At first glance it looked an innocuous situation. But then defenders don’t normally have Craig Mackail-Smith bearing down on them.
A simple flick-on from his strike-partner, Ashley Barnes, would create the opportunity this time. Mackail-Smith’s starting position wasn’t favourable, stationed five yards behind a defender who looked in command. But, in a split-second, he was there, in-front of his marker and charging down on goal. The outcome was never in doubt, as he lashed a crisply struck volley into the far corner of the net.
This was 13 months ago, and it is not only significant as it was Mackail-Smith’s last goal in a competitive match, due to a long-term Achilles problem ruling him out of playing for almost a year, but because it was also a strike that epitomises the front-man. There is relentlessness to his play that is almost unique.
Never stopping to rest, from minute one to the final whistle, there is a boundless energy to Mackail-Smith that is tiring just to watch. Whereas other strikers may have given up on the chance, if there is only a minimal chance of an opening Mackail-Smith will seize it. He is no stranger to turning the odds in his favour. It is something he has had to do for his entire career.
Indeed, Mackail-Smith never played for an academy – alternatively, he was playing for St. Albans City’s first-team at the age of 16 - and whilst many footballers find their careers stagnate in the non-league, he decided to use his exposure to competitive football to his advantage. “I wasn’t playing nice football in those games. I was just working hard,” Mackail-Smith explained. “I was thrown in at the deep end and learnt what it was like to be kicked about.
“I had a great experience doing that and I feel young players in academies don’t really get that exposure. They play games against each-other and against older age-groups, but it’s not the same as having the physicality of a fully-grown man pushing, kicking and trying to intimidate you.”
Try as they might, intimidating Mackail-Smith is easier said than done. There are many imposing defenders that have played against him that will testify that by the end of the game they were the ones doing the cowering. It wasn’t long before Mackail-Smith’s primitive desire to win possession back, partnered with a clinical edge in-front of goal, was noticed by bigger clubs, either. And, via a move to Arlesey Town, Dagenham and Redbridge came calling.
“I was lucky because of what John Still [Dagenham manager at the time of Mackail-Smith’s transfer] did,” the striker modestly admits. “He had a great eye for spotting talent at the lower-leagues. I played with Paul Benson and Sam Saunders and since the likes of Dwight Gayle have been there.
“The list goes on of how many players he has brought out of nowhere and put them into Dagenham’s team to great success.”
What, then, was the secret to Still’s achievement? “He just had belief that those players could make an impact at that level and higher,” Mackail-Smith explained. “He wanted you to play football; he wanted you to enjoy it. He had his own philosophy of getting the ball into the channels as quickly as possible, shutting the game down, playing the game at a very high tempo and I learnt a lot.”
Mackail-Smith spent a productive three years at The Daggers before Peterborough United decided to acquire his services. In moving to London Road the blonde-haired attacker was to join another club famed for their faith in entrusting inexperienced but talented players. And this was something that helped eased the transition for Mackail-Smith.
He said: “When I joined Posh they brought in a lot of players from the lower-leagues. We all knew each-other through playing against each-other.
“In the end there were nine, 10 or 11 of us who were brought out of non-league and given that opportunity. I think all of us have gone on to progress our careers.”
Although Mackail-Smith admits that Posh have helped their careers, in-turn, the players improved Posh. Success was immediate on Mackail-Smith’s arrival, with the club achieving back-to-back promotions in his first two full seasons and the 30-year-old was one of the protagonists.
Alongside George Boyd and Aaron McLean – a threesome who were christened ‘The Holy Trinity’ by Peterborough United fans – Posh possessed one of the most feared front-lines in the entire Football League and their free-scoring approach to football was a period of time Mackail-Smith thrived off.
“Darren Ferguson was very attack-minded. He loved to keep the ball, but he always wanted us to look forward first and attack as quickly as possible and as much as we could.
