MAC ATTACK’S BACK READY FOR ACTION
Chris Dunlavy’s on hand to record the return of
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.
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.
“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