Smith starts to shed his raw edge

Andrew Longmore says the detail of Leeds' success story is in the devilry
Click to follow
The Independent Football

It was way back in the Nineties and Eddie Beaglehole, one of the youth-team coaches, was unusually excited. "Hey, you must come and look at this kid," he told Paul Hart. Hart, then head of youth development at Leeds United, was wise enough to know what that voice meant and curious enough to look for himself. That night he saw for the first time the angel with the dirty face whose devilry has fuelled Leeds' improbable journey through Europe.

It was way back in the Nineties and Eddie Beaglehole, one of the youth-team coaches, was unusually excited. "Hey, you must come and look at this kid," he told Paul Hart. Hart, then head of youth development at Leeds United, was wise enough to know what that voice meant and curious enough to look for himself. That night he saw for the first time the angel with the dirty face whose devilry has fuelled Leeds' improbable journey through Europe.

"You could tell he was special even then," Hart says. Coaches always say that, but it is easier to believe coming from Hart, who is not a man for exaggeration, nor for claiming credit where none is due. "It's a long time ago. I left the year he came on to the staff at 16. They've done a great job with him at Leeds and that's nothing to do with me," he adds. Still, you drive miles, sift games, follow duff tip-offs, endure cold nights just for a glimpse of such a talent, and Hart, now head of the academy at Nottingham Forest, has done his share of those chores. So he does not take too much persuading to warm to the theme of Alan Smith.

"He was a boy of strong convictions from way back," he says. "He had great belief in himself and great pride in what he did. He was made for football. Of course, they've added things to his game." He pauses for reflection, then sacrifices diplomacy for the truth. "No, that's not right. It was all there even back then. All he's done is transfer what he has naturally on to a bigger stage."

To the Nou Camp, to the San Siro and, since the mischievous draw for the second group phase of the Champions' League in Geneva, to the Bernabeu for a meeting with Real Madrid, the defending champions, and back to the Olympic Stadium, where Leeds laid the foundation for a gruelling victory over the much-fancied Roma in the Uefa Cup last season and where Sven Goran Eriksson's Lazio, a team of all talents, await this time. It is a handsome sightseeing tour for a 20-year-old, but Smith cannot wait for the next view from the top, which might yet come back in Italy in the white shirt of young England.

"I love the big, big games and the big, big stadiums and the atmosphere they generate," he says, the relish as genuine and as chilling as the half-smile. "The matches cannot come quickly enough."

You have to believe him, because to watch Smith harry near to distraction accomplished defenders like Paolo Maldini, chase every lost cause and run the channels until his surprisingly stocky legs can move no more is to witness the nerveless expression of modern youth. From the start, Hart noted with a particular glow Smith's courage, hunger and aggression, the sort of raw material from which great players are fashioned.

"Look at the great strikers, they've all gone over the top at times," he says. "It's the hardest position in the world to play, up front, particularly so young, but I recall that game against Arsenal a season or so back when he was up against Adams and Keown, experienced defenders and him just a diminutive lad, and he was fighting for his space all the time. I know no one will take that away from him."

As a strong, commanding centre-half with Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday, Hart knew how to handle himself, but one forward always disturbed his pre-match sleep more than the others. "Dalglish. He was the best. He was a different type of player to Alan. I wouldn't want to compare them, but he was aggressive and cute."

Like Dalglish, the nudge and the niggle are an essential part of Smith's survival kit, part of the "thug element" - to use David O'Leary's phrase - that the Leeds manager, acentre-half himself, wants toned down but never eradicated. Equally Dalglish-like is the face of eternal innocence. Yet, as Hart says, there is a touch of the Denis Law in the young physique. "Law had the body of a schoolboy even when he was gone 30. Alan has that type of body."

This is heady company to be glimpsing, and in anyone else you would fear for the consequences, except that Smith enjoys the support of a strong and down-to-earth family, has no real ambition to move out of his home and, as a boy from the Rothwell Estate on the south side, harbours the sort of instinctive loyalty no money can buy. He came into the Leeds youth system at the age of 11, and those closest to the club have viewed his progress through the ranks with undisguised pleasure.

The only blips on the upward graph were an abortive spell at the school of excellence in Lilleshall, caught on camera by a documentary crew, and last season, when Michael Bridges arrived from Sunderland and the door to O'Leary's office reverberated to the sound of Smith's knuckles. Hart, for one, was delighted when Smith returned early from Lilleshall. "No disrespect to them," he recalls, "but he wanted to be back at Leeds. He was comfortable with us."

O'Leary has asked much of Smith this season, as the injuries have mounted along with the challenges. Yet this Leeds have a love of confrontation, a gift for adversity and an intravenous motivation which harks back to the Don Revie era.

Sheer force of personality - and four goals by Mark Viduka -accounted for a spineless Liverpool at Elland Road last week; today, it is the turn of Chelsea to feel the sharp edge of Leeds' combative nature, the next phase in a rivalry which needs no honing. O'Leary has put the emphasis on survival until a contingent of the cavalry are ready to ride over the hill. Lucas Radebe was back in midweek, Nigel Martyn, Jason Wilcox and Stephen McPhail are due to return in the next few weeks, and Harry Kewell is expected back for Christmas.

It is a measure of Smith's talismanic quality that O'Leary took him to Besiktas last month, though he was suspended for the match. O'Leary wanted the young man to feel the frustration of not playing, but the sight of Smith tidying up the dirty kit after the match, like a two-bob apprentice, proved the more telling image.

On Wednesday night, there was every sign that Alan Smith was growing up. But it is the boy in him that Leeds cherish.

Comments