesn’t know about, knowledge that’s in short supply at our squad’s sharp end. Smith knows the club, he knows the league, he knows how to score, and he ought to be cheap; and while his games to goals stats were low last time he was here, he managed one every 190 minutes when he only had one McCormack aiming balls at his head, rather than one Saiz, a Hernandez, and an Alioski.

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They do say you should never go back. Lee Chapman came back, got sent off, went away again. Smith’s curious doppelganger, the great John Charles, came back from Juventus, but was badly out of form and soon went to Italy again. That, though, had been a cynical transfer, meant by the board to bring in higher gate receipts through increased ticket prices and excitement at the return of a legend, not something that’s likely to be an issue around any return of Smith.

There lies one of his drawbacks — Smith’s not likely to put bums on seats at Elland Road. But if he scores goals, he might get bums off them, and hands in the air like they just don’t care. Leeds might have the finishers we need already at the club, waiting to get going: the last few weeks of 2017 are Lassoga and Ekuban’s chance to prove they can be the goalscorer we need to make Samu Saiz’s life complete, and put the finishing touch to a beautiful troupe of playmakers. But if, in the next few weeks, you see the ball flying across the box without a touch to send it past the keeper, and see Saiz throwing his hands in the air in despair, just remember that crammed in a dugout in Shepherd’s Bush is a nice young man who has some unfinished business in Yorkshire. ◉

(artwork by Joe Gamble)