Craig Mackail-Smith opens up on non-league switch, 'brilliant' title triumph and retirement plans
When the Covid-19 pandemic first hit, Craig Mackail-Smith was still playing professional football having spent the majority of the cut-short 2019/20 season on loan at Stevenage from Wycombe Wanderers.
The forward spent six months of the campaign at The Boro, scoring one goal in 23 matches before returning to his parent club. However, after his release from the Championship-bound Chairboys that summer, Mackail-Smith was looking for a new challenge as he began to plan for his future outside of the full-time game.
A couple of months later, Mackail-Smith received a call from non-league Bedford Town - an opportunity to go and help spearhead the Eagles' promotion push. Although the 38-year-old had talks with other clubs, he felt moving down to the eighth tier of English football with Bedford was the right decision at that stage of his career.
Mackail-Smith scored twice in six appearances before the season was curtailed once again due to Covid-19 - with Bedford inside the play-off places at the time. This would prove to be just the beginning for Gary Setchell’s side, as Bedford started the 2021/22 campaign in excellent form and stormed right to the top of the Southern Premier League Division One Central Division from the get-go.
The Eagles went on to lift the league title in emphatic style, winning 28 of their 38 matches, finishing 10 points ahead of second-place Berkhamsted. It proved to be a memorable year for Bedford, and also Mackail-Smith, who had only won one senior league title before this season.
"It was brilliant," Mackail Smith said. "I won one with Dagenham & Redbridge but I left half-way through the season. This was the first title I have won while being at a club for the full season and it has been great.
"I said to the guys at Bedford: 'if I am going to come to the club I want to be involved in a team that is pushing for promotion'. I didn't really want to go to a team that is midtable or be happy to be there. I want to be competing, I want to win things and I want to keep pushing forward.
"When I spoke to the club, they had the same vision. It has been a fantastic journey throughout the season. It has been great to be involved in it, watch the players as the season has gone on, it is a tight-knit group of players.
"I spoke to our manager when he had a chat towards the end of the season about how the dressing room and the atmosphere replicated the time when I was at Peterborough and Wycombe where we got promoted with those two. It felt very similar, so it has been a great time and I have thoroughly enjoyed myself."
An experienced striker, Mackail-Smith first made a name for himself in the professional game when he signed for Peterborough United in 2007. He joined Posh from Dagenham, where he scored 42 goals in 119 appearances, earning him a move to the Football League.
It is safe to say Mackail-Smith grasped the opportunity with both hands, firing Peterborough to back-to-back promotions from League Two to the Championship. He wrote his name into Posh folklore when he became the club’s highest EFL scorer back in 2010 and still holds the record to this day with 80 goals in 185 games.
After winning promotion back to the second-tier via the play-offs in 2011/12, Mackail-Smith expressed his desire to leave the club and ended up joining Brighton & Hove Albion for a reported fee of around £2.5million. He spent four years at the Seagulls, before enduring spells at Luton Town, Wycombe, Notts County and Stevenage.
During his professional career, Mackail-Smith won four promotions, countless Golden Boots and many other individual successes. Now at 38 and ready to embark on his 22nd season in senior football, the Watford-born striker admitted he has no plans of retiring just yet and is hoping to play for as long as he can despite playing just nine games last term.
"I still feel capable and I still feel I have enough in my body to keep playing," he added. "I have really enjoyed my time at Bedford this season. It is obviously a completely different environment to full-time football but it has been good to be involved in it.
"I have been able to give my knowledge back and I feel like I have equipped myself well. I don't feel like I am going to give up yet but again it is all about what the next few weeks hold.
"Whether Bedford are still interested in me being there, whether my body can still hold up for another season. I have got other things in the pipeline as well. There are a lot of variables and I think a lot of decisions need to be made over the next few months.
"I had a little bit of an injury-hit season but I think a lot of that is to do with coming out of the full-time game. It is a lot different, training once a week, once you are not playing it is trying to keep that fitness going.
"So, it is an adjustment for me coming out of the game and going back into non-league. But I feel like I have got the hang of it now and my body is used to what I need to. I think my body will hold up well next season and I feel good about myself, it will be down to others if they still want me involved, too."
While focusing on playing, Mackail-Smith is also planning ahead to the future and has set his sights on coaching when he retires. The former Scotland international currently has his own business, which he runs with his partner, and would like to be a striker coach one day - something he says could make him stand out from the rest.
Mackail-Smith explained: "I want to be a striker coach, I feel like that niche is very important within football. I don’t feel like we look at it as much, it is a team-based game and the coaching is very team-based.
"I think we need a bit more individuality in the coaching, so I feel like for me, being a striker I have learnt a lot and I have a lot of knowledge to pass on to strikers. That is something that interests me in the future and I am looking at that avenue.
"With my partner, I currently own a kids multi-sports camp company. We do that through the holidays, we put on multi-sports sessions, arts and crafts for the kids, that is aimed to try and improve their well-being.
"So, there are things I am involved in, I love football so I want to be involved playing for as long as I can. It is all about putting the bits and pieces together and seeing how it works out."