BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Matt Smith has described the tactics of Millwall boss Gary Rowett as “scary” after they clicked so effectively at Nottingham Forest.
The striker, 30, scored a 13-minute hat-trick – only the second of his career and first in the league – as the Lions turned in a highly impressive performance at the City Ground.
Rowett, wary of Forest’s counter-attacking potency, knew that short, straight passes would play into the hosts’ hands. Instead the South Londoners opted for diagonal balls up to Smith, making it almost impossible to be hit quickly on the break by Sabri Lamouchi’s side.
“It shows his knowledge of the game and his ability to predict outcomes,” said Smith, who has scored 53 Championship goals. “Because it was almost scary how much of what he told us in the pre-match meeting actually unravelled in the game.
“He mentioned that the full-back bombs on really high, overlaps [Joe] Lolley frequently and leaves huge spaces down the left. He asked Mason [Bennett] to come in off the 10 and drift into the left-hand side.
“For the first goal he does that – lays it off to Muzza [Murray Wallace] and we get a goal. For the second goal Mason goes alone down the left channel, cuts it back. It was almost freaky how he predicted it.
“A big reason I think I started is that he said they don’t deal with direct play very well or set-pieces – and then we get the third goal off a set-piece.
“It shows know-how, acumen – what he has in that department. It’s not just the Forest game, his record since he came through the door has been top-of-the-league stuff. It’s testament to him.
“Different managers deliver messages in different ways. Our manager delivers messages in a very simple, yet clear, way. It’s quite easy to take on board. Sometimes you have information overload, but he delivers a number of very clear messages – you go out knowing exactly what he wants you to do.
“Nine times out of 10 they are the right ones.”
Smith is only the fourth Millwall player to score a first-half hat-trick since 1920 in the Football League. The last one was John Shephard at Shrewsbury in 1952.
The former Fulham, Leeds and QPR frontman got the matchball signed by all of his team-mates – even Jayson Molumby.
The young Irish midfielder ran off and performed a celebratory dance after the second goal, but his shot came off Smith’s heel before it beat Brice Samba in the Forest goal.
“I was laughing in my head because the celebration was fantastic and I knew it was going to get credited to me,” said Smith. “I knew they were obviously going to slow-mo it on the TV, so they’ll see it come off my heel.
“I don’t think it would’ve gone in if it hadn’t hit my heel. I think it would’ve hit the defender’s leg or the keeper would’ve saved it. The deflection took it off course, it didn’t slightly ricochet – it took it in.
“I didn’t know much about it because Jay came in at a hell of a pace and struck it really cleanly.
“We were having a good laugh in the dressing room afterwards because we pulled up the video of his dancing, which went viral.
“He’s a top, top lad Jay. I love him to pieces. He’s been a breath of fresh air since he’s come through the door and he’s grown and evolved from the time he’s been with us. From the lad who didn’t say too many words to now being a big part of the dressing room.”
Smith has scored 11 league goals for Millwall since arriving from QPR in the summer.
He netted six times in the previous season. His best Championship total was 12, for Leeds, in the 2013-14 campaign.
“I’ve been in the Championship for a long time – to keep the goals flowing now I’m past 30 is where I want to be,” said Smith.
“Hopefully I can keep using my experience in this division to my advantage and keep scoring goals.
“Scoring a hat-trick in the Championship is not the easiest of feats, so it was a proud moment for me.
“It’s an opportunity for me to reach my best league total in this division.
“As long as I’m contributing, that’s what I base my performances on really.
“The most pleasing thing out of this season, rather than that Leeds season, is that most of my goals have contributed to the points total. They have been winners or equalisers.
“I like to think I bring more to my game than goals but ultimately that’s what you’re judged on as a centre-forward. Any of us will be able to tell you their stats inside out.
“If you were to ask me about any of the 53 [scored] in the league, I’d have a good memory of what happened.”
Smith has made 218 appearances in the Championship and 75 in League One, so it’s a surprise to realise he has never reached the play-offs before.
“I’ve flirted with them then tailed off massively,” he said. “To maintain the push to this extent of the season is a new experience, despite being in it so long.
“I know it’s a bit of a cliche to say worry about yourselves, but with nine games to go you do have to take notice of what others are doing – because it has a big impact. Preston, Bristol [City] and Swansea dropped points at the weekend. Wins at this stage are crucial.
“Derby will be a really tough game. They’ve been on massive form, especially since Wayne [Rooney] has come through the door. We’re under no illusions, but we’re back at The Den and have great success there.”