The Football Association was facing the prospect of another threatened players' srike last night after a day of high farce ended with Alan Smith, the Leeds United striker, being summoned by England then dismissed within hours.
Smith was arrested at lunchtime by West Yorkshire Police at Holbeck, Leeds. They cautioned him following an incident at the end of Leeds' Carling Cup match with Manchester United on 28 October when he threw a bottle back into the crowd. A file was sent to the Crown Prosecution Service and Smith was released on police bail.
Smith's attendance was then requested by England's coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, as he was called into his squad for Sunday's friendly against Denmark. This followed a knee injury suffered by Darius Vassell in, of all places, Dubai on Wednesday night.
Only then did the FA realise that Smith was on police bail. As the player, having crossed the Pennines, settled into England's Manchester hotel the FA began high-level discussions on the suitability of Smith's inclusion. He was called to meet Eriksson, then other FA officials including Paul Barber, the Director of Marketing and Communications, who had been recalled from the women's international match in Preston. Mark Palios, the chief executive, was in constant touch by telephone as were the FA's lawyers.
Smith's presence, given his status on police bail, was embarrassing enough. That Rio Ferdinand had been omitted from the squad pending an FA disciplinary hearing into his failure to take a drug test compounded the situation.
The debate continued for several hours before Smith was sent home. The FA then attempted to negotiate a statement with Smith's agent, Alex Black. A bland one was released shortly before midnight simply stating Smith had gone home. The Smith camp, understandably, made the point that Nicky Butt had played three internationals this season while on bail for an alleged assault. The police later dropped that case.
The players then met to decide their response. Having been prepared to strike when the FA left Ferdinand out of the squad for the Turkey game, a competitive international, they were furious that another player had been exiled by the FA before any charges had been brought. Gary Neville, England's "shop steward", contacted Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the players' union, the Professional Footballers' Association, who said: "It is getting ridiculous. This is embarrassing for Sven and humiliating for Alan Smith. There was no need for this to happen. It is becoming a Whitehall farce."
Since the FA's disciplinary department was well aware of the police interest in Smith, delaying its own inquiry until the police had acted, there seems to have been an unforgivable breakdown in internal communications especially as Smith's interview with the police was arranged last week.
It all added up to another mad day for Eriksson who had earlier lost Steven Gerrard. The withdrawal of the Liverpool midfielder with a back strain followed those of fellow first-team regulars Ferdinand, Michael Owen, Sol Campbell and Paul Scholes. Fortunately the Old Trafford match is a friendly, not a play-off. With each withdrawal the value of England's draw in Istanbul grows and grows.
The Smith incident will only confirm Eriksson's suspicion that the player, though a responsible teetotaller off the pitch, is "trouble" on it. The 23-year-old has not been selected for an England squad since a needless dismissal, one of 11 in his career, against Macedonia more than a year ago. Even when Eriksson was reduced to three fit strikers by Michael Owen's absence Smith, like James Beattie, was overlooked. But with Wayne Rooney still recovering from influenza the England coach was forced to summon a replacement after Vassell was hurt playing Al-Nasr a fixture the FA gave Vassell dispensation to play in. Since Vassell scored four goals the injury may be a reaction to the unfamiliar sensation of a goal celebration he had previously scored only once this season, a penalty against Wycombe in September. Vassell, who had originally planned to return alone to England yesterday, will now travel back with Villa arriving in Manchester in the early hours of tomorrow morning and may yet join up with England.
Eriksson may now try a different tack, using Joe Cole in an attacking role. "Cole can play off the front man, he has been playing there for Chelsea," the Swede said. Cole said Eriksson had been encouraging him to go forward more in training.