It seemed to be all over. A career-changing injury looked to have spelt the end of Craig Mackail-Smith’s dream of playing at the top level, a dream well on its way to becoming achieved.
A fruitful spell of form with Championship side Brighton and Hove Albion cut short by one moment of despair, but something that hasn’t tarnished a life-long ambition. “Mentally, it was tough because at the time, I probably had 11 goals in 22 or 23 games, so I was on a good run of form”, a cheerful Mackail-Smith said. “I still feel I can play in the Premier League and I will never give that dream up until I retire.”
Out for 15 months whilst looking on from the sidelines since arriving in 2011, it has been a gruelling road back into the fold for the former Seagull, still feeling he “would’ve had more of a contribution if I didn’t get injured.” But what’s happened is in the past, and now he feels “fantastic”.
“I’ve had to work really hard over the last four years to get myself back into this condition and hopefully, the injury is a distant memory. It’s an injury I’ve had and it’s an injury I’ve learned from so hopefully I can push on and be injury-free.”
Times like this haven’t come often for the 33-year old, but “if the opportunity never came about, I probably would have gone to university and have chosen a different pathway”, whilst a striker on the up at non-league Dagenham & Redbridge. But even before then, life could have been shaped a very different way.
Looking back, it was probably the best move to make
“Between 16 and 19, I worked at Wilkinson’s, Asda and Homebase and these jobs gave me money at the time.” Although a starting point in the world of work, this was never the ideal destination, only if he “didn’t work hard or put the effort in, this could end up being my life.” An offbeat proposition ahead, but “knowing I had other options, which relaxed me a bit”, the ideal career was soon becoming reality.
Signing his first professional deal with local club St Albans was the platform for progress, but although not his entire spell went accordingly, “it was something I wanted to do and it was a step in the right direction”. Understanding the differences between youth and senior level was a key learning curve in his development, as “it didn’t matter if you were 16 or 26, they would boot you, kick you, and I had to grow up fast.”
Getting noticed by higher-tier teams was the aim for Mackail-Smith, arriving at The Daggers in 2004, an opportunity that was grasped with open arms. “It was a great experience and it was a fantastic atmosphere to be in”. Promotion to the Football League and an international appearance for England ‘C’ soon followed, but although leaving to pastures new was always on the mind, “it was hard to say goodbye”. A move worth making, in the end.
“Looking back at it, it was the probably the best move to make”. Peterborough United’s new unrecognised signing transformed into a 102-goal club legend, at a team “moving in a direction that I wanted my career to go in, and that was forward”, easily resisting temptation for another move away.
Birmingham and Charlton just two of the teams interested in Craig’s services, even though “some of the moves were pretty good and if it wasn’t meant to be, I wanted to achieve something at Posh.” Indeed he did; three promotions in a four-year stay wasn’t bad going, his tenure being “amazing and I was very lucky.” Debuting for Scotland was another career highlight, preceding what setback was to come.
I feel like the old Craig is coming back
“I didn’t feel my career was ending”. A bold statement from a man who has endured the highs and lows of a footballer’s life. “It was disappointing to leave Brighton and I was hoping to stay in the Championship, but that’s the way everything went”, before ending up in League Two with Luton. Not a wrong move by any means, but “an ideal fit to get myself strong again and get myself back in the shop window”, after such a long absence.
A desperate need for games encouraged ex-employers Posh to sign Mackail-Smith for a second loan spell, which now, “I feel like the old Craig is coming back”, a move sparking from the fact he couldn’t play “four, five, six games in a row” to regain fitness and “get my body back into good shape”.
Turning a father may have affected the game of a determined striker, but actually, it “gives me the ability to come home earlier and spend more time with them”, alongside life as the son-in-law to someone he knows pretty well in Barry Fry. “He’s got fantastic energy and he’s someone I can go to”, something Mackail-Smith hopes his children have, but also his “’never give up’ attitude.”
It is with that mentality that, even with injury proving to hold him back, Craig Mackail-Smith’s ambition to reach the top could still be as clear and achievable as ever before.