Connor Smith staked a claim to be elevated to the first-team for the Capital One Cup tie against Preston North End with a wholehearted performance for the Under-21s against Hull City last night.
If Quique Sanchez Flores opts to rest his leading performers for Tuesday’s match at Deepdale, as seems likely with the Hornets playing Southampton 48 hours earlier, then Smith will come into contention, although the Under-21s play Crystal Palace on Monday afternoon. He did his case for promotion to Sanchez Flores’ squad no harm at all, in front of the watching Dean Austin and Alberto Giraldez, by mixing perspiration with inspiration in an otherwise flat team display by Harry Kewell’s side at Clarence Park.
Th 20-year-old Irishman produced the best pass of the night to set up the opening goal, threading a defence-splitting pass for Bernard Mensah to score. He twice played in Alex Jakubiak later with similar passes, played one delightful pass round the corner and was not afraid to put his foot in. Stricter referees would have shown him at least a yellow card for the challenge on Hull goalscorer Johan Ter Horst just after half time and he was on the thick of things again when a challenge by Alfie Young sparked some pushing and shoving. He did not really deserve to end up on the losing side.
“It was disappointing not to get the win, especially after starting so brightly,” he told us after the game. “We went into the lead quite early but they got two quick goals after that and from then on we were always struggling to get back into it. The third knocked the stuffing out of us.”
It was a third defeat in four matches for the U21s and followed on from the point they picked up at Sheffield Wednesday last week.
“We battered Sheffield Wednesday and couldn’t quite score,” Smith said. “This week we were sloppy at times but conceded cheap goals. In the first half, towards the end, they got a bit too much space and in the second half a few of the boys tried to close them down a bit quicker and were going in for a few tough tackles. There was a bit of moaning and a bit of scuffling but nothing over the top. It was a good competitive game.”
It was also Smith’s first 90 minutes of the season following an ankle injury he picked up on the pre-season tour of Germany.
“I did alright at times,” he said modestly. “I tried to get on the ball as much as I could and it was good to get the assist for the first goal. It was a good move and a nice finish from Mensah. It was my first 90 of the season so it was nice for me fitness wise.”
Kewell picked out Smith and Josh Doherty for praise afterwards.
“Connor is a great athlete and shows true heart and it’s great to see,” Kewell told us. “The first half was hard for him as we usually have George Byers in there and they link up well. But his work rate is phenomenal.”
So is his resolve and patience. He has had wretched luck with injury and he must have wondered what he had done to upset someone when he went down on the first day in Germany, especially after scoring in the first game of pre-season, against St Albans.
“I played 40 minutes and there was no better time to score than the first game under the new manager but then I got injured in one of the first sessions and I didn’t get chance to play another game,” he said. “That was quite unlucky. It wasn’t a bad tackle or anything; I just passed it, there was a coming together and I rolled ligaments in my ankle. It was the first day of the trip so I spent the rest of the week having physio treatment. Seeing the boys training out there and getting to know each other made it worse. I had knee problems a few years ago and hadn’t had an injury for a while before the ankle one, but I came back quicker than expected and feel good now. Hopefully I can stay injury free. I’m trying to get as many minutes as I can in the Under-21s and see where it goes from there. Maybe I can make it into the first team squad or go on loan.”
Click below to read Kewell’s thoughts on the defeat to Hull.
— WD Sport (@WDSport_) August 17, 2015