MAC AT­TACK’S BACK READY FOR AC­TION

Chris Dunlavy’s on hand to record the re­turn of

The Football League Paper - - CHAMPIONSHIP -

THE Mac At­tack is back at London Road – older and wiser but not, they in­sist, slower. “Na we’ve still got the legs,” laughs Aaron McLean, perch­ing on a sofa be­side Craig Mack­ail-Smith. “We’re the old heads around here th­ese days but we’re hang­ing in there.”

So have the duo been bang­ing them in on the train­ing pitch? “I have,” says McLean. “He hasn’t – so ex­actly like it was be­fore!”

How Posh fans must be hop­ing that is true. Plucked from Non-League in 2006, the rookie pair sur­passed all ex­pec­ta­tions by form­ing one of the dead­li­est front lines in the Foot­ball League.

By the time McLean left for Hull and Mack­ail-Smith joined Brighton in 2011, their com­bined to­tal stood at 182 goals and Peter­bor­ough had risen from League Two to the Cham­pi­onship.

Now, almost three years to the day since their fi­nal game to­gether, this lat­ter-day Butch and Sundance have been re­united.

“It’s crazy the way it’s hap­pened,” says McLean, who is on a two-month loan from Brad­ford. “But it’s ex­cit­ing, you know?

“I re­mem­ber when we first started play­ing to­gether, it only took two or three train­ing ses­sions to de­velop an un­der­stand­ing. If I made the run, he’d drop short. If I went chas­ing, he’d stay in the mid­dle.

“I’ve never seen any­one work like Craig works. I try – be­lieve me I do. But his en­ergy lev­els and the way he can sprint con­sec­u­tively, I’ve never seen that in any­one be­fore or since. His hunger for the game is im­mense.”

Mack­ail-Smith chips in. “We were both hun­gry,” says the 30year-old, on a one-month loan from Brighton. “I don’t think any­one be­lieved that we could play to­gether and we were so de­ter­mined to prove that we could. We learned from each other, and we worked so hard for each other if one was out of po­si­tion. We’d want to set each other up.

“There’s was never a self­ish thing of ‘I’m scor­ing as many as I can, for­get him’. It was lit­er­ally the case that if he scored, I was ab­so­lutely over the moon. We gen­uinely wanted each other to suc­ceed.”

That they did, though sub­se­quent years have proved less fruit­ful. Signed by Nigel Pear­son for £1m, McLean fell out of favour un­der suc­ces­sor Steve Bruce, mak­ing just 20 ap­pear­ances in his fi­nal two years at Hull. By the end, he wasn’t even mak­ing the squad.

Pos­ses­sion

Mack­ail-Smith – a £2.5m clu­brecord sign­ing for Brighton – did get plenty of min­utes but fre­quently found him­self ma­rooned up top be­fore a dev­as­tat­ing knee in­jury de­mol­ished much of the past two years.

Nei­ther re­grets seiz­ing the chance to move, but both now re­flect that they were spoiled by their fo­cal po­si­tion in Dar­ren Fer­gu­son’s team.

“We’ve both had a frus­trat­ing time re­cently be­cause the teams we’ve been in tend to keep pos­ses­sion and pass the ball a lot,” says Mack­ailSmith.

“That’s fine, but at Peter­bor­ough, it was a case of ‘get the ball to the strik­ers ASAP and let them do their stuff’.

“We got used to that, and to then end up in sides where chances were limited. It’s been dif­fi­cult to get used to.”

McLean adds:“That’s right. Peo­ple talk about the suc­cess of strik­ers here but it’s just the way Dar­ren sets his teams up. He’s a very at­tack­ing, very for­ward-think­ing man­ager. He never goes any­where for a draw.

“He brings in strik­ers who can put the ball in the net and he knows that if they get chances, they’ll score. So he tai­lors ev­ery­thing to them get­ting the ball.

“The lads who are up there now – Lee Tom­lin, Dwight Gayle, Britt As­som­ba­longa – they’ve all scored goals here and that’s why. It’s a bril­liant place for a young striker to learn.”

Yet for all that ground­ing, was it dif­fi­cult to go from be­ing a rel­a­tive no­body to a multi-mil­lion pound star?

“The spot­light is a bit more in­tense,” ad­mits Mack­ail-Smith.“And the scru­tiny is se­vere. If you’re a £2m striker and you don’t score, peo­ple ask ques­tions. It was a dif­fer­ent kind of pres­sure to take but it eases as you go along.

McLean says the money was ir­rel­e­vant. “When you’re at a big club, peo­ple say, ‘Oh he’s on this much money, he’s too com­fort­able etc.’

“But when you come from where we have, it’s not about money. It never has been. We play be­cause we love the game and that’s the only rea­son.”

For both men, this is a big is­sue. Both grafted their way up from the bot­tom, Mack­ail-Smith through Arlesey and Da­gen­ham, McLean through Grays Ath­letic.

Both played along­side men with mort­gages and full-time jobs. Nei­ther had any qualms about drop­ping back to League One in a bid for games. Lit­tle won­der, then, that nei­ther has any time for young kids with big-time at­ti­tudes.

“It frus­trates me mas­sively when I see young play­ers who don’t re­alise how lucky they are,” says Mack­ail-Smith.

“Es­pe­cially when you know what some peo­ple have gone through – for many years – just to get to where those lads are at 18 or 19.

“When you see some of the young lads try­ing to shoot away as quickly a pos­si­ble or tak­ing it easy in train­ing, you get very frus­trated. You know they haven’t got a clue what the real world is like.

Po­ten­tial

“I don’t think they un­der­stand how close they are to be­com­ing no­body, how easy it is for some­one to come from be­low and take their place”

“That’s some­thing we both try to pass on,” agrees McLean, now 31. “There’s noth­ing wore than see­ing lads with po­ten­tial who never max­imise it.

“Over my ca­reer I’ve seen so, so many play­ers who had the abil­ity to play at the high­est level and should have achieved so much more.

“But at some point they came up

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