Unsung Heroes: #1
With the transfer window boring me to death and a poverty of midweek fixtures to divert attention from the EXLUSIVE: We Still Know Bugger All About the Arshavin Deal- See Pages 2,3,4,5,6,7 and 10 for the lowdown! headlines that seem to stalk me from every orifice of the interweb. There's been little but viscous transfer tripe to sink your teeth into if you happen to write about football, but in time honoured fashion, misty eyed nostalgia and pointless sentiment prove to be quite the bedfellows for an itchy typing finger. So I've decided to take a look at some of the unsung and undervalued titans of Arsenal's history whose legacy I will attempt to illuminate and move from the appendix to the banner headline.
When I was growing up, reared on the juicy middle of George Graham's reign (after the ruthless culling of the mid 80s and the turgid football and perfidious scandal of the mid 90s) Arsenal was a team with an obvious talisman, the epicentre of all that was good about that nascent side. You might think I am talking about the incomparable flair of Merson or Rocastle, the miserly unit at the back marshalled by Sergeant Adams, the Safe Hands of David Seaman or the effervescence of Ian Wright. But history has been unkind to Alan 'Smudger' Smith, the fulcrum and top scorer of two league title winning sides. But then again, Alan Smith's careerwas one that was often as obfuscated as it was decorated.
Everything about the man is neatly summed up in one amusing paradox. Alan Smith was born in Hollywood. But not the salubrious, globally iconic 'tinsel town', Hollywood the leafy, middle class suburb of Birmingham. Even his name screams anonimity, or rather whispers it in a naisal brummie tone. If you type 'Alan Smith' into wikipedia, you immediately get that perma bleached, journeyman twat from Newcastle. But being sidelined was a feature of Smudger's career. After a season with non league Alvechurch in 1982, Smith was snapped up by Leicester City. He garnered a very respectable 84 goals in 206 appearances for the Midlands side. However, his Leicester career is not as celebrated as a total as impressive as that would suggest. His strike partner for most of his Leicester days was Gary Lineker. However, whilst Lineker shuffled off into the glitz and glamour of the Nou Camp, Smith had done enough to solicit the attentions of George Graham who shelled out £850,000 for him in 1987. However, the transfer became protracted (I'm not going to escape it am I?) and Arsenal ended up having to loan him back to Filbert Street for four months due to complications with his registration.
Smith endured an inauspicious start to his Arsenal career and was displaced fromthe starting line up by fellow beanpole forward Niall Quinn. But Smith was a character of fortitude and forced his way back into the reckoning. By the beginning of the 1988-89 season, he was one of the first names on the team sheet. He justified it too with a Golden Boot grabbing haul of 23 goals. History seems to have remembered Smith as a mere battering ram at the heart of a dour Arsenal side, but a look at his goals in this season disputes that myth. Smudger was very deft in the air (watch a goal he scores at Villa Park that season, sniffing out a back header in the six yard box and taking a clattering from Nigel Spink in the process) and the ideal target man, but there were more strings to his bow. His touch was one of subtlety and his awareness of those around him was peerless. Smith partnered three very different strikers in his time at Arsenal in Merson, Wright and Campbell- all loved to play with Smith though. Smith was a rangier striker than the collective conscious seems to credit, beautiful volleys from the edge of the area against Luton Town and a left foot peach in front of the North Bank against Norwich City from that season also stick out.
But Smith also had a nose for goal that no other forward in the Division could match, often buying himself that crucial half a second in the box with his telepathic powers of anticipation. Of course his most famous goal for the club arrived on the fateful, all encompassing night of that season. He opened the scoring at Anfield on May 26th, 1989 by using his aerial prowess and his angular striker's nose to head home Winterburn's flighted free kick. Typically for Smudger though, that goal is automatically and irrevocably overshadowedby the goal that followed it. Smith's goal that night is instantly consigned to the margins of history, serving simply as contextual filler for the blockbuster event. Smith was the perennial bridesmaid. But for an appreciation for the range of Smith's attributes, look again at that Michael Thomas goal and remind me who provides a placid assist amidst the nerve shredding backdrop.
Smith continued his prolific goalscoring in the title winning season of 1990-91 when he scored 22 goals. A vital goal in a 3-0 win over Liverpool will always be forgotten in the midst of Limpar's 45 yard lob. The Gunners won the title on 6th May, 1991, beating Manchester United at Highbury 3-1 that evening- Smith got a hat trick. But of course Liverpool's defeat earlier in the day to Nottingham Forest meant the title had already been won before kick off, so Smith's hat trick is not quite remembered with the same relish. Early in the proceeding season, Graham signed a cocksure striker named Ian Wright. Smith's role in the side was altered thereafter and once again his destiny lay away from the soda lights. He became the lanky foil to feed Wright's obsession with goals, his pimp hustler, his fluffer. It is testament to Smith's altruism and professionalism that he accepted his new role and set about it with his typical dignity. However, Smith, as every dog does, had his day. A rash tackle ensured Ian Wright would be suspended for the 1994 Cup Winners Cup Final. All of the talk pre match against Parma in Copenhagen was of how Arsenal's minscule chances of victory had been vanquished by the loss of their star. They hadn't accounted for Smudger, who hit the winner with a stunning left foot volley. It would prove to be one last, well deserved geyser of glory. He missed most of the following season with a back problem and called it a day in the summer of 1995. The tributes of his retirement were lost that summer amidst the clamour for a glamorous new signing. Chap by the name of Bergkamp.
Meanwhile, Smith's international career, bookmarked as it was by the era of Lineker, was less impressive. He appeared thirteen times for his country scoring twice. In fact, typically, his international career is only remembered at all because it was he who replaced Gary Lineker in his last ever game for his country, as the jug eared Spurs forward was replaced with England needing a goal to qualify from their group in Euro 92 and with Lineker one goal short of the all time England scoring record. It was a substitution that infuriated a nation, felling as it did the nation's darling with the sword of Damacles. Smith was once again discussed as a footnote to a man who had spent much of the 80s stunting his reputation. Smith was a paragon of fair play too, he was booked once in his entire career- and that caution came in extra time for the 1993 F.A. Cup Final Replay!
In reality, until the arrival of Adebayor, Arsenal hadn't had a striker like Smith since his retirement. Nowadays, he is a respected football journalist and pundit for Sky Sports. In an age of hyperbole and where Chris Kamara's inarticulacy and cliche ridden dullards such as Lawrenson and Shearer pass as pundits, Smith is a considered and articulate analyst. No member of the old boys brigade who insist that it's them foreigners what dive and the 'they don't like it up 'em' school subscribed to so readily, Smudger is a breath of fresh air on screen and in print. (He also isn't needlessly biased for or against any club in the manner that the Liverpool mafia that dominate Sports broadcasting seem to be). Ever since his retirement,the Arsenal number 9 has been seemingly cursed, with Jeffers, Reyes and Baptista performing below their reputations, Merson sold on one year after accepting the number (whilst curiously stuck on 99 Arsenal goals) and the ill fortune befell by our current number 9. Had Smith's two Golden Boot winning seasons arrived in the age of Sky Sports, his legend would perhaps linger larger and be pored over in more gory detail than it has been. Then again, the Hollywood treatment was never to the tastes of the man from Hollywood.LD.