Eagle set to swoop

JIM SMITH was never one to avoid the flak. He was born during an air-raid and has spent most of his football life battling good humouredly for hard-won rewards. Which is why this afternoon a lot of people who over the past 30 years have seen him as a beacon of humanity in an increasingly joyless business will be rooting for the man Ron Atkinson famously called "old bald eagle".

If his high-flying First Division Derby County should beat Leeds United at the Baseball Ground in the FA Cup third round, the after-match entertainment alone is going to be worth the entrance fee. Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson and Smith, who is 55 and with his ninth club, go back a long way. In some respects they talk the same language about attractive football, though in Wilkinson's case it often takes a lot of deciphering, whereas Smith gets to the point with germane directness.

"I first met Howard when we were kids at Sheffield," Smith said, "but I didn't really get to know him properly till I signed him at Boston United." Smith ended up at Boston because after being an apprentice at Sheffield United, he drifted into the lower divisions. It was at Boston, in his first managerial job, that he signed Wilkinson from Brighton, and Wilkinson succeeded him as manager when Smith went to Colchester. "The thing about Jim," Wilkinson said, "is that when you're with him you just have to enjoy life." Smith laughs with his rivals but plans their downfall very seriously.

His enjoyment comes from guiding teams on uphill battles to promotion: Colchester to the Third, Birmingham City and Oxford United into the First. Against that there have been less agreeable times, such as dealing with Robert Maxwell at Oxford and Jim Gregory at Queen's Park Rangers. And he needed all his level disposition when Rangers were beaten by his former Oxford United side in the League Cup final at Wembley in 1986.

His career has suffered other misfortunes: while at Newcastle he could not get on with Sir John Hall, and at Blackburn there was then no philanthropist to back his talents, while Portsmouth sacked him after he took them to within a whisker of the Premiership and to an FA Cup semi-final replay against Liverpool. At least at Derby he has found a benefactor in Lionel Pickering, but not one prepared to throw good money after bad.

Smith has always championed thoughtful football. Over recent years his teams have embraced the sweeper system, so the arrival of the Croatian Igor Stimac at Derby early in November has provided them with a natural springboard, and the signing has proved to be one of Smith's most enlightened decisions. Brian Horton of Huddersfield Town, who wanted the Derby job, says they are the toughest First Division team to break down. But with the fast, attacking full-back Lee Carsley doubtful for today, a lot depends on the goalscoring of Marco Gabbiadini and the bargain pounds 280,000 former Twente Enschede, Ajax and Zurich player, Ronnie Willems. They have each scored 11 goals this season, as has the suspended Dean Sturridge.

"Willems was known all over the Continent," Smith said. "He's got the Ajax technique about him ... a very bright, intelligent player." Smith has long been a fan of Ajax's style and adaptability, and Derby's progress has come in large measure from his own ability to fit round pegs in square holes. "When I arrived at Derby last year we had 15 players who were out of contract; some lacked commitment to the club. So things had to be done quickly to reduce the wage bill. We got good money for some, so that enabled us to go out and bring in six new ones."

Among them is Stimac, "a class act" bought for pounds 1.5m from Hajduk Split, a sum Derby fans questioned but which was in fact a comparatively cheap price. "He's come in and settled very well and given us much more confidence and composure," Smith said. "He doesn't get rattled."

Though Derby are seven points clear at the top of the table, only a few weeks ago they were nearer the bottom, and even if they do catch Leeds on one of those days when they look feeble defensively, Smith is not convinced the club is ready to return to the top flight. "Squad-wise, we need some more strength," he said. "If you get into the Premiership you need more than just a good team." But what about today? "You can say that Leeds are inconsistent, they lose by six to Wednesday, but then they beat Manchester United. They've got high quality players, big-game players with that sort of mentality. They've also played us twice this season, in a pre-season friendly and in the Coca-Cola Cup, and they beat us on both occasions, but not by much."

Leeds won that friendly 2-1 after Derby led with 10 minutes to go; Wilkinson says it was one of the most demanding matches his team played all year.

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