Football: Smith: How to tackle a prima donna

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JIM SMITH gives one of those infectious, cackling laughs which reverberates around the Ramarena, Derby County's training ground, off the city's ring road. "Yes, you have to treat players a bit differently to when I started out," he booms. "Then, if the manager said 'jump' you jumped. If not you were out of the team. These days, particularly once they get a bit of a name in the first team, they can't handle a bollocking too well. My method used to be to use a bit of sarcasm, but they're too fragile even for that now. You need real man-management these days."

If there's one character who can testify to the transition in the job it's the man who makes most other members of his brotherhood look like fly-by-nights. There's longevity among football careers. And there's the widely-respected, genial former Newcastle, QPR and Oxford manager, who surely deserves a special honour bestowed for emerging from a period of Robert Maxwell's chairmanship relatively unscathed. Under Smith's three- year stewardship the Rams, who face West Ham this afternoon, have flourished at Pride Park since it opened last season a year after their return to the Premiership.

He is interrupted by the vice-chairman, builder Peter Gadsby, who wants Smith to view some plans for the club's proposed new football academy, cost pounds 4.5m. "That's another new player I won't be getting," he jokes, although in truth the manager has nothing but admiration for the progress the club has made since he joined it in 1995. It is all a considerable contrast to 30 years ago when, as a 28-year-old player, he was given a free transfer by Lincoln City. He received an offer to play for non-league Boston United, who'd just sacked their manager. "I said I'd go if I could be player-manager. I had taken a few coaching courses, but I had to pick up virtually everything else about the job as I went along. I was a player, a coach, a secretary. I did all the signing-ons and the accounts and my wife even did the wages."

Since then, Smith has had no more than two weeks out of management or coaching, apart from three months as chief executive of the League Managers' Association. "It was the same everywhere in my early days. Your Revies, Busbys, people like that, were totally in charge of the club on everything to do with football. Now the manager is really the coach. We have enough responsibility sorting the team out."

In the evolutionary process of football, that species containing the greater Smithosaurus, or "Bald Eagle" as he is better known, appears to be under threat from creatures which have emerged from the continental drift. Yet, far from becoming endangered, he has adapted to the change in climate. Indeed, Smith sees no wholesale threat to his British counterparts from the continent. "I don't see many more foreign coaches coming in; some clubs will try it, but in the main it's not going to work. The intensity of the Premiership will be too much eventually.

"Admittedly, Arsene Wenger's gone to Arsenal and won the double, and Vialli's done very well, but it will be interesting to see what Mr Houllier makes of going to Liverpool and all the changing there."

Yet he adds with a chuckle: "It still surprises me to think that I've been around for this long, bearing in mind it's not exactly regarded as a long-term industry. You've just got to keep moving in front of the pack. I used to be completely 'hands on', but that's not really possible in the Premiership. I've got a good coach [Steve McLaren] and then there are people like your masseurs and your fitness coaches. At one time, your players just ran round a pitch, had a pie and chips and played. But because of the money involved in staying in the Premiership, we have to do everything possible to prepare players properly."

Smith admires the approach David Platt is adopting to his intended new career. "If I had his money, that was how I'd do it - going to different clubs, going abroad, learning as much as you can before you start." Courses, he agrees, can help, but only up to a point. "They say you can learn man- management skills, and I'm sure it can help, but managing footballers is really an instinct."

Names like Paolo Wanchope, Francesco Baiano, Lars Bohinen, Igor Stimac and goalkeeper Mart Poom now pepper the team-sheet. "Every week, we've two scouts going out into Europe looking at games," says Smith. "It's a high-risk market, although I've been very lucky with my foreign signings. The problem is there's very little market in British players. Otherwise I'd buy British all the time. We're delighted when a young home player like Steve Elliott comes through.

"The difficulty with foreigners is understanding their mentality. Mind you, English players are becoming just as much prima donnas now, so you can't give the bollockings you used to give to any of them."

Thus far, his men haven't needed too much chastisement anyway. Derby are eight points ahead of last season and Europe is an assailable target. "Last season we had a disastrous finish. If we can improve our run-in by about six points we'll be there."