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The remarkable rise of Craig Mackail-Smith

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Paul Fletcher | 11:18 UK time, Thursday, 28 April 2011

At first glance Peterborough's 2009-10 Championship campaign was an unmitigated disaster.

The club had four managers, won a pitiful eight of 46 league fixtures and finished the season bottom of the table, a massive 15 points from safety.

But out of the ashes of that miserable nine months in English football's second tier emerged a striker whose form has seen him not only linked with numerous clubs from higher divisions but also rewarded with an international cap for Scotland.

Craig Mackail-Smith is the leading scorer in League One with 26 goals and was recently named as the division's player of the year at the Football League awards.

And the successes of a golden season for the 27-year-old can be traced back to the defeats and frustrations of the failed campaign in the Championship.

Craig Mackail-Smith in action for Peterborough.

Mackail-Smith is League One's leading scorer and a wanted man. Photo: Getty images

"The year in the Championship gave me an insight into what you have to be like at that level and how you need to play if you want to reach the top," Mackail-Smith told me. "I then went away in the summer and worked on what I had to do in order to be good enough in the second tier and maybe even the Premier League. I feel that it has all come together."

Mackail-Smith had always been a hard-working and industrious striker, buzzing along the opposition's backline, tiring out the defence. He is often compared to a lower-league Craig Bellamy, but he knew he had to refine and polish his game, improving his movement and hold-up play, if he was to cut it at a higher level.

He also realised that he had to be more clinical in front of goal. Mackail-Smith scored a creditable 11 goals in a struggling side last season. The fact that eight of them were headers was testament to the improvement he had made in that area. But he also learnt that shooting opportunities had to be cherished and greedily accepted in the Championship.

"I have worked on being more clinical," added Mackail-Smith. "In previous seasons it felt as though I would need two, three or four chances before I scored but this year it has felt like I score every time I take a shot.

"I am always staying out for an extra half hour or so after training, working on my shooting. Posh coaches Mark Robson and Kevin Russell have helped me. If you want to do extra then there is always someone there to stay with you."

Golfer Gary Player once observed that the harder you work, the luckier you get and the same seems to be true of Mackail Smith, whose goals are a key reason why his team are well placed to claim a play-off place. His improvement was quickly apparent to Darren Ferguson when he returned to the club in January for a second spell in charge, with the Scot commenting on his striker's technical improvements.

Mackail-Smith's form has been noticed far beyond London Road as well, with numerous clubs thought to be circling for a player who is out of contract at the end of the 2010-11 season. Posh turned down a bid from Norwich in March, with the Canaries offering £1.5m up front plus another £1m in add-ons for a deal that would have initially seen the striker move on loan.

Norwich are one of six clubs to have contacted Posh about Mackail-Smith, with Reading and Hull thought to be among the other interested parties. However, club chairman Darragh MacAnthony has made it clear he wants £3m, with £2m up front, and recently admitted he expects the player to leave in the summer.

"Rumours about your future will always follow you if you are doing well," said a diplomatic Mackail-Smith when I asked him about what will happen when the season ends. "I'm just trying to keep my head down. The way I see it, my job is to make sure that Posh end the season winning promotion.

"Having said that, it was great for a club like Norwich, sitting second in the Championship and going for the Premier League to come in for me but it was just a case of carrying on."

The player was thought to be keen on joining Canaries, who are in the hunt to win back-to-back promotions and return to the Premier League. Interestingly, there were times during our conversation when he discussed his time at Peterborough in the past tense, perhaps a hint that he will definitely leave the club in the summer.

There is no doubt that Mackail-Smith feels an enormous sense of gratitude to Peterborough, who gave him the opportunity to play League football when they signed him from Dagenham & Redbridge, then a non-league side, in 2007. He had combined his career at Victoria Road with a part-time job in a well-known home improvement store, working in its garden centre, as well as studying for a BTEC national diploma in sports science.

"At the garden centre I did not have a direct manager so I was pretty much a law unto myself and could pretty much do what I wanted," he said. "I spent quite a bit of time sleeping and doing bits and pieces that I should not have been, but when it came to football training, I always put in 100% effort.

"I have learnt to appreciate what I have got; I have had to work hard and graft to get here."

Mackail-Smith could end the season scoring the goals that relegate his former club because Posh play Daggers on the final day of the regular season. He spent three years with them after joining from Arlesey Town in 2004 and made more than 100 appearances for the Essex club. He is one of many players to have been unearthed by manager John Still and reckons it would "break his heart" if he contributed to his former club's relegation.

Craig Mackail-Smith in action for Scotland.

