United tie offers Smith the chance to realise dream

Northampton striker who was once tipped for stardom eager to seize the day against Premiership giants
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When Ruud Van Nistelrooy comes to Northampton on Sunday, he ought by rights to be introduced to the footballer they once called "the cousin of Cruyff".

Mention Martin Smith to a certain type of Sunderland fan; one who can remember the final days of Roker Park, and you should receive a wistful sigh, a mention of all that potential and perhaps the T-shirts sold by the club fanzine, A Love Supreme, which proclaimed Martin, with tongue only partially in cheek, Johan's close relative. Peter Reid thought him the most talented player he had ever managed. This did not, however, prevent him dropping Smith at depressingly regular intervals.

Sunderland in 1993 when Smith, fresh out of school, announced himself with a goal on his debut was a depressing place to watch football, especially when compared to Newcastle, who under Kevin Keegan were in the process of reinventing themselves as Barcelona-on-Tyne. Sunderland were then managed by Mick Buxton, who in his flat cap and shapeless track-suit resembled a pigeon fancier who had stumbled into the home dug-out on his way to the coops. Amid all this, Smith, a supremely elegant footballer was a jewel in the mud; an England Under-21 international, who had the distinction of having his every kick booed on his international debut at St James' Park.

As Northampton prepare for a repeat of an FA Cup tie with Manchester United which in 1970 saw George Best score six times, it is worth asking the question Best was famously once presented with. "Where did it all go wrong?" The answer lies in constant injuries and some poor career choices. When, four years ago, Smith signed for Huddersfield Town, Steve Bruce talked of returning the club to top-flight football. By the time he left, they could not pay their own players' wages.

"I said when I signed, I'd help take them out of the division and I did; they went from One to Three," Smith smiled. "And yet when I came the club was geared for the Premiership; they threw everything into that one season - they had to go up and were caught badly short when they didn't. Steve Bruce had an iffy start to the season. He was sacked and it was all completely downhill from there.

"Last season on Thursdays and Fridays we'd be having meetings about money and we couldn't concentrate on the football. At the end of the season I was mentally drained. I was one of the lucky ones; I had a bit of money put by but some couldn't pay the mortgage and it must have been terrible for them. And by the end of last season, I was like that myself - struggling for cash. It was no surprise we got relegated. The last time we were paid a proper wage was in October. After Huddersfield went into administration we didn't get paid for three months."

For 18 months he was the victim of a debilitating knee injury. It took two operations in a year to discover what was wrong. "The worst thing was thinking people didn't believe that you were injured. I had two operations. They'd found nothing wrong and I was telling them I couldn't kick a ball. At Sunderland it was different. They kept saying I was injured when I just wasn't getting picked."

Smith's final manager at the McAlpine was Mick Wadsworth, who faced the absurd position that if he kept Huddersfield in the Second Division, the club could afford to sack him and pay up his contract. If he relegated them, they could not. It perfectly encapsulated all the financial insanity of lower-division football.

Northampton Town, a club which had got through a manager and a chairman for each of the last three years, might not have appeared an attractive option until David Cordoza, a 33-year-old property developer, took over Sixfields and began turning it into "The Chelsea of the Third Division". They signed virtually an entire team during the summer and while Smith was courted by Cardiff City and Queen's Park Rangers, Northampton could offer better terms.

They did not play like Chelsea. Not until Martin Wilkinson was sacked as manager in favour of the tougher figure of Colin Calderwood in September did the club begin to turn. "When we saw the draw would put us against Manchester United, we were disappointed because we should have beaten Rotherham in the first game here and you were saying to yourself: 'Is that your chance gone?'" However, they seized it. Smith played beautifully in midfield at Millmoor. Having scored the goal which earned the replay, he struck the post, created the equaliser for Richard Walker, and hit the winner which would earn Northampton around £400,000.

They would hope not to be humiliated as they were in 1970, a match which ended with Harold Wilson, who was way ahead of Tony Blair in exploiting celebrities, inviting Best to Downing Street. "Nobody would back you with any amount of money," said Calderwood, who admits to phoning nearly every one of his former managers to ask for tips in overcoming United. But we still have to have that little bit of belief, that golden dream that one day we are going to be heroes."

Some fans camped overnight when the final 750 tickets went on sale to buy the right to dream. Doubling the prices did not affect demand. Smith's parents, Cath and Bill, do not have tickets. They are in Spain, looking after their grandchildren and will be in the air when the match kicks off. Preparations have not been ideal.

Tuesday night saw a wearying defeat by Colchester United in the semi-finals of the LDV Vans Trophy, a match which saw a two-goal lead surrendered and several players, including Smith and Derek Asamoah, pick up injuries in extra time. Manchester United, meanwhile, were relaxing in Dubai. "We can hope for jet-lag or sunstroke," the player laughed and his manager had similar ideas. "We are going to have to tilt the pitch and shine the floodlights in the keeper's eyes," said Calderwood. "But whatever happens, I hope that our players, all of them, seize their day."