BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Matt Smith is looking to impress this season – and that has nothing to do with putting himself in the shop window.
The striker, 31, was top-scorer for Millwall last season with 14 goals and will look to nail down a starting spot again under Gary Rowett when the Championship resumes on September 12.
Smith is due to be a free agent at the end of June but says that doesn’t change the way he will approach the 2020-21 campaign.
The big frontman signed a two-year deal when he arrived from QPR in July 2019.
“This is probably uncharted territory for me,” said Smith. “Other than when I moved to Leeds I have never found myself in my final year of a contract.
“But it doesn’t change my attitude one bit. My approach will always be the same – to give everything I can and have the most productive season as possible.
“I’m not one to sit back, relax and think everything is okay. I’m the type of person who wants to keep pushing and do better and better every season. The target is always to have the best season I’ve ever had.”
Smith is coming off his most prolific goal return in English football’s second tier. He netted eight times in his final season at QPR and bagged 11 for them in 2017-18. While he ended the 2014-15 season with 19 goals, 13 of those came during a productive loan at then League One outfit Bristol City.
Rowett has already said one area that damaged Millwall’s top-six prospects is that they didn’t score between 65 and 70 goals. Only six clubs netted fewer than Millwall’s tally of 57.
The Lions chief did not pin those attacking shortcomings just on his attackers. But Smith is happy to question himself.
“While people might be told to contribute from other areas, ultimately it is the job of myself and the other strikers. I look at myself – could I have scored more and helped the team out?
“While we were very resilient and kept a lot of clean sheets, we didn’t score enough goals. That is my job to do that. As a collective we fell a bit short.
“I could have got a couple at QPR [in the penultimate fixture] which could have changed the game. Middlesbrough at the start of the season was a catastrophe for me – I could have had a hat-trick.
“Against Luton I could’ve got us the win but had a big miss with a header. You do think about those scenarios but there are probably one or two that go for you, so it balances itself out. But I’m never satisfied. You can’t let complacency start to creep in.”
Rowett has moved to strengthen the striking department with Troy Parrott arriving on loan.
Millwall were so often 4-4-2 under previous boss Neil Harris – who was a long-term admirer of Smith – but quite often Rowett has employed one out-and-out centre-forward in a 4-2-3-1 or 5-2-3 formation.
“There are a wealth of attacking players at the top end of the pitch vying for attacking spots,” said Smith.
“Ultimately I’m hoping I can force my way in and be that person.
“Goals don’t necessarily guarantee you starting, as we’ve seen. It is not just delivering the best goal return as a forward – it’s that you can be best for the team and the style of play. I’ve always believed I operate better with a strike partner, so seeing the likes of Troy and everyone else we have got makes my eyes light up.
“But I also realise that two strikers is becoming less and less fashionable these days.
“Hopefully I can be the main man – not only deliver goals but also be a platform and catalyst for the team to perform.”
Parrott, 18, has arrived with a lofty reputation – he has already been capped at senior level by the Republic of Ireland and featured in the Premier League last season under both Mauricio Pochettino and Jose Mourinho.
The Lions put out a video last week of the youngster showing a ruthless streak in shooting drills.
“Everyone has been really, really impressed with him,” said Smith. “For an 18-year-old he carries himself as a mature adult.
“He’s very much got a man’s body for such a young lad. In training he has shown he has got a good footballing brain. He has got some great attributes – he’s strong, he can turn and he can finish.
“On the face of it, it looks a really savvy move and acquisition for the team. Hopefully he scores us a lot of goals. He has come here looking to get experience and game time under his belt – I’m sure he will do that from what I’ve seen of him so far. To be so sought after by other teams and a manager like Mourinho speaks volumes.”
Millwall are back in the swing of pre-season training, with minimal downtime. The domestic fixture schedule was rejigged due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I enjoy getting down to the games – that stuff that matters most,” said Smith. “This is my 10th pre-season and it is never my finest hour – to get a condensed version of it was music to my ears.
“I don’t tend to shine in this period, so the sooner it’s over the better.
“For big guys like myself you get a little exposed and all these youngsters are running rings around you. But at the same time it is as important, if not more, for the big lads to be in peak physical condition going into the games, because it takes a little longer to get up to speed.
“When you have several weeks off you feel a bit rusty but this time it’s felt like we’d not been away. I made the most of the limited time off. I managed to get away with my fiancée for a couple of weeks in the south of France.
“It was brilliant – as much for a mental break than a physical one. We were off for the lockdown period but you were always mentally switched on to come back.
“So to have that mental respite and not think about football was welcome. It’s been a very challenging year for people and we’re no different as footballers.”
Forest’s end-of-season slump opened the door for Swansea to snatch the final play-off place.
Millwall finished eighth, two points behind the Welsh club.
Smith said: “You look back to the QPR and Middlesbrough games which were the two we really let ourselves down in, it makes you think ‘what if?’. After the Huddersfield game it showed that we were just a win away.
“The league table doesn’t lie. It showcases how you perform over the entire campaign and that’s what matters.
“Whilst it feels like it was down to two games, it really wasn’t.
“We felt very gutted that we fell just short at the very end. It’s something we’ll be looking to rectify going into this season.”
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