Mackail-Smith made his Scotland debut against Brazil. Photo: Getty Images

However, Mackail-Smith is looking up the leagues rather than down, particularly after his recent international debut gave him a taste of life at the top. He qualifies for Scotland through his grandmother, who is from Edinburgh, and made his debut as a substitute in a friendly against Brazil at Arsenal's Emirates Stadium on Sunday 27 March. Scotland were predictably outclassed by a young Brazil side inspired by Neymar, who scored both of the game's goals.

Mackail-Smith had started the weekend playing for Posh against Bristol Rovers in a Friday evening game and ended it as an 87th-minute substitute against the world's most famous team. When I asked him about his experience he just laughed as though he has yet to really comprehend that it actually happened.

"I tackled Dani Alves, it was my only touch but at least I got to play against Brazil," he said. "But that is what I want to be doing week in, week out, playing in that kind of arena and against those kind of players."

Mackail-Smith might yet realise his ambitions and is widely expected to leave London Road in order to try to achieve them.

He is determined to make sure that if he does, it is after helping Peterborough celebrate promotion.

You can follow me throughout the season at



  • Comment number 1.

    Thanks for the memories Macca , but your not done yet !!! Fire us into the Championship and you'll leave a Legend !!!!

    Top player , the attitude of a proper sportsman. Good luck to him !

  • Comment number 2.

    With Shane Long likely to leave Reading at the end of the season, what are the chances of Mackail-Smith being at the Madejski Stadium next season? Same kind of players: pace and power and big work ethic.

  • Comment number 3.

    im sorry who exactly is this ure on about

  • Comment number 4.

    Shane Long is a flash in the pan, another Stephen Hunt.

  • Comment number 5.

    Goal scorers eh? Who needs 'em? Two-a-penny they are.

    Andrew Fitton

  • Comment number 6.

    He's a good busy little player, but worth £3m !?! No way. He could just as much be a one season wonder. Players like Rickie Lambert have scored 20+ goals for the last 4 seasons and Lambert has almost as many assists and I wouldn't even say he was worth £3m.

  • Comment number 7.

    Shane Long is a much better player than Steven Hunt. He should be picked for Ireland ahead of (a now finished) Robbie Keane and I'm certain he'll score goals in the premiership if he plays in a team that provides half decent service.

  • Comment number 8.

    BREAKING NEWS: mackail - smith to join Manchester United this summer. Darren Fletcher has recommended him to sir alex. you heard it here first

  • Comment number 9.

    Macca is a total legend and a thoroughly good bloke. He has a work rate better than Kuyt and is blessed with more pace. With a better first touch he could be a top striker at the highest level. It is sad that he will leave us at Posh but perfectly understandable as long as it's to go and play at a higher level. A true pro and a great servant to the club. Good luck mate.

  • Comment number 10.

    6. At 13:47pm 28th Apr 2011, ChocolateBoxKid wrote:
    I'm not saying Lambert isn't a great player but you forget his decent goal tally consists of penalties too. Takeaway the penalties and how good is it?
    I agree though, £3m is a lot, but I have the pleasure seeing CMS play most weeks and the lad is very good indeed.

    He is frightening quick, great header of the ball, his finishing has improved no end and the bloke runs all day and chasing every ball. Time may not be on his side but he deserves a decent crack at the championship and no Posh fan would be-grudge him that.

    My fear is for Posh next season regardless of what league they will be in. They will really miss him and will certainly struggle to try and replace him..if they can at all. The chairman will have to spend at least a million to get anywhere near a play like CMS.

  • Comment number 11.

    Gary Player is widely accredited with the saying the more I practice the luckier I get but he actually "borrowed" this maxim from another golfer called Jerry Barber who actually said "the harder I work the luckier I get" - Lee Trevino also used a similar quote in the early 60's.

  • Comment number 12.

    He is a much better player than Lambert. Lambert is a league one player at best hence why he has never been given a chance above that level.
    Wouldn't say he was one season wonder either, saints fans do make me laugh bigging up Lambert can remember one in my office getting worried because he thought the toon were going to poach him when Pardew went there!

    Paul - Think a worthy mention should go to George Boyd as well who is just as key to Posh's team and attacks really well linking with Mackail-Smith.

  • Comment number 13.

    good luck just the daggers get a nice sell on fee !!!

  • Comment number 14.

    Now then - thanks for your thoughts so far.

    Neil W (post 2) - what makes you so certain Shane Long will leave Reading? He might be a Premier League footballer next season - and still be a Royal.

    joe_Wolves (post 3) - that is arguably the point of the article?