"For me, as a striker, it was fantastic because it gave me licence just to wait for chances to be created. I don’t know if it was so good as a defender because most of the players just went and attacked and left the back four to themselves,” Mackail-Smith said, jokingly, although knowing the statement had a hint of truth. “We had a lot of high-scoring games and luckily enough most of the time we came off in the winning side.”
Still, the upwards trajectory of his career was unremitting. In just three years Mackail-Smith had gone from a non-league hopeful to a key player in a Championship side and whilst many may have had doubts that the incessant success would catch up with them he admits he always had faith he and his team-mates could adapt to whatever level they were playing at.
He said: “We all had confidence in our own ability and we all believed in each-other. The great thing about bringing so many young, hungry players together is that we all had a drive and we all had the same dreams of where we wanted to get to.
“We spent a lot of time together, had a great camaraderie on and off the pitch and I think that’s why we were so successful. We wanted the best for each-other and I think that’s how good teams go about.”
Posh’s success was halted eventually, with a disheartening relegation from the Championship in the 2009/10 season, but Mackail-Smith dragged the club back up to the second-tier again in the next season – scoring 35 goals in the 2010/11 campaign, including one, his 99th for the club, in Posh’s 3-0 play-off final victory over Huddersfield Town.
Even so, his time at London Road was up. There was a mutual understanding that Mackail-Smith had surpassed Posh. He deserved a bigger stage to showcase his talents and, despite other offers, the front-man opted for a move to Brighton and Hove Albion in the summer of 2011.
It is where he has been ever since, but whilst Mackail-Smith has seemingly taken every other challenge that has presented itself during his career with great ease, he acknowledges that adapting to Brighton’s style of football – an impressive, but rare, continental style, which demands possession is retained and the passing is patient rather than direct – has been a challenge.
He said: “I’m used to playing with two up-front which allows space for me to get into. I enjoy making runs which pull defenders away, which allows me to do everything that I’m good at, but it’s been quite difficult at Brighton.
“We play with one up-front so you’re always marked by two defenders. If you make a move and go past one of them there is always a second one to try and beat. It’s been a learning curve and I’ve had to adjust my game in lots of different ways.
“That doesn’t mean it’s been a bad thing. I want to score more goals and get back to playing the way I play and get the best out of myself, but I’m also willing to learn and improve and do a job for the team.”
Why, though, is this style of football so uncommon in England, especially in the Football League? “In England our approach is more about working hard, shutting down defenders and grinding results out,” Mackail-Smith explains. “In countries like Spain [current Brighton boss Oscar Garcia’s country of birth] that’s how they’re brought up. That’s how they play their game. The two styles are very, very different.
“I think the players in the leagues are capable of doing it, but it’s something we need to introduce slowly and we need to take the good with the bad.”
Adapting to this distinctive style of possession based football hasn’t been the only obstacle Mackail-Smith has come across during his time on the South Coast, though. He has also experienced his first long-term injury since joining the professional game and it has thwarted his progress at the club – something he admits has been frustrating.
“It’s been very, very difficult. In a sense I’ve been very lucky. I’ve played men’s football since the age of 16 and I’ve reached 29 and this is my first major injury. But it’s been very disappointing,” he says. “It’s been nearly a year now since I last played a competitive game and it’s been mentally draining. It’s been extremely difficult going into training every day, watching the boys train and play knowing that, at this moment in time, when I’m not physically fit enough to do that.”
That said, Mackail-Smith’s time on the side-lines is almost over. He is closing in on a return to the pitch and naturally cannot wait to get started. Indeed, his desire is still as strong as ever and he still has two main ambitions to fulfil.
“Since I’ve been a young lad it’s been my dream to play in the Premier League. I’m always striving towards that.” Mackail-Smith says. “I’d love to play in a major tournament with Scotland too.The groups came out on Sunday and it’s not too bad so we’ve got a good chance of that.
“Those are my two big ambitions within football and hopefully I can achieve them.”
Anybody that that has witnessed Mackail-Smith’s unbridled determination can affirm that it would foolish to bet against him doing just that.
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