It is as well for Alan Smith's prospects of starting an England game for the first time against Portugal that Sven-Goran Eriksson does not bear a grudge. For it was the Leeds United striker's winning goal in the Champions' League 21 months ago that effectively ended the Swede's tenure as coach to Lazio.
"He's never said owt about it to me," Smith said with an impish grin yesterday as the England squad settled into their base at Sutton Coldfield before Saturday's friendly at Villa Park. With a combination of wistfulness and irreverence, he added: "It were a great night, though." Smith, who turns 22 next month, shortly after England begin their Euro 2004 qualifying campaign in Slovakia, has three caps, all as a substitute, and would almost certainly have been part of Eriksson's squad for the World Cup but for his poor disciplinary record. Five career dismissals left the national manager to conclude reluctantly that he might be a liability in the Far East.
Instead of tangling with the world's best defenders he spent the early part of the tournament on holiday in Florida while Darius Vassell, a less rounded but also less volatile forward, made the trip. Smith readily acknowledges that it was a wasted opportunity and claims, with some justification judging by his behaviour this season, that he has learned his lesson.
"I only had myself to blame," he said. "I knew the reason I wasn't at the World Cup – it was because I didn't stay on the pitch long enough. I'm lucky that I've got a second chance to put things right. For example against Birmingham on Saturday, when we were getting beaten, I'd probably have gone over the top and got a yellow card a year ago."
David O'Leary, the manager who gave him his Leeds debut (when he scored with his first touch as an unknown substitute at Liverpool), repeatedly took Smith aside and urged him to control his temper. The Irishman's exhortations seemed to have little effect as the player was sent off for elbowing opponents either side of Christmas, against Aston Villa and Cardiff respectively, but the penny finally dropped when he was representing England's Under-21s last spring.
"David Platt [the coach] put a lot of responsibility on me in the big Uefa tournament. David Dunn was the captain, and rightly so, but he impressed on me the need for me to show leadership qualities too." Smith seized the opportunity, Platt informing Eriksson that he was England's best player during the tournament, and he was duly put on stand-by for the World Cup. His bags were packed in preparation, yet the call never came. Meanwhile, the example of Danny Mills, another much-carded Leeds colleague, who was cautioned only once in Japan, has further drilled the message home.
Apart from his temperament – and he argues that it is the "silly, unnecessary things" that have tended to provoke the wrath of referees – the other question mark against Smith is his scoring record. Despite some memorable big-game goals, his Premiership total stands at a modest 26 in more than 100 appearances.
The fact that he cites players as varied as Mark Hughes, Alan Shearer, Jürgen Klinsmann and Roberto Baggio as his boyhood and adolescent heroes offers a clue as to why Smith does so much work for his team outside the penalty area -- perhaps at the expense of his finishing skills. He has operated as an orthodox centre-forward, as the man playing off the main striker and, more recently, wide on the right of a front three.
"I think I'm better as an out-and-out attacker. But I accept that if you're playing up front week in, week out, then you've got to score goals." Smith's tally in his last 15 League appearances, many of which have been in almost a winger's role, stands at just one.
On Saturday he is likely to link up with Michael Owen, for whose rapier thrusts his own prodigious work-rate ought to prove an ideal foil. There is a boyish excitement about the way he is so obviously relishing the opportunity, though Smith has never been one to be fazed by great reputations, as one extraordinary display against Arsenal in his first season demonstrated.
The London club were striving to retain their title, while Leeds had "nothing" to play for. Smith, then 18, spent all night unsettling defenders, by word and deed, which played no small part in a 1-0 victory. As luck would have it, the first time he joined up with the England squad, the only spare seat was between Tony Adams and Martin Keown.
"Can I sit there?" he asked? "As long as you don't kick us," the veteran centre-backs replied in unison. England will expect similar restraint against Portugal, but not at the expense of Smith's trademark feistiness.
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