Matt Smith: The brains behind Oldham's FA Cup cup shocks

Matt Smith, the League One striker whose goals stopped Liverpool and Everton, tells Tim Rich about life as a football rarity: a player with a degree

Only in terms of geography are Oldham Athletic close to Manchester United but for those crammed into Boundary Park's three corrugated iron stands 10 days ago, Matt Smith might as well have been Ole Gunnar Solskjaer winning the European Cup at the Nou Camp.

It should have been the last kick of Oldham's adventure in the FA Cup. It was the sort of corner they had been working on all week, though the training routines had not envisaged the goalkeeper, Dean Bouzanis, punching the ball into the net. However, it went beyond his outstretched gloves, on to the head of Oldham's centre-forward and into Everton's net.

The little, glass-fronted press box was suddenly full of expletives. Journalists are big on the romance of the FA Cup but not when it comes at nearly eight o'clock on a Saturday night when Sunday paper deadlines are disappearing and nobody was sure who had scored.

What was certain, was that Oldham, the club that had instructed its players not to swap shirts on the grounds of cost, had earned a third successive televised tie. The limelight would not fade yet as it has gone out for Mansfield, Luton and Macclesfield.

It was the kind of header Smith had practised with his father since he was a boy, the kind that had knocked Liverpool out in the fourth round, when Brendan Rodgers had complained that his centre-halves had "made Smith look like Didier Drogba".

What makes the 23-year-old unusual is not just that he can make Sebastian Coates and Martin Skrtel seem ordinary, but that he is one of the last of his kind; a professional footballer and university graduate.

The days when Denis Compton could play for Arsenal in the 1950 FA Cup final and then in the same summer face the West Indies at the Oval are dust-strewn ancient history. So, too, in an age when primary-school children are scouted for academies might graduate footballers be.

In February 1975, Steve Coppell was in his second year studying economics at Liverpool University when he was he was asked to sign for Manchester United. "Tommy Docherty said: 'You are not quitting university, we will work around you – a degree will be with you for life but football can chew you up and spit you out within a year,'" Coppell recalled. He reflected with considerable understatement that "it would not happen now".

Smith was spat out by Cheltenham Town when he was still a teenager and went to Manchester University to study international management with American studies, embarking on a double life as a student and non-League footballer at Redditch, Droylsden and Solihull Moors.

"The first three years were reasonably normal but, going into the last year, I felt I needed to give myself the best chance possible to make it as a professional footballer," he said.

"So, I would be in the library at ridiculous hours. I did an exam in the morning and then had to drive three hours to Lincolnshire to play Boston United. All I could think of in the exam was what time I had to get to the car. I was missing lectures, I was missing seminars and luckily I had one friend in particular, Joe Johnson, who is now an investment banker in China, he helped me catch up by covering material for me. Without him, I would have struggled."

Smith spent a year at Arizona State University, part of an American college system attuned to producing sporting graduates. "I am not sure the university comprehended the level of football I was playing," he said. "In America they work around you whereas in England I was travelling everywhere and having to catch up in the small hours of the morning. The M6 became my best friend."

Gareth Southgate confessed he never considered university and chose not to do A-levels when offered an apprenticeship by Crystal Palace. "This was the right decision," he wrote in his autobiography.

"We had two student footballers. Because they didn't have to do boot-cleaning, floor-cleaning and toilet-cleaning, they were not considered equals by the others and, if someone had to be dropped, it would be one of the lads still going to school. After all, they had something to fall back on. It gave the coaches an out and it gave the boys one too. If you give people an out in life, they will take it."

Curiously, Southgate's father had gone the other way, choosing a good job with IBM over a contract with Luton Town. And around Christmas 2010, Smith might have taken his "out" applying for "good entry-level jobs in management consultancy" but he wasn't enthused and in the spring his career took off with 12 goals in 14 games for Solihull. By August he was at Oldham.

None of this would have been possible without his family, and especially his father, Ian, who himself had been a professional with Birmingham and Hearts having studied medicine at Glasgow University. Ian's father, James, had played for St Mirren and Clyde.

"He wanted to give me the best chance to become a professional and get a degree," said Matt. "It meant we would do strange things like getting up at five in the morning and training, practising crossing and finishing.

"The one thing I have felt since becoming a professional footballer is that I am playing catch-up with the lads who have come through a true footballing background in the academies. There is a gap, especially when it comes to mental toughness. Mentally, the Football League is much, much harder because people don't tend to have anything to fall back on.

"With me, it has just been me and my dad, basically. He has passed on the advice he was given by his own father. I am more happy for dad and mum that this Cup run has happened because, whatever I've done at university, at the bottom of it was me and my dad."