Smith a junior of senior quality As one striker answers critics with guile and goals, another asks for trouble on a cross-country run

Alex Hayes talks to a proud Leeds manager about his prodigy
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The Independent Online

Forget dour Scottish managers cleverly underplaying their team's chances of success, Leeds have an Irishman who is just as accomplished in the art of gamesmanship. David O'Leary may be constantly reminding us that his young pups can barely walk, but the fact remains that they are top of the Premiership, have a foot in the third round of the Uefa Cup, and have just surpassed a 68-year-old club record of nine consecutive victories. Now try telling their rivals, including Everton whom they face at Goodison today, that Leeds can't win anything with those kids.

Forget dour Scottish managers cleverly underplaying their team's chances of success, Leeds have an Irishman who is just as accomplished in the art of gamesmanship. David O'Leary may be constantly reminding us that his young pups can barely walk, but the fact remains that they are top of the Premiership, have a foot in the third round of the Uefa Cup, and have just surpassed a 68-year-old club record of nine consecutive victories. Now try telling their rivals, including Everton whom they face at Goodison today, that Leeds can't win anything with those kids.

The truth is that O'Leary has fashioned a team which combines a little experience with a lot of exuberance to great effect. Or put another way, for every David Batty, Leeds possess a Harry Kewell, Michael Bridges or Alan Smith. In fact, Smith, a Yorkshire lad, has always viewed the England midfielder as something of an inspiration. "I've known David since I was 10," said the 18-year-old. "He used to come and watch me when I played for Rothwell Juniors and I've always looked up to him."

Much like his boyhood idol, Smith is a combative character. If he can sometimes appear as cocky on as he does off the pitch, it is because he has unshakeable belief in his own ability. It is a manner that some do not approve of, yet it is that same self-confidence which has enabled him to impose his slight 5ft 9in frame on the Premiership as well as take bold decisions from a very early age.

At 14, he left the Football Association's School of Excellence at Lilleshall because he was homesick and felt he would make better progress back in his native Yorkshire. The move could have spelled the end of his career and ostracised him from the football community, but such was his determination to succeed that he redoubled his efforts and was soon signed on by Leeds. "I knew that if I didn't feel right at Lilleshall, then I should move on," he said. "It wasn't an easy decision to make, but I knew if I wasn't happy there, I wasn't going to enjoy my football which might stop me from progressing."

As it happens, Smith has gone from strength to strength. Along with other Leeds Academy contemporaries, such as Jonathon Woodgate and Stephen McPhail, Smith has blossomed under the guidance of Eddie Gray in the juniors and the reserves, before making the seemingly painless transition to the senior side. "Eddie has been working with Smithy for five years," said O'Leary, "so you can be sure he knows him well and has had a huge influence on the way he and many of the other youngsters play."

Placing such faith in Smith and his fellow "kids", as O'Leary likes to call them, may have looked to many like a blind gamble, but the Irishman had done his homework and knew exactly what talent lay waiting in the wings. "You must not forget that for the two years when I was assistant manager to George [Graham], I went to loads of reserve games and saw exactly what these players were like," he said. "I knew at first hand what they were made of."

In many ways, the rise of Smith, who is one of the youngest members of O'Leary's kindergarten, typifies Leeds' and their manager's progress over the last 12 months. As O'Leary points out, not many people gave him or his team much of a chance when he inherited Graham's players, after his old mentor's abrupt departure to Tottenham in October last year. "When I took over, I didn't have much money to spend," he said. "But I knew that I had three or four new players waiting in the reserves. No disrespect to George, but he wouldn't have put any of them in.

"But I got in at 17," O'Leary continued, "and I was all right. The fact is that I believe there is a certain breed of animal who can get in at a young age. Smithy is definitely one of those, but he's only 18 and still learning his trade, so he needs time."

The problem is that neither the precocious manager or his young protégé are likely to be given much of that commodity. Fans, board members and the media all expect a lot from this boundless team. Too much, perhaps? "The fact is that we haven't been at our best in the last few games, but we've stuck to the task, shown character and still been there at the end to get a result," O'Leary said. "That says a lot about our players which is why I was angry when I heard some people in the crowd giving Alan stick during last Saturday's 2-0 win against Sheffield Wednesday. They booed because I took Michael Bridges off instead of him, but I know what Smithy's capable of. I'm just delighted he went on to get a couple goals. The fact is he loves this club."

And scoring goals, O'Leary might have added. Indeed, from the moment he was given his first-team break, on 14 November 1998, Smith has made an immediate impact. Having first been called up from the reserves to join the seniors for the trip to Liverpool that day, Smith suddenly found himself named as a substitute. "I was pleased to be on the bench," he explained, "but I knew I wouldn't get on." Really? As it turns out, Smith's prediction was not just misguided, it was hopelessly wrong.

With 20 minutes remaining, O'Leary told the then 17-year-old to get his tracksuit off. Things got better. Within a minute of his first-team debut, he had scored at the Kop end of Anfield. Smith has not looked back since. He ended last season as the club's third best finisher with seven goals, and his three successful strikes from eight appearances during this campaign confirm his potential. "He leads the line cleverly," O'Leary drooled. "I'm a great fan of his. He really is top dollar." Even with defenders now waiting, you wouldn't bet against him scoring 15 goals this year.

Perhaps the most striking feature about Smith and his pals is that they are enjoying themselves at Leeds. And a predominantly English team is playing stylish, continental football. Why? "Because they have an Irish manager," quipped O'Leary.

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