Paul Smyth wants to build on the best year of his life by firing Leyton Orient to promotion and fulfilling his potential on the international stage.
The twice-capped Northern Ireland attacker has experienced plenty during the past 12 months, from a collapsed lung last January to the birth of his son in April with a number of wonder goals chucked in for good measure.
Smyth’s nine strikes this campaign have helped send Richie Wellens’ Orient reach the Sky Bet League Two summit and they visit second-placed Stevenage on Saturday with their talisman brimming with confidence.
“Yeah, 2022 was probably the best for me so far in England, playing with freedom, enjoying it and showcasing what I can do,” he told the PA news agency.
“And 2023 will hopefully be pushing for promotion and hopefully we achieve it!
“I don’t want to get too big-headed and say we will do it but I am optimistic and I think we have a really, really good chance.”
If Smyth seems to have finally landed on his feet since swapping Belfast for the Big Smoke in 2017, it was certainly not the case at the start of last year.
Six months on from signing for the O’s after his release from QPR, the forward had barely featured for the club following a string of hamstring injuries and despite the new year bringing new hope, disaster struck again on January 29 2022.
An innocuous challenge at Mansfield produced a crack noise and Smyth was forced off in Orient’s latest defeat, with the expectation that a bruised rib had been added to his list of fitness issues but the reality was very different.
Smyth explained: “It got to the point where I couldn’t breathe and it was getting worse, so I went to the hospital and there it was. A collapsed lung.
“Out for another two or three weeks! It was just setback after setback and I was thinking when would my luck turn but it kind of did when Richie came in and I got fit again.”
Wellens arrived at Orient in March with the club on a 14-match winless run that had seen them drop to 20th, where they were only four points above the relegation zone.
Two more fixtures would come and go before a 3-1 victory over Rochdale sparked a remarkable turnaround not only for the O’s but also for Smyth.
A 30-yard stunner inspired by anger at his below-par first-half display saw the diminutive winger off and running in the League Two. He has barely looked back since with Barrow, Tranmere, Doncaster, Salford and Sutton all on the receiving end of special goals.
When asked what has changed, Smyth’s answer included a combination of factors.
From finding a routine that includes cutting holes in his socks, to not thinking constantly about football after the birth of his son and being given freedom to express himself while a family goalscoring battle with sister Holly of Crumlin Jets has played its part.
“After games, depending on how I played, I would contemplate different things like what I should or shouldn’t have done or could I have did this better. Now I just leave with a clear mind thinking about my son and it feels so good,” Smyth admitted.
“And when the manager came in, he put out his philosophy of how he wants to play and the boys just took to it.
“We put ourselves under so much pressure (before) that we didn’t want to play out in case something happened but he said, ‘I’ll take the blame for that,’ and that has been his philosophy ever since he came in.
“I think that is why we play with so much freedom.”
Smyth has benefitted more than most from that and especially after years of having to impress different managers at QPR or on loan spells at Accrington, Wycombe and Charlton.
Next up for the 25-year-old is this weekend’s trip to Stevenage where he will hope to bring out another backflip celebration to silence a sold-out Broadhall Way.
Another strong showing could catch the eye of Michael O’Neill, who gave Smyth his goalscoring debut back in 2018 against South Korea and has now returned to the Northern Ireland set-up.
“I haven’t really been given a chance to show what I can do,” the ex-Lingfield forward said.
“I think the Northern Ireland fans know what I can do as well as the manager so it is about keeping my consistency and the form rolling.
“Hopefully I get chosen (in March) to show what I can do.”
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