    ChocolateBoxKid (post 6) - perhaps clubs feel that his attributes make him better equipped to play at the highest level. Maybe some clubs feel that Rickie Lambert lacks pace? Or perhaps they know that a club like Saints do not need to sell and so they would have to pay a very heavy premium to sign him.

  • Comment number 15.

    nice article paul but you do seem to ignore CMS's spell in league one before the Posh were promoted to the championship. He scored 23 goals that year in 46 appearances, only 3 goals less than the current season. Even the year before that, the 07/08 season he scored 12 goals, when he was pretty new to the league. To me hes a proven striker and hopefully will get his chance at the higher end of the championship, or even the prem!

  • Comment number 16.

    Shane long is shocking and is the little boy compared to steven hunt. What makes u think he is better than hunt anyway. Does he play In the premier league? Is he the regular starter in the Ireland squad. No

    Exactly. If he is that good y is he not attracting attention from premier clubs or better teams in the championship than reading

    A load of rubbish if u ask me CABBAGANDRIBS

  • Comment number 17.

    ChrisOff - Lambert is a very good player, as good as Mackail-Smith in almost every way and he is also very consistent, scoring 20+ a season time and time again (as mentioned earlier.) His touch, control, ball striking and vision are good enough to rival the best Championship players, if even players from the PL.

    Unfortunately, as Paul mentioned, he has no pace whatsoever and therefore will never be able to do a Beckford and make the leap into the PL - you will remember that Lambert scored more goals than Beckford last season. Mackail-Smith is in a similar mould to Beckford, very pacy and clinical, and I think he can cope in a higher league, but no-one can say he is far better than Lambert, who is just a bit of pace away from being brilliant.

  • Comment number 18.

    johnpantsilmylord (post 15) - fair point, although I think that in terms of really catching the attention of clubs in the Championship and possibly higher, this has been a very big season for Craig.

    ChrisOff (post 12) - Yep, George Boyd has done a cracking done for Posh. I thought his big chance had come when he joined Forest last season. He could have been the missing piece in the jigsaw but it never really seemed to happen for him at the City Ground. Perhaps next season he will show them what he is capable of doing?

  • Comment number 19.

    Good Article Paul.
    With reference to Boyd, he has great skill, vision, shooting (a great left peg) and dribbling which are all attributes of a good/great player...however, he is just too inconsistent and frustrates most Posh fans. I know he is still and young and will learn but I fear with most flair players he will never fulfill his potential.

    I also think he should get some help with his pace as he is not the quickest and he got found out about this in the championship. On a positive for Boyd since beeing the point of fergie's diamond he has been a little more consistent and tracks back (he never did this the last few seasons) and his tackling has improved loads.

  • Comment number 20.

    It just goes to show what a bit of hard work can do. He scored plenty of goals in previous seasons but this year he is vastly improved in all areas. Because of his speed he tends to get one-on-ones with goalkeeper. There was a time when he could not convert them. Now he does. After the last goal at Oldham when he volleyed a high ball into the net from the corner of the penalty area his colleages said, "We didn't know that you had that technique!" I hope he keeps working at it and he can play in the Premiership.

  • Comment number 21.

    Some clubs must be trying to create a trend, perhaps, after Beckford signed for Everton - main man at Leeds, a questionable at times substitude at Everton.

    Who would pay £3m for a 27 years old who is at his peak?

  • Comment number 22.

    chelsea just paid 50million for a 27 year old at his peak. 3 million? not so much for a man who is likely to guarantuee you goals at championship level. he scored 11 with a team that was relegated bottom of the league.

  • Comment number 23.

    21. At 17:33pm 28th Apr 2011, Football_UK wrote:

    No club will pay £3m for him as after this season he only has 1 year left on his contract. The fee is a pie in the sky figure conjured up by none other than Barry Fry!!

  • Comment number 24.

    One of the most overrated players in league one. Just runs around alot and benifits from peteboroughs all out attack. Not in Lallana or Chaimberlins class.

  • Comment number 25.

    As a Posh fan and a season ticket holder, i've enjoyed every minute of watching him play for the Posh, and it will be quite upsetting to see him leave at the end of the season although it looks certain to happen anyway. He deserves to be up there with the big boys because he is such a magnificent and dedicated player. He'll get plenty of service with a better and bigger club aswell. I can see him as a premier league one day, and it is inevitable to happen. I hope he can fire us to the Championship come the play offs, because he can't leave on a note higher than that and it'll be a fitting moment to end his glistening Posh career. Hope he goes high on international level also because he is the type of player Sctoland need. A dedicated striker with energy and I haven't seen many of those for Scotland over the years. Thanks Macka you legend! UTP!!

