Derby's unbeaten home record, the only one left in the division, had just been ended by Dwight Yorke's last-minute goal. Smith, who had questioned during the week how Villa's top scorer came to be starting the game, now wondered aloud whether Paul Alcock ought to have let him stay around to finish it - in more ways than one.
Bizarrely, the controversy over Yorke's role in a parochial Midlands affair had its roots in Central American and Caribbean football. To Smith's dismay, Villa were not required to release him to play for Trinidad and Tobago in the Gold Cup now being staged in the United States, whereas Derby had to lose Paolo Wanchope and Deon Burton to Costa Rica and Jamaica respectively.
Early in the match, a recklessly late lunge by Yorke led to Dean Yates being carried off with an ankle injury. He was duly cautioned, as Stan Collymore had been for knocking the ball away after conceding a foul. Yet when Yorke was ruled offside 10 minutes later, he ran on and drove it twice as far without provoking Mr Alcock into showing the second yellow card that would have brought dismissal.
The unfairness of it all rankled with Smith, not normally one of the game's more grudging losers. With justification he argued that Brazil's invitation to play in the Gold Cup - a ploy to enhance public interest in a tournament not intended for South American nations - meant the matches should not have been ranked as Fifa-sanctioned competitive fixtures.
Just how, Brian Little was asked, had Yorke avoided the call-up? "We didn't appeal or ask," the Villa manager said with a casual shrug. "Dwight has an understanding with them." Perhaps it really is the case, as Smith mused, that the Trinidadians are more concerned with cricket right now. Whatever the truth, the situation seems certain to be exacerbated as the World Cup finals draw closer and national associations put greater pressure on players.
In fairness, Villa have also endured their share of international absences, with Mark Bosnich clocking up the air miles last autumn as Australia strove for a place in France. The goalkeeper underlined his value with some brilliant saves while Villa adjusted to a new system.
Alarmed by their recent slide, Little had abandoned his tried and trusted three-man defence and wing-backs in favour of a conventional 4-4-2. It was, he reasoned, a formation they had switched to during games "to try and win them". This was a peculiar admission, implying that the customary 3-5-2 had negative objectives.
Derby had the better of the first half, while Villa were the more positive side in a scrappy second. Precious as the points were, the goal with which Yorke added insult to Yates' injury should not fool Villa into believing they have turned the corner. The most pressing need is for a harder-working foil for Yorke. The imminent departure of Savo Milosevic will raise funds, though the Serb is entitled to feel he has become something of a scapegoat.
The bold strategy would be to cut their losses on Stan Collymore, assuming that someone was prepared to buy him. Little, however, has staked so much, financially and personally, on the languid Collymore that he appears determined to wait for him to come good. It may be a long wait.
Goal: Yorke (90) 0-1.
Derby County (3-4-1-2): Poom; Yates (Willems, 18), Stimac, Laursen; Rowett, Eranio, Carsley, C Powell; Baiano (D Powell, 85); Sturridge, Dailly. Substitutes not used: Delap, Solis, Hoult (gk).
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Bosnich; Scimeca, Ehiogu, Southgate, Wright; Joachim, Draper, Grayson, Hendrie (Nelson, 85); Collymore, Yorke (Byfield, 90). Substitutes not used: Charles, Hughes, Oakes (gk).
Referee: P Alcock (Halstead, Kent).
Bookings: Villa: Collymore, Yorke.
Man of the match: Bosnich.
Attendance: 30,252.Reuse content