Football: FA Cup semi-final: Guy Hodgson meets the men at the sharp end in today's Spurs-Arsenal FA Cup semi-final at Wembley: Alan Smith - Arsenal

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The Independent Online
JOHN BARNES may not be flavour of the month at Wembley but at least he gets a reaction. Mention Alan Smith in international terms and the normal response is a decisive 'don't know'. Supporters suspect he is doing a good job but they are not quite sure what it is.

Smith describes himself as 'not the sort of player the media clamours to get in the England side' yet he is a striker who sets off others - Gary Lineker at Leicester, Paul Merson, Kevin Campbell and most of all Ian Wright at Arsenal. Like Frank Stapleton, a Highbury predecessor, he is the type of centre-forward you believe is a delight to play alongside, always working, always prepared to lure defenders away to allow others space.

'I'm lucky that my managers have always appreciated me,' he said, 'even if the press haven't. George Graham has always been very supportive and Graham Taylor seems to hold the same opinion about me.' The England manager is unequivocal: 'I've always rated Alan,' he said, 'because, even when he's not scoring he creates chances for others.'

Not that Smith is docile in front of goal himself. Until Wright's arrival at Highbury he was Arsenal's top scorer for four successive years, striking 98 times in 224 full appearances before the start of the season. 'He has been a great professional,' George Graham, his manager, said when the 30-year-old striker signed a new contract a fortnight ago. 'He has looked after himself properly and could play at the top level for another three or four years.'

The contract came as a relief for Smith for whom this afternoon's FA Cup semi-final and the Coca- Cola Cup final will set apart a not particularly distinguished season by his own standards. Troubled by injuries, he has managed only five goals and this spell is summed up by his having to pull out of the last two England squads. At one point there was newspaper talk of him joining Nottingham Forest as a replacement for the striker he will be compared to today, Teddy Sheringham.

'Knowing I can stay at a club like Arsenal for another three years if I want to is a boost to the confidence,' he said. 'This is a wonderful place, a truly big club. It would be a step down going to almost anywhere else.'

As to why he has had trouble finding the net, Smith either does not know or is not saying. Unselfish his image may be, but he confesses the same pangs of disappointment that most strikers endure if he fails to score in a match, no matter what the result.

He does, however, dispute the theory that Wright is hogging the positions that he himself used to claim. 'No, I've always played with strikers with similar styles to Ian. I did well enough last season (17 goals) to show Ian and I can play with each other. I'm just going through a bad spell that every striker suffers. After five good seasons of averaging around 20 goals I was probably due one.'

Stewart Houston, Arsenal's assistant manager, is more specific. 'Alan is 6ft 3in and very good in the air but he depends very much on the service he gets into the area and this season we have not been supplying the crosses. It's something we're working on. He is an intelligent player who leads the line well. He can hold the ball up, bring other players into the game. He has two good feet and a lot of skill for someone so big.'

Smith, who was studying a degree in modern lan First Division's leading scorer in 1988-89.

His two most important visits to Wembley with his club have ended in disappointment. He scored the goal that put Arsenal 2-1 up against Luton in the 1988 Littlewoods Cup final only to finish on the losing side. His header also gave Arsenal hope in the 1991 FA Cup semi-final which Tottenham eventually won 3-1.

'The Spurs players were hyped up, very determined, and they caught us a little bit cold,' he said. 'Once we scored I thought we were a better team but basically Tottenham won the match in the first half-hour. It's something we'll be ready for this time.

'We've been inconsistent in the league, which is not like Arsenal. Consistency is drummed into us, we are expected to perform at a high level week after week. But once you've lost your chance in the championship I suppose subconsciously you make an extra effort for Cup games.'

No one doubts his effort, it is a goal he requires. Preferably today.

(Photograph omitted)

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