Fulham striker Matt Smith would be forgiven for wanting a more relaxed season than the one he has just experienced.
Three clubs. Two transfers. A deadline day switch. A league and cup double. As well as staving off relegation. Smith did it all last season, but did so the only way he knows best, by scoring goals. 19 in fact – a career best for the 6ft 6in frontman.
“It was certainly very eventful. I feel I made some meaningful contributions,” Smith told Sky Sports.
The 2014/15 season was no doubt the most disruptive of the understated 26-year-old’s career. Having started the campaign at Leeds United – then in the midst of another off the field crisis – Smith escaped the ensuing turmoil at Elland Road by completing a £500,000 switch to recently relegated Fulham.
The move promised a fresh start and the chance to resume the lethal partnership with former Leeds team-mate Ross McCormack, one that had fired in 42 goals the previous season. But, as it turned out, the move was not as simple as first thought.
Felix Magath – the man who signed Smith – paid the price for the club’s awful start to their first season outside of the top-flight for 13 years. With the club rooted in the Championship relegation zone, former Fulham defender Kit Symons was handed the managerial reins.
Smith, having sealed what he thought was a progressive move in his career, was soon told he did not figure in Symons’ plans and was farmed out on loan to League One leaders Bristol City in November to gain game time.
“The first few months at the club were pretty tough to take. It was probably the first time in my career that I have not even been a ‘plan B’. When Kit came in, there was a real energy about the place, the team were playing well and Ross [McCormack] and Hugo [Rodallega] were playing well together. There was no real need to involve me as the team was winning,” Smith said.
Hitting 13 goals in 20 games for the Robins, though, breathed new life into Smith’s season, one which had seemed destined to end permanently away from Craven Cottage.
However Smith, who was awarded League One and Johnstone’s Paint Trophy winners’ medals for the part he played in City’s double success, would return to Fulham in March with his parent club still embroiled in a fight to avoid successive relegations.
Symons, who had discarded Smith four months previously, looked to the forward to help save the club from their perilous position.
A link between Smith and McCormack was arguably the final throw of the dice from an increasing under-pressure Symons. It proved a masterstroke as the duo fired 12 goals in as many matches to preserve the club’s Championship status.
“Like plenty of others, I have had many setbacks during my career, but the attitude that I have maintained throughout is just to see past them and relentlessly strive for self-improvement because I know that opportunities will consequently pop up.
When I came back, it was a bit more of a nervy time and maybe the team needed something different. And that’s when I came in. I have always felt confident within myself that, when given the opportunity, I will score goals,” Smith said.
Smith’s strike rate would certainly attest to that. He is currently boasting an average of a goal every 163 minutes in the Championship. Despite this impressive goalscoring record, Smith still remains wary of how he can sometimes be perceived.
He added: “Certainly with my build and the type of player that I am, I have to accept I may not be every manager’s cup of tea. I’m probably a little bit more unique than most strikers in that sense.”
And it is that supposed tag of only being a big, target man striker that has followed Smith throughout his career. His rise to prominence for Oldham Athletic in the FA Cup in 2013 demonstrated his undoubted aerial ability, scoring twice in a famous 3-2 fourth round victory over Liverpool and twice again over two games against Everton in the fifth round.
Although always willing to concede his aerial prowess as a major strength in his game, Smith hopes his performances, contributions and, most importantly, goals last season have helped to shake off the ‘big man’ label.
“A very pleasing point from last season, especially during my time with Bristol City and when I came back to Fulham, was that I was able to demonstrate that I am not a one dimensional striker and am capable of scoring a variety of different goals,” Smith said.
“Amongst them were volleys, left and right footed shots from outside the box and even back heels. There were all manner of goals and that was the most pleasing point – not trying to be stuck to that stereotype of just being a big man that heads it in at the back stick.
“Sure, that is part of my game and something which I can be effective at, but managing to break the mould of the stereotypical big striker can be quite difficult. But I am hoping last season proved that I have much more to my game.
“It’s another fresh slate this coming season and hopefully, if given the opportunity, I can show the Fulham fans what I am really all about for a sustained period of time. Everyone at the club wants to put the disappointment of last season behind us and really crack on this year.”
However, Smith knows that just surviving in English football’s second tier will not satisfy the club’s fans, manager or highly ambitious owner, Shahid Khan, who acquired the west London outfit in August 2013 from former long-term chairman, Mohammed Al-Fayed.
Symons, who is set to step down from his role as Wales assistant manager to focus his attentions entirely on Fulham, has already been busy adding to his squad ahead of the new campaign.
Goalkeeper Andy Lonergan has joined the club on a free transfer from Bolton Wanderers, while highly-rated midfielder Ben Pringle has also signed following the expiry of his contract at Rotherham United. Scottish midfielder Tom Cairney last week completed a £3m switch from Blackburn Rovers to add to a growing number of new faces in Symons’ squad.
Though conscious of the number of changes at the club over the past 12 months, Smith insists the aim this season must be to get Fulham back into the Premier League.
“Every bigger team in the division begins the season with the aspiration to secure promotion, but you have to remember there are a lot of tough sides in the division,” Smith said.
“It’s never going to be easy, but the aspiration for Fulham must be to get back in the Premier League. Although, we have to take it one small step at a time. It was difficult last season, especially for Kit as he inherited a squad which was assembled by a number of different managers.
“Certainly it is a rebuilding process and that does not happen overnight. But what Kit does have is a lot of hard working players that will give their all and there is a lot of quality in the squad. You just hope we can get off to a good start and build up momentum, which is key.”