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Smith doesn’t know his place

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Winger, striker or holding midfielder? Stuart Rayner watches a player struggling to find his place


ONCE upon a time Alan Smith was viewed as a potential successor to Roy Keane. As Keane’s playing days neared an end, the then-Manchester United player was asked to prove he could become the dominant midfielder his team-mate had been for a decade.


A broken leg at Anfield ended the experiment and although Keane had left Old Trafford by the time Smith regained full fitness, he was never asked again.


While Smith was unable to convince Sir Alex Ferguson he was any better equipped than the long line of midfielders who tried and failed to replace Keane, he made an impression on the man himself. When the 27-year-old’s Red Devils career ended in the summer, Sunderland’s manager was towards the front of the queue of suitors.


Had Smith chosen Wearside over Tyneside it would have been interesting to see how Keane would have utilised him. Seven years after a winning goal for Leeds United in Lazio’s Olympic Stadium which had many talking of him as a top England centre-forward in the making, Smith is still searching for his best position. In four months working with Smith, Sam Allardyce has done little to answer the question.


“I see him as a utility player,” Allardyce said after Saturday’s Wear-Tyne derby. “It’s all about commitment, passion and energy with Smudger. He’s not bothered where he plays as long as he plays.”


Whenever the Yorkshireman pulls on a pair of football boots, commitment comes as a guarantee. It is a quality too few Magpies players of recent seasons have possessed, and perhaps a reason why he ended Saturday’s derby with the captain’s armband around his left arm. Smith’s very obvious passion endears him to fans, the club owner who wears his shirt and team-mates, but what is less clear is how best to channel it.


A week after only his second Newcastle start in his preferred centre-forward position, Smith was asked to reprise his anchorman role for the first time since the horrendous injury at Liverpool 21 months earlier. With Nicky Butt suspended, Allardyce’s 4-1-3-2 formation needed someone who could protect a back four increasingly conforming to the Newcastle United stereotype. It says much for Kenwyne Jones’ rapidly-growing reputation the Magpies manager also had an eye on dealing with the striker’s aerial ability. Smith was given the nod over Abdoulaye Faye and club captain Geremi.


Holding midfield is a position which requires discipline. Smith showed plenty of positional restraint, generally stationed between or behind the full-backs when Newcastle were in possession and on top of Faye and David Rozehnal when Sunderland had free-kicks within range of Jones’ head. But more widely, discipline is Smith’s weakness. He became only the second Premier League player this season suspended for reaching five bookings and on Saturday committed more fouls than anyone.


One of Butt’s underplayed strengths is his passing. Too often Smith was wasteful in possession despite adopting the same unadventurous approach that used to be a hallmark of his St James’s predecessor David Batty. Smith’s job was not to be a Dwight Yorke-style playmaker, but a little cutting edge would have gone a long way. Smith was unwittingly involved in Higginbotham’s opener, and while he did nothing wrong in collecting a throw-in from deep in Black Cats territory and passing back to Faye, he could have done more when the defender’s brainstorm caused a corner. That Jones could take it short was in part due to Smith standing off.


By then, though, he was in credit having cleared Leadbitter’s first-half shot after it beat Steve Harper, again demonstrating an ability to sense danger.


Some people are just good utility players and many successful teams have had cause to thank a jack-of-all-trades with an uncomplaining dedication to the team. But those who fill the role generally aspire to be better, preferring to be outstanding in one position as opposed to adequate in many.


For Smith to finally reach the heights his goal in Rome hinted at he must settle on a role, then make himself undroppable in it.


Whenever the Yorkshireman pulls on a pair of boots, commitment comes as a guarantee

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