The striker who was playing for Manchester University in 2011 will line up against Everton in the FA Cup on Saturday
Matt Smith just wanted to win his first header. As soon as he had seen Sebastián Coates and Martin Skrtel lining up together in Liverpool's defence Oldham's striker knew he was in for a battle. "I saw Skrtel and Coates, two big defenders," Smith says. "I thought: 'First minute I'm just going to go and absolutely smash them and see what happens.'" Quite a lot, as it turned out. His first header set Oldham on the attack and his second put the League One side on their way to causing a major FA Cup upset.
Their reward for beating Liverpool is a fifth-round tie with Everton at Boundary Park on Saturday evening, another milestone on a highly peculiar journey for Smith, who jokes that his phone "had a heart attack" after his two goals in that famous 3-2 victory last month. Two years ago the 23-year-old was playing non-league football and for the first XI at the University of Manchester, having been released by Cheltenham Town in 2007.
It would have been easy for Smith to give in but his attitude on the pitch is matched by his unrelenting focus off it. The 6ft 6in striker put his disappointment behind him, earning a place to study business management at Manchester, and after leaving university with a 2:1 in 2011 he was offered a two-year contract by Oldham following a run of 12 goals in 14 games for Solihull Moors in the Conference North.
"I really persisted at university to play at the highest level possible and try to give myself that chance," says Smith, who has no intention of turning back now. "I've tasted reality. A lot of young footballers come into the game very naive and think everyone finishes work at one in the afternoon and everyone gets paid thousands of pounds a week. It's not like that. I've worked in bars, restaurants and hotels long into the early hours of the morning on minimum wage. I know exactly what's waiting for me if I don't push myself."
His parents certainly pushed Smith to excel in his studies, wary of the dangers should he not make it as a professional. Yet equally his father Ian, who played for Birmingham City and Hearts, was a major influence on his career. "It sounds daft but I was up at 5am to do training with him at 5.30, crossing and finishing for an hour before he went to work at seven," says Smith, who expects to shrug off a shoulder injury to play on Saturday. "Then we'd do the same at night after he came back at seven. We'd go out at 7.30 for another hour. Crossing and finishing, crossing and finishing. Constantly."
He freely admits that during his first three years at university he lived like a normal student, drinking, partying and eating the odd kebab after nights out. However, after spending his third year in America, that all changed when he started playing in the Conference North in his final year.
"That obviously stepped it up in terms of the standard of football and the travelling I was doing," Smith says. "Then I really did knuckle down. It was a big commitment. I had to sacrifice my social life while my mates were going out on a Friday night. It was a bit of a shock. I had a few withdrawal symptoms!"
He would not change anything, though. "I do feel I'm playing a level of catch-up with the boys who've been at academies since they were kids," Smith says. "I've never had that. I've always just played local football and for a few representative teams growing up before my one year at Cheltenham. But I had such great memories at university, some amazing life experiences and met some amazing people."
Smith's former team-mates remember a player who was a handful in training but also a club captain who was always generous in his time with the younger players. He still goes back to the university to watch his old side and catch up with his former coach, Stuart Leicester. "He texted me after the Liverpool game saying how proud he was of me," Smith says.
When Smith, who scored over 60 goals in three seasons for the university, first joined the side, Leicester could see his talent. "I thought there was a possibility of him getting back into the league and I knew straight away he needed to get to a good non-league club," says Leicester, who also coaches Manchester United's Under-12s.
"He's a bright lad. He was focused on his degree as well as his football. I would always tell them that education is the most important thing and then, if you can get a career alongside it, it's something for the rest of your life. You have to take that chance because it's so special.
"He was a good captain. He had a lot of respect from all the players. He trained for us and his non-league clubs. He was a great lad to coach, always wanted to score, listened to advice. He wasn't big-headed or one of those who thought he knew it all. He was learning all the time." Now Smith plans to teach Everton a thing or two.