By Jamie Holt
CRAIG MACKAIL-SMITH has just spent 13 months on the sidelines nursing an Achilles injury, not to mention his new daughter, and he’s recently turned 30.
Lesser mortals might accept it’s the beginning of the end of a career that has brought him from St Albans City to the brink of the Premier League – but not the Brighton striker.
Mackail-Smith – who made his long-awaited return from the bench against Barnsley on April 5 – insists he can return to his best form in time for next term with the benefit of a full pre-season.
But the Scotland international, who has picked up ankle and groin niggles during the course of his return to fitness, has some more immediate aims with the Seagulls currently soaring towards a play-off place.
“This season there’s only a few games to go, but we’re pushing for the play-offs and I think that helps,” he said. “It gives us, and me, something to play for.
“I definitely feel I can be the same player. It’s been a long time, it’s just nice to get back on the pitch and put the past in the past.
“It’s been difficult, missing out on the play-offs with Brighton last year especially, but you always know little niggles might occur and you could be out for a long time.
“These little injuries are always there, you’ve just got to adjust. I’ve been lucky because this is the first time I’ve had an injury of this length.
“I did get down when I got those injuries. I was getting closer and closer to a comeback and then something else would break down.
“I’ve trained really hard and done everything I can do to get back playing like I used to.”
Much has changed on and off the pitch since Mackail-Smith last stepped foot on the field before that 0-0 draw with Barnsley at the beginning of this month.
On it, he now takes instructions from Oscar Garcia rather than Gus Poyet while off it the new dad has been keeping himself busy with eight-month-old Isla.
“She’s been amazing,” he says. “She’s lifted my spirits a lot so I wasn’t getting down on myself.
“She brings a massive smile to my face every day, she’s been a godsend and it’s made me realise that everything I do is for her.
“I’ve been desperate to be in and around the squad, but I’ve not had the opportunity to do that, so he (Garcia) hasn’t had a glimpse of what I am capable of.
“His style is not too dissimilar to Gus’, which suits me, but to be fair we haven’t talked too much, it hasn’t really been necessary with me so far away from playing. His staff have been keeping him informed of my progress.”
Garcia and his staff will be keen to return Mackail-Smith to the fold as soon as possible with his record of 20 goals from 74 appearances before injury struck in March 2012.
They will be equally eager finally to link him up with Leonardo Ulloa – signed for £2million in January last year. And Mackail-Smith is also desperate to see how they dovetail.
“I think we’ve played 45 minutes together since we’ve both been at the club,” he added. “He’s a great striker with great capabilities, and in a way it has been good to sit back and see what he does.
“I know where he moves, how he operates, and watching him I know we will be a really good partnership.
“If you look at the teams doing really well this season, the likes of Leicester and Burnley, their success has been built on a strong front two.
“Next season hopefully Leo and I can forge that and get us promoted if we don’t go up through the play-offs this season.”