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League One

Feature: Striking distance

The Millers’ leading marksman talks placing a wager with the Assistant Manager, his development under the coaching staff and why he’s exceeded even his own expectations this season.

19 April 2022

When he caught a first glimpse of his January recruit four years ago, Rotherham United Manager Paul Warne wouldn’t have slapped a £10 valuation on Michael Smith, let alone the £10 million price tag that the boss believes the team’s talisman carries now.

How opinions can change.

Fortunately, up until recently, he been blissfully unaware of his Manager’s initial ruling on him.

“I played in a five-a-side and Hammy [Matt Hamshaw] and the gaffer got together and said, ‘what have we signed here?’” Smith recalls. “I only found that out a few weeks ago when he mentioned that! That’s nice of him.”

From being hailed as his worst-ever signing to the best frontman to have led line the line for Rotherham in the Club’s 96-year existence, boss Warne made the claim earlier in the season that the striker could be the best-ever to don a Millers shirt.

A statement from the Manager himself, even in Smith’s eyes, but it shows just how far he’s come since making the switch midway through the 2017/18 campaign.

“It’s massive,” he agrees, a glimmer in his eye. “The gaffer is a Club legend himself so for him to say that, having been around the Club a lot more than me and played with a lot of previous strikers and spoken about the likes of Alan Lee, it’s a special feeling to know that the Manager you’re playing under has that confidence and that belief in you.

“Thankfully, I’ve managed to change their opinions. It’s down to them really and the way they’ve made me as a player.”

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At the Club’s training residence Smith – known as ‘Smudge’ to his closest friends – is unlocatable. Shouts of, ‘he’s in the gym’, echo around the canteen.

It’s become his second home since joining the South Yorkshire side four years ago and whilst his team-mates take a well-earned break and tuck into their lunches, the striker is always looking for ways to improve his physique.

“I was like a string bean when I first came, and they’ve managed to put a beef on me in the gym,” he laughs.

“I can’t speak highly enough of the staff we’ve got here. It’s an accumulation of working with the staff over the years; it’s four years I’ve been here now. I’m getting in the six-yard box more and doing as I’m told a bit more about what they’re wanting from me.

“It’s all come together. It helps being settled and happy off the pitch – it stands you in good stead to play well on it. Where I’m from is like Rotherham – it’s a working-class town with working-class people who hold the same value as myself. That’s how I’ve always played football. It’s been bred into me from the youth team up at Darlington to where I am now.”

The 30-year-old took his tally to 24 goals in all EFL competitions less than a week after being shortlisted for the Sky Bet League One Player of the Season accolade, completing a clean sweep at Club’s own awards presentation night.

Smith, who managed eight goals in his first full season with the South Yorkshire side, wasn’t even expecting it of himself in August when the 2021/22 campaign got underway.

“I’d be lying if I said I did!” he exclaims. “It’s the first time in my career so it’s been a long time coming.

“I knew the group we’d got and the chances we could create; we’ve created chances ever since I’ve been at the Club. As I’ve always said, I’m nothing without the lads putting the ball into the box for me to get on the end of them.”

However, his brace against Hartlepool United which fired the Millers into the Papa Johns Trophy Final will perhaps go down as his most memorable strikes this season.

That double saw him overtake Adam le Fondre as the Club’s top scorer this century with 60 goals in Rotherham colours, surpassing the former Millers ace’s – who represented the side between 2009 and 2011 – 58 strikes.

“I didn’t realise until someone pointed it out on social media,” he adds. “I know he’s been spoken about a lot. I played against him years ago, so I know he’s a goal-scorer and I know how highly thought of he is around these parts. It’s nice to be recognised in the same company as players like that. It means you’re doing something right.”

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Added incentive up his game came from Assistant Manager Richie Barker, whom Smith came to an understanding with during the early throes of the season.

The pair share something of a common deity and Warne’s number two was even willing to part with his most prized possession if it could spur the Millers’ number 24 to find the back of the net this year – the only thing he’d like to get his hands on more than the Golden Boot.

“Richie Barker’s idol was Alan Shearer, as Shearer is mine having grown up watching him play for Newcastle,” he explained. “In pre-season, he let me into a little secret that he’s got a signed Alan Shearer shirt in the house. Richie was captain the day that Mansfield played Newcastle in the FA Cup, so he got a signed shirt from him.

“He said to me, ’25 goals and you can have it’. It was nice to putting a little extra something. I don’t mind taking that off Richie at all, although he keeps moving the goalposts and adding goals on. We’ll have to have a conversation at the end of the season.”

But of the 19 League strikes to his name this season, one in particular stands out to Smith.

“The second goal at Hillsborough – a local derby in front of the away fans that happened to be on the television at the time," he smiles, recalling the 84th-minute clever finish which set Rotherham on their way to the bragging rights over the Owls.

A multitude of factors have contributed to his increased output this season but hitting double digits is still subordinate for the striker.

“As a striker, you’re always going to get judged on goals,” he affirms. “It’s only recently that people have taken note of work off the ball that strikers do. I watch a lot of football and I know a lot of stats coming into the game. Running stats are being highlighted by strikers now.”

“It still comes second. If we’re achieving what we want to as a team, it’s all good. It’s just nice that they’re going hand-in-hand.”

The Rotherham forward has certainly stepped up to the plate this season and although the goals are something of a bonus for Smith, he’s keeping them coming as the home straight approaches to get Warne’s side over the line.

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