A new Keane? But first Smith must tackle

United middleman does not expect England's call. By Steve Tongue
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The Independent Football

Turning the conversation quickly back to Manchester United, as is advisable, and he is equally forthright but much more positive. "We've got good characters, strong players, players who want to win matches for this club, which is the most important thing. We want to win matches, challenge for honours and I'm sure we can do that."

Tuesday night at Old Trafford may have been a time of nostalgia for many - Eusebio was in the directors' box and the programme cover was consciously modelled on the 1968 European Cup final - but for those in the dug-out and on the pitch, living in the past is not an option. That had been made clear when Sir Alex Ferguson suffered the indignity of being booed following a home defeat by Blackburn three days earlier.

A vivid response to the invitation on Tuesday, "Stand up if you love Fergie", suggested an element of shamefacedness; and failure to over- come even an unexpectedly resilient Benfica side seeded only fourth in the Champions' League group might not have tipped disappointment into bile again. But having touched heights and depths at Leeds United, from a European Cup semi-final to relegation, Smith is well aware at which end of the spectrum United are expected to operate.

"You can't get caught up in thinking that we've lost a game and it's all right," he said. "It's not all right, you should want to win every match you play, and that's what I and everyone else tries to do. The fans have had success for years and will be disappointed if they don't get it."

Whether such feelings justified vocal criticism as shocking as Bob Dylan being called "Judas" in another Manchester arena some 40 years ago is another matter. Smith, a footballer who has always given the impression of being more closely in tune with supporters than most of his breed, prefers to emphasise the positive effect of winning again in such circumstances: "Everybody's being criticised, from the manager and coaching staff to the players, but we win games together and we lose together. Everybody takes stick when it comes and enjoys victories when they come, so I was pleased for the manager. Every player wanted to prove a point. We've got a lot of injuries and it was an opportunity for others to show they're capable of playing in games of that calibre."

Some might have included Smith himself in that category, on the basis that he has yet to prove himself in a new role as defensive midfield player. In times of crisis at Leeds - which is to say throughout the relegation season - he tended to lie deep, partly to reinforce a struggling side and partly out of almost unconscious desire to help his boyhood club in their hour after hour of almost unimaginable need.

Having paid £7 million for him but then acquired Wayne Rooney and Louis Saha as well, Ferguson began to see Smith as a midfielder too, and has now gone the whole hog in attempting a conversion from wide on the right to a central holding role in which the player has been encouraged to see himself as an eventual replacement for the icon that is Roy Keane, possibly as early as next season.

It is a giant leap for any man, especially one who, like most natural attackers - Paul Scholes alongside him comes immediately to mind - appears never to have been taught how to tackle. The reckless lunge that brought a yellow card and Benfica's equalising goal from a free- kick was a classic example of the difficulties involved. "It was a bit of naïveté on my behalf," Smith admitted. "I probably should have stayed on my feet. You've got to be more restrained in Europe."

As for England, he harbours optimistic hopes that Sven Goran Eriksson might yet see him as the holding man required by the national team, his temperament sufficiently mature to avoid any repetition of the sending-off against Macedonia three years ago which took a long time to be forgiven. If not, he insists, then so be it. "It doesn't bother me that I'm not playing. A lot of people say that's wrong. I love playing for my country, but if a manager doesn't want to pick you, that's up to him." And does he expect to be in the squad announced today? "No."

United are clearly the focus of attention. United and not Chelsea, who are merely two dates on the fixture list, the first of which is not until 6 November. "There's loads of talk about Chelsea this and Chelsea that, but we can only do our own job. If we take six points from them we've done our best, and that's it."