England fail to distract Smith from Leeds plight

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The Independent Online

Outside the West Riding of Yorkshire, the concept of Alan Smith as being more sinned against than sinning is a hard one to accept. His agent may once have persuaded him to dress up as a choirboy to illustrate a newspaper article, but the fact that by the age of 23 he had picked up as many red cards as Roy Keane weighs considerably more heavily.

Outside the West Riding of Yorkshire, the concept of Alan Smith as being more sinned against than sinning is a hard one to accept. His agent may once have persuaded him to dress up as a choirboy to illustrate a newspaper article, but the fact that by the age of 23 he had picked up as many red cards as Roy Keane weighs considerably more heavily.

And yet, for England, he has had the carpet pulled frequently from under his feet. His initial opportunity, immediately after the World Cup, was blown entirely under his own steam. Facing Macedonia at Southampton, he finished the match in typical fashion; walking back to the dressing-room on his own. Another rash challenge, another dismissal, another mumbled apology, another wait on the sidelines.

In November, he left the England camp amid farcical circumstances. Called late into Sven Goran Eriksson's squad to face Denmark at Old Trafford, Smith barely had time to look around the modernist decor of the Lowry Hotel in Manchester before being told to leave. The Football Association, because of the Rio Ferdinand affair, was then caught in a kind of moralistic hand-wringing reminiscent of an Anglican vicar and discovered that Smith was, rather embarrassingly, serving a suspension at Leeds for throwing back a plastic bottle into the crowd.

And now here he was in Sweden, the last chance to impress Eriksson before the squad for this summer's European Championship was announced. Sitting in a room at the Gothenburg Conference Centre on Tuesday night, Smith remarked "It is difficult to stake your claim in 45 minutes", but expressed his relief that after being employed on the right wing by successive Leeds managers, he was glad Eddie Gray was now using him as a pure striker. "I was playing in midfield for maybe two years and that was two years too long."

Smith did not have 45 minutes against Sweden to stake his claim, he had half an hour and, more to the point, it was the half an hour in which England were at their most insipid. To cap everything, he spent the time cast adrift on the right wing.

Whether he goes to Portugal matters less to him than whether Leeds remain in the Premiership. He and Gray accept that relegation will leave Smith with no choice but to quit Elland Road and with the accountants now running Leeds demanding £15m worth of salary cuts even if they retain their status, he may go whatever the season brings.

It was pointedly ironic that the big winner in the Ullevi Stadium on Wednesday night was Jermain Defoe, who shocked Trevor Brooking and many others at Upton Park by delivering a transfer request the morning after West Ham's relegation. Smith could be expected to show rather more decorum.

"Whether the club has got a future is the first thing on my mind," he said. "It hurts me that the decision on whether I stay is not down to me. The people in charge of the club now probably already know whether I'm staying or going in the summer."

When Leeds were in their pomp under David O'Leary, Smith was one of five high-class strikers. As the club has imploded, the two Robbies, Keane and Fowler, have left, Michael Bridges has not fully recovered from a series of hateful injuries, while Mark Viduka has remained an enigma. Only Smith has fought consistently hard. It is an analysis he agrees with - they don't do false modesty in Rothwell.

"The club's plight has probably inspired me," he said. "Over the past few years I've probably been the most consistent player we've had."

It may be significant that this season he has not been sent off. "The manager said to me, 'We can't afford not to have you playing'. It was good to hear. Every time I go out on the pitch now people are looking at me to put in a big performance."

Smith does not take the easy option, the one that says the financial collapse of Leeds United undermined their players. "You can't blame the circumstances of the club. We had a good result against Manchester City and we go to Birmingham full of confidence and expecting to win, we're in front after three minutes and yet we somehow lack a bit of fight.

"It's been missing all season; we seem to roll over in games. We have let four in at Everton, been beaten 6-1 at Portsmouth and you shouldn't be getting beaten by those scores by those kind of teams."

Such is the instability surrounding Leeds that Gray is Smith's fourth manager in fewer than two years. He is the one he feels closest to and not just because Gray plays him as a centre-forward.

"I relate to Eddie more than the other managers," Smith said. "He's always been there when I've been at the club, given me a telling-off when I've needed one and put an arm round me when I've needed that.

"I'm disappointed he's had this deal. At a time when the club's been going in the wrong direction, he's always been trying to pick up the pieces. Years and years ago, when he got sacked as manager, he had nowt to play with and once again he is getting punished for his loyalty because not many would have taken over at that stage of the season. Once again he's been dealt a lousy hand."

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