  • Comment number 26.

    If mackail-smith is worth 3m how much is jordan rhodes worth? 5m?

  • Comment number 27.

    Long must be bad if Stephen Hunt is better. Hunt is woeful.

    It amuses me when lower league clubs hold out for stupid money. I remember Chester had a player called Martyn Lancaster who they turned down £1m for about 8 years ago and York had Martin Garratt who they also turned down £1m for. No idea what happened to Lancaster but Garratt had serious issues outside football and drifted into obscurity.

    I'm not saying Mackail-Smith, Rhodes, Lallana, Oxlade-Chamberlain etc will do this, but they are one tackle away from being finished in football. If a lower league club gets offered enough money to keep them going for 18 months or so they should take the money. Forget promotion for some of the clubs...the main objective in 2011 is to survive financially.

  • Comment number 28.

    Great article. Don't know much about CMS, only seen his goals on the Beeb highlights but there has been some belters.

    Paul - Do you think he could cut it at the Premiership level?

  • Comment number 29.

    Re: your reference to CMS' international debut

    I remember a local TV interview in the 70's with a Wrexham player who had played in the European Cup Winners' Cup against a big-name European side after the previous week, playing in the reserves.
    The interviewer asked what it was like to play in front of 50,000 spectators in a large stadium and got the obvious answer.
    He continued ..... "But last week you played in the reserves. What was the crowd for that match?"
    The player replied, "About 10".
    The interviewer: "10,000?"
    "No, 10! And a dog!"
    Life at the top, eh? Ha ha!

  • Comment number 30.

    @ 15:56pm 28th Apr 2011, joe_Wolves

    Your argument makes it sound as if you have a personal thing against Shane Long!

    Hunt is the new Kilbane...lot of heart, keeps running, but isn't that good. Long is being courted by Premiership teams, is starting to show goalscoring consistantcy and is still young, lots of time and room for improvement. He doesn't start for the Repbublic cos of Trap's arguably misguided loyalty and stubborness. That loyalty is the only reason Hunt will get near the team again when his fit.

    And anyway, this blog is about Makail-Smith, whom I feel would be a good buy for any Championship side as he seems like he always has goals in him!

  • Comment number 31.

    Glass Frazzle wrote - Forget promotion for some of the clubs...the main objective in 2011 is to survive financially.

    I totally agree with Glass Frazzle.

    I read an article many years ago about the role of the small Scottish clubs such as Stranraer, Stenhousemuir et al. They were quite happy to be a centre in the community, the clubhouse hosting wedding receptions and parties and such, and occasionally they might find a player who will blossom with them and attract the attention of the Old Firm, the Edinburgh clubs, Aberdeen and the Dundees.
    But it did mean that they could NOT afford to be ambitious. So the building of new stands wasn't on the agenda and the profile was deliberately kept low. That way there were no out-of-reach expectations on the club to achieve outrageous success and the club ran a financially-secure ship, hosting functions and selling on the occasional diamond they had found. The club survives and the loyal local supporters don't have their hearts broken by the club's demise.

    Lack of ambition is not always a bad thing ......

  • Comment number 32.

    i think cms is a good player and he has done a great job coming from dag and red and becomeing in the team of the year aswell so that other people think he as played well yeah he can play in the championship he scored 11 goals and the posh saddly went down he derserve a big move now after the boro boys gets up back 2 the level of football we derserve

  • Comment number 33.

    CMS is already on a par with "King" Ken Charlery as a POSH legend and his career is going on a eerily similar path. Just hope he continues to follow this scoring the winner in the play off final at Wembley before leaving.

  • Comment number 34.

    Glass Frazzle - I think you under-estimate the costs involved in running a League 1 club. £3m for CMS would cover Posh's running costs for a few months, but since he'd need to be replaced, and the financial difference between promotion to the Championship and staying in League 1 is about £5m, the sums are less obviously in favour of selling him.

    Whilst I'd love to see him stay, he's clearly moving on in the summer. My only hope is that he goes somewhere where he won't be playing against Posh in the near future. I wish him well for the future - I don't think I've ever seen a player with such a great attitude or work ethic. Certainly not a player who's allied that with a speed, skill and an eye for goal.

  • Comment number 35.

    Pretty good instruction men. I totally enjoy this post. Anyway I've found your post, it's very impressive. Hopefully I can totally impress. Thanks for this content. :)

  • Comment number 36.

    the best player you'll ever find in all the league craig is one of poshs greatest ever players n we all want him to stay but if he goes then it will be the biggest loss of our history and will sorly be missed but if he goes i hope he does as well at that club as he has at ours please stay craig


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