This one caught me a bit by surprise – the rumours have been doing the rounds since the weekend, but they weren’t something I paid much attention to.
Alistair Smith has left the Imps and joined Danny Cowley’s Colchester United on loan until the end of the season. It’s hopefully a good move for him, a chance to get some regular football, but therein lies the surprise – he’s had regular football here. It’s not like Jaden Brown’s situation, where he’s been frozen out – up until very recently, Smith has been a major part of the Imps side. He’s played in 25 League One matches – that’s more than Lasse and Jack Burroughs and equal to Adam Jackson. In total, he’s played 32 times; only Ethan Erhahon and Ethan Hamilton have played more outfield.
Perhaps that’s the problem—the two players who have played more both play in central midfield, just like Smith. I can see why that could be part of the issue, but he’s still been getting regular matches. That said, he’s been an unused sub in the last two games, and I think that might be more reflective of his current squad position. He’s dropped out of favour, and I can point to a specific moment I think that happened, which I’ll come onto.
There’s also the question of this experience that Michael Skubala wants to bring in. It feels like we might be aiming to add some steel to the midfield – it wouldn’t surprise me if we weren’t looking for another Erhahon, someone who can sit deep and play as a holding two in the same way we used to under Danny Cowley. Smith could play that role, but it wouldn’t be his best. Therefore, if we are going to recruit in that area, it pushes him further down the squad list.
“This loan gives Ali the opportunity to get his season going by being first choice in his favoured position,” said Jez George. “All parties agree that it will benefit Ali to get a run of games so we have facilitated a loan that might also allow us to move in the last week of the transfer window if the right option becomes available.”
His best position – where is it? Possibly as an advanced attacking midfielder, but the way we play limits his chances there. Ted played centrally this weekend, Ethan Hamilton plays there, and Danny Mandroiu is one who can come into that role. Once again, you look at Ali Smith and feel he’s a bit of a way down the list of players likely to be given regular chances.
Also, there was something I noted in his last Imps outing against Blackpool. As you know, I’m not usually one for calling out application, but after that game, I made the following observation; “There are one or two who have question marks over them for me. At one stage in the second half, a ball was heading for Smith on the edge of our area, and a tangerine shirt just came in and won it without the midfielder getting off the ground. It was just the sort of thing you don’t want to see when the chips are down, and Smith hadn’t had a bad game. It’s about the desire, perhaps even a little perception.”
At the time, it didn’t feel significant, but then I was reminded of a moment against Leyton Orient early in the Skubala era. Jack Vale had a breif moment moaning at the referee, rather than block a free kick that was taken quickly. Skubala was furious with the striker, yelling at him from the sideline. Where is the striker now? Not at Lincoln. Whilst the head coach doesn’t strike me as the ruthless type, he doesn’t feel like he’d make players train on their own if they make a mistake, but perhaps he saw enough on New Year’s Day to convince him that Smith needs to go out and play some regular football before he’s ready for our first team.
What I would say is this – he has a two-year deal, and such was his stock in the summer that he was on Peterborough’s radar but chose to come to us. In my eyes, that makes him a potential talent, and whilst he hasn’t really shown it yet in a Lincoln shirt, it doesn’t mean he’s a bad player. He’s been played out of position, he’s struggled for a regular spot he can nail down, and yet he’s played a lot of football. Perhaps under Danny, he can get 18 or so matches, play in one position and come back in the summer either refreshed or saleable.