A love affair between a football man and his club reaches its only logical conclusion tomorrow. In the last bitter weeks of impending separation, the two principal characters, Smith and the Palace chairman, Ron Noades, have grown more and more distant. The game at Newcastle will most likely send the south London club back to the First Division. What is no longer in doubt is that, whether Palace survive or not, it will be Smith's last game in charge.
For the diehard Palace supporters the fall-out between chairman and manager has been almost as distressing as events on the field of play. Smith, one of the most likeable managers and one of the game's best media communicators, has made obvious his dissatisfaction with a situation in which he feels he has not had Noades's full backing. Noades, forthright and belligerent, has retaliated publicly and so a tawdry tale has dragged on.
With so little harmony apparent elsewhere it is little wonder that the players have fallen out among themselves as their hold on a Premiership place has become increasingly tenuous. They have done well to carry the fight this far but if they do not win at Newcastle that will be it.
Too much has been said for Smith and Noades to continue working together. The manager's contract has two weeks to run but it is unlikely to run the full distance. Smith wants the end to be dignified and executed in the best interests of the football club. Survive or demise, a board meeting will take place on Tuesday to which Smith has been summoned. It seems certain Noades will sack his manager, but in any event Smith wants out.
In many ways it is surprising the relationship has survived thus far. Smith hardly broke down the door in his rush to become manager. He had seen the toll it had taken on Steve Coppell and an initial reluctance hardened when the chairman indicated a desire to take overall responsibility for the youth team. That was smoothed over and in Smith's first season Palace raced to the First Division championship, seven points clear of Nottingham Forest .
All was not as it seemed, however. Smith says that "we have been flimsy all season" and you feel he is talking about things inside the club as well as on the pitch. Clearly he believes he has been left badly exposed by a lack of support, most conspicuously when Chris Armstrong tested positive for cannabis and he was left to parry the media inquisition while Noades was away.
It is not in Smith's style to row back over all that's gone on. Instead he gazes around a training ground that in many respects is unfit for a Second Division club let alone one which has stood proudly among the lite, and his mind is filled with "if onlys".
"What I would really have liked," he says, "is to go to the chairman and say 'I did what you asked me to do with the youth team all those years ago, then I got the reserve team up and running, now I have taken you back to the Premier League and this season I have kept you there'." Barring miracles that is unlikely to be the valedictory speech now and in any case it is unlikely the final conversation will last that long. Chairman and manager do not have a lot to say to each other any more.
They have not spoken since the home game with Manchester City, an April Fool's Day victory that followed the deadline day signing of Ray Houghton. "It was like a load had been lifted from my shoulders," he recalled. "I remember thinking that if only we had signed both Ray and Iain Dowie a little earlier." Smith maintains that the necessary funds were not forthcoming when he wanted to sign the two men earlier in the season.
Acidic references by Smith to the chairman's new Bentley and to Noades being involved in relegation three times (it is actually twice) have caused upset. Smith admits "firing a few shots across his bows", but insists he has never let Noades or the club down.
"I honestly do not think I could have done any more to have improved the situation the team is in. I have stayed long into the evening in this office with David Kemp and Ray Lewington going through the team, how we could change things, watching the videos."
At the start of the season Palace were thought likely to punch their weight in higher company. If anything it was Nottingham Forest who were expected to find life harder. Now Forest are looking towards Europe while Palace's horizon shows only the Endsleigh.
All season Palace's attempts to pull away from the bottom have been blighted by an inability to score goals when it mattered most, when League points were at stake. They flowed freely in the runs to two cup semi-finals, but so did injuries to key players at vital stages of the season. That has brought into sharp focus the contribution of Armstrong for whom Smith persuaded Noades to reject a £4m offer last autumn. When Armstrong tested positive for drugs and was suspended by the Football Association, Smith went to strenuous lengths to protect his player but subsequently he has been highly critical of Armstrong's output.
This is the area where those on the prosecuting side say Smith has been at fault. It is not good for a manager to condemn his players in public, they say. Like Alex Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish, criticism should be kept under lock and key behind the dressing-room door.
Smith conducts his own steadfast defence. "I know what I do for my players, the work that goes into training. The players know how much I do for them and have done for them and that gives me the right to criticise if they don't perform.
"I was responsible for bringing Chris here, I was the manager last season when he was leading scorer. I think you will find I have said more good things about Chris Armstrong than bad. If you are talking about Ferguson and Dalglish you are not comparing like with like. I have not seen too many occasions when Dalglish's players at Blackburn have not performed. It is the route I decided to take as a manager and I won't change it."
Noades abhors the criticism of players and not only because, should he decide to sell Armstrong to Newcastle in the summer, he might find his market value reduced. "All clubs should aim for a happy dressing-room and a happy boardroom," he said. "At Palace we have a happy boardroom but not the other and that is none of the directors' making."
Why, he asks, should Smith decide to accept the manager's job if, in fact, he knew he had a problem with the chairman, whom he has known for 20 years. He says his postbag on the debate is "50-50"; that both he and his family have suffered personal abuse because of the situation, and that has forced him on occasion to respond.
He believes he has shown Smith as much support as a chairman can give and says minutes of board meetings through the season show that money has been available to spend on new players. For his part he says his support has not been repaid with loyalty. He defends his involvement in the youth set-up, saying that it is the area of a club that has to remain constant and not at the mercy of changes in the managerial chair.
And so it rumbles on, a manager and chairman at war while their team fights for its life. As Smith says, there can be no winners - only losers. Ask the supporters and they would almost certainly side with Smith. And maybe they know best of all.Reuse content