BY RICHARD CAWLEY
“The FA Cup changed my life.” It’s a bold statement by Matt Smith, but one that shows the transformative effects of the competition.
If it hadn’t been for the competition then the 30-year-old admits that his career could have ended before it really started.
Instead Smith has played for the likes of Leeds United, Fulham, QPR and now Millwall – more than 300 matches in the professional game with 209 of those at Championship level.
The big striker signed a two-year deal with Oldham after gaining a first class degree in business.
Lift off came when Smith scored twice to help dump Liverpool out of the FA Cup in 2013 at Boundary Park. And he followed up with a stoppage-time header to earn the Latics a lucrative replay at Everton in the fifth round.
“The FA Cup changed my life,” said Smith. “I was struggling for a bit of form. I was at Oldham, my first taste of footballer life.
“To say it was going at a mediocre rate was probably an improvement on what it was doing at the time!
“The confidence the goals against Liverpool and Everton bred and the direction that took me in my professional life – it changed my entire world and everything I knew about it. I went from obscurity to national headlines.
“My mum was the one who pushed me down the education route and wanted me to have a back-up plan. Even when I did begin my first steps into professional football at Oldham it was always seen as a bit of a give-it-a-go type of thing – if it doesn’t work out then you’ve got your degree to fall back on.
“If I’d not played that FA Cup game or not played so well then maybe I’d have ended up falling back into education. For 18 months out of that two years I was plugging away and not getting anywhere.
“It was a bit of a Sliding Doors moment. You’ve got to respect the benefit of what happened and take the new opportunity with both hands – which I did. I’ve forged an alright career out of it since.
“It gave me huge confidence – if you could bottle that it would make a fortune. It’s probably the most important thing you can have when you go out to play. It galvanised me in a whole new way and I had a really successful last six months of the season – that got me my move to Leeds. That was the catalyst for what came after that.
“That’s the nature of the beast – it’s a great competition, particularly for underdogs. You pit your wits against someone for 90 minutes, as a one-off, and miracles do happen. It’s a great, great competition. One that is steeped in tradition.”
Smith swapped shirts with Liverpool’s Martin Skrtel and Everton’s Phil Jagielka.
The Reds team might not have been as dominant a force as Jurgen Klopp’s current crop – but they still had the likes of Luis Suarez, Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard in their ranks.
“It was a very, very good Liverpool 11 we knocked out,” said Smith. “Those games can transform the entire picture of your career and it did for me. I’ve got to be very grateful for that.
“I thoroughly enjoyed my experiences that year. Since then I’ve had good runs, but not huge ties. Hopefully I can do that this time.”
Smith has the chance to add to his history in the tournament tomorrow as Millwall look to add to their list of Premier League scalps in recent years when they face Sheffield United.
They knocked out Bournemouth, Watford and Leicester City in the 2016-17 season. And last season they also sent Everton spiralling out on their way to reaching the last eight.
Chris Wilder’s Blades face a Millwall side who are in the groove.
They have lost just twice since Gary Rowett took control in SE16.
Saturday’s 2-0 win over Reading saw the Lions match their entire points total for last season.
The same applies to Smith. He is on eight goals, which is what he managed over the full campaign for QPR last time around.
Six of those have come at The Den – along with three assists.
“I really enjoy playing there,” said Smith. “You can see the team has a good record at The Den this season – we’re maximising the environment and putting it to good advantage. Long may it continue.
“I’m playing a lot more, which is ultimately the reason why I came to Millwall. I’m reaping the benefits. I’ll always back myself to impact games and contribute if I’m playing.
“It’s about getting as much game time as possible.
“The Den is a hostile environment to play in anyway but add to it a difficult pitch [due to the cold weather] and it makes for a harder afternoon.
“The footballing sides, like Reading, probably were a bit disrupted by not getting the ball down and passing it around as comfortably as they’d have liked.
“We like to pass it and have control of the game as well. It’s not ideal for either team, but if it disrupts the opposition – added to the atmosphere already – then we’ll use it to our advantage.
“It’s there for all to see how well Sheff U have done – getting promoted but also since then. They are one of the top teams in the Premier League at the moment.
“They are going to be hard to beat. Chris Wilder’s teams are very organised and have lots of quality in lots of areas of the pitch. It will be a tough afternoon. I’m sure they’ll ring the changes but if you look at who they’ve got waiting in the wings then it’s a lot of experience and a lot of quality.”
Smith’s dad Ian will be in the stands this weekend – as he is whenever his son is in action.
He played for Birmingham in the old First Division – now the Premier League – as well as spells at Queen’s Park and Hearts.
“His career only lasted eight years and he went on to become a doctor and do a medical degree,” said Smith. “He’s my biggest fan and is there home and away, religiously. He probably does eight or nine thousand miles a year to see me play.
“He loves it. He’s my biggest supporter. He’s always very positive – a glass half-full kind of guy.”
Millwall are motoring along so well that a Championship play-off push cannot be dismissed.
Only Brentford (20) have taken more points that the Lions (19) over the last 10 matches.
“We’re enjoying where we are and trying to improve,” said Smith. “There is no expectation on our shoulders and that’s a weapon for us.
“We take it game by game, like we have done the past few months.”