Famous name is no substitute for hard work, says Schmeichel Jnr
The Leeds keeper heads to Arsenal in the Cup today determined to remind people of his top-flight potential. Phil Shaw reports
Saturday 08 January 2011
By trains, planes and automobiles they will descend on north London, 8,500 Leeds United supporters all hoping to see Kasper Schmeichel defy Arsenal's big guns.
But late arrivals for the lunchtime tie at the Emirates Stadium should look out for a celebrity addition to their ranks arriving by a less orthodox mode of transport.
"Dad's on Soccer AM in the morning," explains Schmeichel Jnr. "I believe he's jumping on the back of a motorbike to get there in time." Dad is, of course, Peter Schmeichel, who will be in the unaccustomed position, for one irrevocably associated with Manchester United, of wanting Leeds, one of their bitterest traditional rivals, to match the stunning victory over his former club a year ago.
At 24 it would asking a lot for the younger Schmeichel to have achieved what his father did at Old Trafford and with Denmark, or indeed attracted the vilification his brushes with Ian Wright brought him at Highbury. However, he has already acquitted himself well in the Premier League and is established in a Leeds side lying fifth in the Championship.
Like other sons of legendary fathers, such as Nigel Clough, Schmeichel is proud of the old man but bored with being constantly asked about him. "He's my dad," he will say, fixing you with piercing blue eyes, "not my coach." Yet his approach to his craft proves he is a chip off the same block.
"I was brought up with the mentality of being first on to the training ground and last off," says the boyhood striker who went between the posts in his mid-teens. "As a kid, watching the Man United players practising had a massive impact on me. Growing up with one of those guys as your dad, and Steve Bruce as your neighbour, you saw how they conducted themselves. David Beckham would still be out there, long after everyone went in, practising free-kicks. I try to do the same. Working hard is the only way you improve."
After joining Manchester City at 15, he studied a succession of top-class custodians, including David Seaman, David James, Tim Flowers and Shay Given. "Again, things rub off on you; professionalism, presence, technique. It sounds nerdy but me and Joe Hart, who's the same age, talked for ages about things like how long you stay on your feet when opponents run at you."
Hart, now England No 1, has remarked only half-jokingly that he "stole" his technique from close friend Schmeichel. "We took things from each other," laughs the Dane. Sven Goran Eriksson initially favoured Schmeichel, who, at 19, kept clean sheets in his first three games, including a victory over United. In the fourth, at Arsenal, he appeared to psych out Robin van Persie by stretching his arms high and pogoing before saving his penalty. A late goal by Cesc Fabregas – "in the top corner," he recalls ruefully – finally beat him. Even then he almost equalised, going up to get in a header from a corner which Manuel Almunia saved.
"That time was a whirlwind. Looking back it's all a blur. Maybe I was too young, but the experience served me well. I was disappointed I didn't stay in the side, though more so with the way it was done. One day I was told, 'We believe you're the man for the future; we know you'll make mistakes but we'll keep playing you'. I signed a new contract and next day I was left out and didn't play again. Some honesty would've been nice."
A string of loan spells maintained his competitive edge before Eriksson, "a great manager and great guy", took him to Notts County as part of their five-year plan to climb from League Two to the Premier League. Although the title was won, the promised funding did not materialise. The two Scandinavians departed, yet Schmeichel views his year at Meadow Lane positively.
"People who say it wasn't a testing enough environment for me are talking nonsense. A shot from 15 yards or header in the six-yard box is the same at any level. With 6ft 4in strikers challenging for high balls, and playing as though livelihoods depended on it – which they do – it taught me about the physical aspects of the game. It's not the Premier League but the alternative was being third-choice at City. I could've stayed at the richest club in the world and picked up my money, but I wanted to play."
Simon Grayson, the Leeds manager, noted his 25 clean sheets and took him into the second tier with the promoted club. Their progress has fuelled hopes they will soon be contesting points at the Emirates again. "We have to manage expectations," cautions Schmeichel, "but I see no reason why we can't do it. Everything's in place: the facilities, the volume of fans, the quality of the squad and a great manager. The difficult part is actually getting the results."
It will be harder still against Arsène Wenger's free-flowing side, but he remembers returning from Sunday training last January to watch a Danish keeper called Casper (Ankergren) stop everything for Leeds that Wayne Rooney and Co threw at him. "That's what the FA Cup can do," grins Schmeichel, although for many the sight of a crash helmet being removed to reveal a famous blond thatch will be proof enough of the competition's enduring capacity for surprise.
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