Interview: Millwall’s Matt Smith on problem he’s had throughout his career, the art of the sub – but how he’ll never settle for bench role

MATT Smith is Millwall boss Gary Rowett’s Catch-22.

Statistically, Smith is one of the most efficient strikers in the Championship.

In fact, last season, only Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrovic had a better goals-to-minutes ratio in the league.

Mitrovic scored a goal every 138 minutes to help the Cottagers to promotion, Smith a goal every 139 minutes as Millwall finished eighth.

Smith has scored two of his three goals in the league this campaign after coming off the bench, where he has started in 39 of his 65 appearances for the Lions.

Last season was Smith’s most productive as a Championship player. He scored 13 league goals, but a sequence of four games in the campaign illustrated the problem for Rowett, and for Smith.

Despite five goals in three games – albeit either side of football’s almost four-month suspension – Smith started the following two games, at Barnsley and at home to Swansea, on the bench.

That was because Rowett wanted a more mobile central striker to press teams who try to play out from the back with short passes.

There’s not a lot Smith can do about it. At 6ft6ins and with a bulky frame, he can’t cover ground as quickly as Tom Bradshaw or Jon Dadi Bodvarsson.

Smith was signed by Neil Harris to play mostly in a 4-4-2 formation, and he scored his first goal on his second start at The Den with Aiden O’Brien as a striker partner.

But then Smith was left out of the starting line-up in the next game at Fulham when, infamously from the visitors’ perspective, Scott Parker’s side had more possession and more completed passes in their 4-0 win than any Championship side since those statistics started being recorded.

Rowett has mostly played with one central striker since he was appointed manager in October 2019.

“I guess that’s always been the problem I’ve had,” Smith tells NewsAtDen. “Teams and managers over the years, especially in modern-day football, they have forwards that press from the front and have that mobility that I’ve never had.

“I’ve always excelled typically with a partner alongside me who can run and get on the ball, who can take that onus off me a bit.

Matt Smith played up front with Aiden O’Brien early on in his Lions career

“But in the modern day a lot of the time you play with one striker and that striker has to have a bit of everything.

“The target man, unfortunately for me, is a bit of a dying breed. There aren’t many of my type of players left in the game.

“What they can be is effective, as I’ve shown over the years. But in terms of a skillset it obviously doesn’t offer the speed and mobility that a lot of managers want in their team.”

Smith’s goals tend to be important. He came off the bench to earn Millwall a point at Bournemouth last month, and then at Reading last weekend scored the equaliser before Mason Bennett’s winner.

Against the Cherries, Smith anticipated Jake Cooper’s header to steal in behind the defence to score. And at Reading, Smith pounced on the loose ball after Tom Bradshaw’s shot had been blocked.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – perhaps the most famous super-sub in Premier League history – used to studiously watch the play as a substitute to see where the space and opportunities were. The former Manchester United striker once scored four goals off the bench in an 8-1 win at Nottingham Forest.

Smith explains his approach when he is a substitute.

“Having been on the bench many, many times – I think I might be the most-used sub in Championship history – I tend to spend a lot of time on the sidelines warming up,” Smith says.

“I find standing on the sideline at pitch level you do get a feeling for the rhythm of the game. For me, the biggest thing about coming on as a sub is catching up with the rhythm of the game as quickly as you can.

“It’s easier said than done, sometimes it can be really difficult depending on when you come on. So I do like to stand at pitch level and get a feel for how quick it is or how slow it is.

“I try to mentally get a grip of that so that when I come on I can catch up as quickly as possible.

“It is a difficult thing coming on as a sub so that’s my one takeaway from that, really.”

Smith elaborates on what his mental processes are when he gets a goal chance.

“I think a lot of it is just instinct, really, you’re replicating different types of finishes you’ve done a thousand times in training,” Smith says.

“I think a little bit of auto-pilot does kick in and you just go off instinct and how you feel in the moment.

“The only time when you do have a lot of time to think is when you have a one-on-one when there’s a lot of grass in front of you.

“Otherwise you are operating off instinct and past performance, really.”

Matt Smith (10) celebrates his injury-time winner against Charlton

The main problem now for Smith is that he needs as much match action as possible to prove he is worth a new contract.

“It has been frustrating,” he admits, “but the one thing you can’t do is feel sorry for yourself or play the victim, because you’ll get left behind.

“Football is a ruthless industry and I feel like my longevity at this level has been down to the fact that I am passionate about starting games and playing as many minutes as possible.

“It would be all too easy for me to say, ‘okay, I’ll be that impact sub, I’ll just play that role’.

“But I don’t think I would have had the career I’ve had to date. My desire to start every game, play every minute of every game is always there.

“There’s just a natural level of frustration when that doesn’t happen, especially when you’re scoring goals.

“I’ll always have that determination, that drive, that desire to start until I retire, I think.

“Ultimately that’s what’s led to my longevity at Championship level over the last eight years.”

Image: Millwall FC 

John Kelly