Command performer

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The Independent Online
FOOTBALL managers are like King Canute, trying to control forces of nature that refuse to do what they are told. In picking a team and deciding on tactics, they deal in a world of theoretical certainties which is always liable to fall apart once a ball is actually kicked. But that doesn't deter them.

Alan Smith, the Crystal Palace manager, is no different. "I like to know what I am going to get," he says. And, according to Smith, the beauty of Iain Dowie, the Palace striker, is that he is a known quantity - a player who will follow instructions, keep going for 90 minutes, and provide the consistency and experience that others might lack.

Such qualities mean rather less to the casual observer, for whom players like the rugged Dowie, loyally holding the ball up while more eye-catching jobs fall to others, offer not so much dependability as predictability, their willingness to play to order speaking less of their talents than their limitations. But that would be to malign the contribution of the 30-year-old former Luton, West Ham and Southampton man, who in his two and a half months at Palace has had one of the best spells of his career, scoring five goals in 11 games, including three in four FA Cup appearances.

Even if Dowie were just a solid pro - and recent signs suggest there is quite a lot more to him than that - isn't that the type of player on whom the English game is founded? And, even more relevantly, the type to go out and score a vital goal in an FA Cup semi-final? That is what Dowie will be aiming to do for Palace against Manchester United this afternoon.

You do not have to go back far to find players of similar stature who have left their mark on the competition at this stage - there was John Byrne's winner for Sunderland against Norwich City in 1992, Alan Cork's equaliser for Sheffield United against Sheffield Wednesday in 1993, and the strike by Neil Pointon that had Oldham briefly dreaming of the final last year. Glory always gets shared around in the FA Cup.

As with this less than illustrious trio, nobody would deserve a few moments in the limelight more than Dowie, who has never got further than the quarter- finals of the FA Cup and whose career since he joined Luton just over six years ago has mostly been played out at clubs in the shadow of relegation. His £400,000 transfer from Southampton to Palace at the end of January did little to change that.

"I'd followed Iain since his Hendon days," Smith says, "and always liked him. And I have to say he fitted into the right price bracket. If that sounds like a put-down it's not meant to, because he's done exactly what I wanted of him." Gareth Southgate, the Palace captain, says that "when we signed Iain, we were crying out for a target man to work alongside Chris Armstrong. He's done that job, but the quality of his finishing has been excellent, too. He's the sort of player who even if he wasn't scoring goals would still add an enormous amount to the team. We've got some boys lacking a bit in confidence, but he's such a positive influence in the dressing room and in training, always prepared to do that bit extra."

That was certainly the case at Palace's training ground in Mitcham on Thursday, when Dowie was one of the last off the pitch before coming over to sit and talk on the steps outside the changing rooms. Dowie is one of those footballers whose bruising presence on the field gives a quite false impression of the easy-going, intelligent person you meet off it, one of the Professional Footballers' Association's six committee members and clearly cut out for such a role.

Something of Dowie's roundedness surely derives from the fact that he came into the game late - when he was nearly 24 - having got a degree in mechanical engineering at the then Hatfield Polytechnic, now the University of Hertfordshire, and established a career with British Aerospace, testing air-to-air missiles. No wonder he's a good header of the ball.

"It's important to me to have done well in something else," Dowie said. "I feel I've proved something to myself by succeeding academically. But playing football was always something I wanted to do if I had the chance." It was Ray Harford, then the manager of Luton, who provided it, recruiting Dowie from non-League Hendon, and within just over a year the big blond striker was wining the first of 29 caps for Northern Ireland, the land of his father's birth. This was one footballing graduate who was certainly not going to be nicknamed "The Prof".

Unlike many of the non-Irish born players who make up the teams from both the North and the Republic, Dowie, who was born in Hatfield, can at least claim to have spent long periods of his childhood in Belfast, where he has lots of relatives. "It's a fantastic thing to play for my country," he said. "Now I take my wife and young son with me to matches and it's great because it's a real family occasion over there and there's such a lot of fuss made of you." All the more so in Dublin last month when Dowie's superb header earned the North a 1-1 draw with the Republic and was a sure sign of a player in form.

At club level, Dowie has had to make do with less attention. He has never been a prolific scorer - 53 goals in 215 League matches - but that is partly the result of often being a player others are looking to feed off, and partly because his honest-to-goodness work-rate has led managers to use him unsupported in attack. That was most noticeably the case at Southampton, where Dowie had to clear the way for Matthew Le Tissier.

At Palace, he has a more equal relationship with Armstrong, although the latter's superior pace is a strength that Dowie must inevitably play to. "But we're both energetic," Dowie said, "and he'll flick the ball on and put in crosses for me to get on the end of. It'll take time, but I'm sure it'll be a fruitful partnrship."

Dowie, not a player who has received much hero-worship in his time, has been warmed to by the Palace fans, and there is no doubt that his absence through suspension from the last two matches has been a factor in the club's slipping back into the relegation zone.

Dowie acknowledged that he had been privileged to spend almost his entire career in the top division, and he has no intention of taking a step down now. "The importance of staying in the Premiership can't be overstated," he said. "But the Cup is the chance to forget about that for a day. It'll be a tense occasion, and that's when mistakes happen. Who knows, maybe the ball will fall to me or Chris at the right time." Nobody will need to tell Dowie what to do with it then.