Michael Smith: SAS spirit of Rotherham United's wounded hero

Michael SmithMichael Smith
Michael Smith
AS the man with the military pedigree delivered his speech, Michael Smith was listening more intently than most.

Mark Peart, fresh from his gruelling stint of endurance on television show SAS: Who Dares Wins, was giving a motivational talk to Rotherham United's players at the club's Roundwood training ground.

For 50 minutes, he spoke compellingly about sacrifice, about pain, about testing yourself, about discovering new limits.

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Smith, the centre-forward so vital to the Millers' cause, the striker who has taken his game to previously-uncharted heights at AESSEAL New York Stadium, could relate to what Peart was saying.

The targetman has been playing with a broken toe for the last three weeks. No fuss. No publicity. Like Peart did when ex-members of the world's most elite fighting force tried to break him, he's just kept going.

“I wax lyrical about 'Smudge',” said Rotherham manager Paul Warne. “As I've told him, if he plays well, we play well. He is fundamental to everything good that we do.

“If his hold-up play is good then our midfielders can join attacks. If he wins headers, people can run by him. If he's attacking crosses, we have chances to score.

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“Defensively, he works really hard out of possession of the ball. You often see him track back to the edge of his own box. You often see him at defensive set-pieces winning the first ball.”

Smith is the 6ft 4in striker with soft feet and a hard edge to his game. Every defender who has come up against the quietly-spoken Geordie since his January 2017 move from Bury has felt his physical power.

Mark Peart at the Millers' training ground

Despite his hulking frame, he is quick, mobile and tireless while his hold-up play is a match for any frontman in the Championship.

Crucially for a Rotherham side built on fitness and running power he's still going as hard in the 90th minute as he is in the first.

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The assignment of Peart was to prove his SAS worth over 12 exhausting days. The Millers' operation involves second-tier survival and being able to join the Rotherham firefighter in  declaring 'Mission accomplished'.

Leading from the front — in a literal and metaphorical sense — is Smith who has begun 34 of 35 league games this campaign and has hardly ever been substituted.

Warne, a striker in his own playing days, knows how that incessant workload can drain an attacker's energy.

“When I was with Oldham Athletic, I played virtually every minute of the year when we reached the League One play-offs (2006/07),” the boss said.

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“By this stage of the season back then, I did get a bit of fatigue. I was trying just as hard but I wasn't quite the same player.

“It's hard when you play up front. And when you play up front for me and Richie (assistant manager Barker and another former forward), it's even tougher. We demand a lot from you.

“The fact that Smudge is still performing at the level he is and has played nearly every minute is amazing.”

Peart was an inspiring figure on the TV programme named after the SAS's famous motto.

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“Mark kindly came in after his night shift as a fireman and spoke to the lads,” Warne said.

“He explained how hard the SAS programme was. He was saying how in times of trouble you have to dig deep.”

No-one in a Rotherham shirt has dug deeper than Smith whose continuing presence has prevented the injury absence of other frontmen becoming a full-blown crisis.

“He's been playing with a broken toe for the last few weeks,” Warne revealed. “He could have easily come out of the team but that's not the sort of character he is. That's why everyone at the club loves him.”

SAS: Smudge Always Starts.

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There isn't another forward of his ilk in the division and he is pivotal to the way the Millers play: everything goes to him or through him. Or both.

“It is really difficult to keep performing week in and week out, but he's doing it,” Warne said. “He wants to do well for everybody. I'm not saying he is selfless because everyone has to look after themselves to a degree but he is really unselfish.

“Jamie Proctor has been injured for a lot of the season, then Kyle Vassell has regrettably gone down as well. Smithy has had to do it on his own.

“I have Jerry Yates and I had David Ball (now on loan at Bradford City), but Smudge is different. He is a big man and, as a big man, everything has been on his shoulders.”

A scorer against Preston

And he's a big man getting bigger.

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“Since he's been here, under the tutelage of Ross (head of performance Burbeary), he's hit the weights and put on seven kilos in muscle,” Warne continued.

“That is no mean feat, as anyone who goes to the gym will tell you. He looks good on it, I have to say.”

In recent matches, he was too much for Hull City to handle when the Millers fought back from 2-0 behind to force a 2-2 draw at the KCOM Stadium and his towering second-half display at Reading coincided with Warne's visitors recovering from a goal down to earn a point.

He also terrorised Sheffield Wednesday in both derbies, to the extent in the second one, at New York last month, that afterwards Owls centre-half Michael Hector felt the need to apologise on Twitter for his own display.

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Smith's solitary flaw is that he doesn't put away enough of the chances that come his way. There have been only five goals this season and none since New Year's Day. He dominated against the Owls in the 2-2 home draw but missed two golden opportunities.

The damage to his toe had been sustained in a freak incident in the warm-up before that contest when teammate Will Vaulks accidentally trod on him.

So often does the 27-year-old come close to scoring without managing to that the club's yoga instructor has dubbed him “The Nearly Man”.

Referees don't like him. Everybody else does. Hull City are huge admirers, although their interest stopped short of making a bid in the January transfer window, and Aston Villa were watching him during the tenure of Steve Bruce.

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He has found a home at New York and, in a nomadic career, has played more games for the Millers, 59, than for any of his previous teams other than Swindon Town for whom he appeared 72 times.

The player himself is modest and unassuming. “No, too soon,” he protested when it was put to him a few weeks ago that he was now a fully-fledged Championship operator after years spent in the lower leagues. “Let's see how I go over a full season. Then I might agree with you.”

Warne has no doubts, though. And Peart would approve of the Smith approach.

“No player is above criticism but Smudge is the closest to it,” the manager said. “He is absolutely the best he can be and the lads all know he's central to any success we have.

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“He has absolutely dedicated his life to being the best he can be. He's one of the last ones to leave the training ground on a daily basis. He'll stay behind and do extra.”

Who Cares Wins.



Rotherham United 1 Ipswich Town 0, August 11

Smith says winners always mean more to strikers and this is his favourite goal of his Rotherham career. It was an opportunist header in the dying seconds in front of the kop in the first home league match of the season.

Preston North End 1 Rotherham United 1, October 27

What a strike. Smith had come close in the first half at Deepdale and did the business after the break, taking a pass from Ryan Williams, turning and firing an unstoppable shot high into the net for the equaliser.

Blackburn Rovers 1 Rotherham United 1, November 10

The Millers were under the cosh in the 75th minute at Ewood Park but they broke and Smith applied a pinpoint headed finish, back across goal and in, to Williams' right-wing cross. Travelling fans dreamed of a first away win of the season for six minutes until Bradley Dack levelled.

Sheffield Wednesday 2 Rotherham United 2, December 8

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The best of the five. Will Vaulks played a long ball over the Owls defence just after half-time and Smith's control was as sure as always as he outpaced the home defence and bent a superb low shot just inside the far post.

Rotherham United 2 Preston North End 1, January 1

Joe Newell sent the ball high into the penalty area from the left wing and Smith timed his run and leap perfectly to head Rotherham into a two-goal second-half lead.