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At the end of a superb year on the pitch, the Boys in Brown headed off into the winter break as league leaders. For Eric Smith, who joined the club in early January, it was a year full of highs and lows. When the Swedish midfielder was involved, he helped to secure a host of victories with some excellent performances. And though his debut year at the Millerntor was marred by a series of injuries, overall the feeling at the end of the year was a positive one.

Eric Smith did not mince his words after the 3-0 reverse in the final game of the year at Holstein Kiel: "You always have to start by looking at yourself and that wasn't the level I expect of myself today." He and his teammates had wanted to sign off on a different note, of course, but were not prepared to let the result tarnish what had otherwise been a highly successful year. "We're on the right track and I'm delighted I came back well towards the end of the year and, with the exception of the Kiel game, am approaching the level I want to be at," said Smith, whose first 12 months at the Millerntor have been something of a rollercoaster ride. "I missed a few games due to injury, unfortunately, and it wasn't always an easy time for me," he said. "I've never had so many injuries one after the other. I've just been unlucky this year. You have to stay strong mentally and try to come back stronger after every injury."

The injuries meant the likeable Swede featured in just 16 out of 36 competitive fixtures since making his debut in the 4-3 win at Heidenheim in late January. "It was hard being on the sidelines but I really enjoyed following the games on TV," he said. When he did play, the Boys in Brown usually did well, as evidenced by his personal record of 11 wins, two draws and three defeats. Operating in holding midfield, the 24-year-old added stability at the back and enriched his side's attacking play with his vision and impressive passing. Overall, Smith had every reason to be satisfied with his performances, but he was more pleased with the progress made by the team as a whole, saying: "It's been an outstanding year for us. We built up momentum and have improved both individually and as a team."

Despite finishing on the wrong end of a 3-0 scoreline at Kiel, the Boys in Brown entered the mid-season break on top of the table. "We still go into the break on a high, but we're only just past the halfway mark and haven't won anything yet," he said. "It's outstanding the way we've come on and the results are a product of that. There are things we can do better, though, and that's a good sign as well."

The Boys in Brown will thus resume training on Saturday, 1 January, feeling buoyant and full of confidence before setting off for a one-week training camp in Spain. On their return, they face a busy schedule with three matches in seven days, starting with the visit of Erzgebirge Aue and the DFB Cup tie against Borussia Dortmund and ending with the second derby of the season at HSV. "It's a tough start to the new year," was how Smith described the opening week, in which the Boys in Brown will at least be spared the exertions of having to travel far. "It's not the kind of start you get all that often," said Smith, "but we're looking forward to it and hoping to hit the ground running."

With the focus firmly on the first three matches in 2022, then, Smith was not of a mind to talk about any goals for himself or for the team before the winter break. "I'm not setting any targets for next year or the rest of the season. We start with three games in seven days and will take each one as it comes. There'll be no let up now, on the contrary, we'll be trying to get better with every game."


Photos: Witters