Sport Soccer

Saturday 20 January 2018

Smith's bolt from the blue

The Cobh native may be with Rangers, but dismisses notion that he's brave or heroic, writes John O'Brien

A light sprinkling of rain hangs stubbornly over Glasgow's northside. Alan Smith squelches across the sodden pitch, swings through the revolving door and makes his way down corridors lined with pictures of former club greats, past the spotless changing-rooms with their personalised lockers and rows of neatly-stacked heart monitors, past the boot-rooms and offices and the line of excited schoolkids dreaming of, one day, being given the chance that he has now. All the things that make him proud to be a Rangers footballer.

He exits through a door at the other side and walks through the car park to the big blue gates that mark the main entrance on the Auchenhowie Road. Sometimes he'll sit upstairs in the canteen and wile away an hour or two ogling the collection of jeeps and sports cars that fill the space below, waiting to be reclaimed by their famous owners after training. It isn't the wealth or glamour that drives him, mind, but it helps all the same.

Today is down day and an eerie silence hovers over Murray Park. Just as well, he thinks. If the lads could see him now, a snapper manipulating him into a series of striking poses, he knows he'd never hear the end of it. Fourteen months a Rangers player and still his presence amuses them. He's still the exotic figure from that strange-sounding place on the southern tip of Ireland. "One, two, what's next Alan?" "Tree," he says and it cracks them up every time.

What he likes, though, is that once they lace their boots their minds turn resolutely towards work. "That impressed me from the start," he says. "Everyone here takes training very seriously. If you make a mistake someone will always have a word with you. It isn't anything personal against you. Just 'you're better than that' or 'you shouldn't be doing that'. They want to see you improve."

He shares a flat with Kamil Wiktorski, an academy kid from Poland, within walking distance of the training ground. Because they are under 19 the club grants a generous amount of freedom and trusts them to be model professionals in return. The kids

in the apartments bind easily because they generally come from abroad and share the same burden of having to settle into a new environment. To Smith, they are as good as family now.

At the club he talks about the staff and players in the common footballer's patois: McCoisty, Durranty, Sinky, Kirky. And then there's Kerny. Alan Kernaghan, the former Republic of Ireland international, is now a youth team coach at Rangers. They chat occasionally but never about Kernaghan's salad days with Ireland because that would be to make more an issue of it than it needs to be.

He just loves watching Kernaghan about the place, mad as a hatter he thinks, but with a lifetime of experience and enthusiasm to impart. "We went to Turkey after Christmas last year and Kerny came with us," he says. "He was treating it like it was still Windsor Park. Doing all the sessions with us, jumping into tackles, giving advice to the players. It was boiling hot but he'd join in the runs anyway, just to keep us going. Incredible really."

Kirky is Billy Kirkwood, his under 19 manager, the coach he needs most to impress if he wants to reach the next level. Off the pitch, Kirky cuts a happy, serene figure but can sometimes seem abrasive when they are between the whitewashed lines. Some kids can find it a little off-putting but Smith knows not to take it personally.

"They don't like players getting carried away with themselves," he explains. "It's the philosophy here. The way they see it if you can't handle one guy shouting at you on the training pitch, then how the hell are you going to handle 50,000 screaming at you in a stadium? You have to be able to take the criticism."

He knows how they work now. Same as any club on the planet really. The quicker you learn and adapt the better your odds of survival. Nobody told him it would be easy here.

* * * * *

WHY Rangers? He's more than half-way into his two-year contract and, still, it remains the first question on most people's lips. He understands their curiosity but he hasn't yet come up with a clever or profound answer and supposes he never will at this stage. The best response he can think of can be easily distilled into two simple words: why not?

As a kid growing up in Cobh, he remembers feeling no great affinity to either half of Glasgow's football divide, nor detected it among his friends or classmates. For a time he danced to a Liverpool beat until Chelsea stole his heart -- "before the Abramovich era," he insists -- because he liked their blue jerseys. Sometimes on his FIFA PlayStation he would pick Rangers as his team. They wore blue jerseys too.

Playing was the thing, though. Winning and getting better. He was around 10, he thinks, when an enlightened coach at his local club, Springfield Ramblers, had a notion to throw him in goal and, suddenly, a clear pathway opened up in front of him. At 15, he switched to Crumlin United, not out of scorn for Springfield, but because if you wanted to be seen by the scouts then Dublin was the place to be.

By then they'd already noticed. At 13, he made the first of four trips to Nottingham Forest, his horizons expanding with each visit. He remembers just snatches of those days now. He was at Aston Villa while David O'Leary was still manager. Visited Derby three times. Spent a day at Hull, Blackburn and Aberdeen. A few days at Celtic's training base in Lennoxtown. One club stood out over the others, though. Maybe the last club he'd have expected to come calling.

He first heard from Rangers in June 2009, when Paul Hamilton, their Dublin scout at the time, approached him after a game for Crumlin. The following March he went over on trial and was instantly charmed. They met him and his parents at the airport and brought them to their hotel. The food in the adjoining restaurant was excellent and subsidised. In the mornings they would collect him and take him to Murray Park where the facilities were like nothing he'd ever seen.

They convinced him too that they weren't pampering him because he was from the south of Ireland, or that he was unique in some fashion and required special treatment. Nothing would have driven him from the place more quickly. That was merely how they operated, he sensed, a taste of the professionalism that seemed to run through the club at every level.

"They were upfront with me and looked after everything. I'd been to one or two clubs -- I won't name them -- where it was like just be here or go there. You had to look after yourself and, when you're that age, it can be a bit difficult. Here there were no problems. The people made me feel at home. They're Scottish anyway so they're very similar to the Irish. That's the reason I came here."

In a way he wasn't taken aback by their interest. He knew that Alan Maybury had been on trial a few years before. And that Phil Cowan, the Rangers scout in Belfast, had brought four Crumlin players north to play in a tournament the year before he signed. This year he has met players from two Dublin clubs over on trial but can't say if any of them have signed. Rhys Murphy spent a week at the club last month but opted to stay at Arsenal.

Smith knew he wanted to be a Rangers player on his third visit to Murray Park. There was talk of an offer from Manchester United then but it failed to turn his head. "The way I saw it I'd more of a chance here than at United," he says. "They've, what, three keepers at under 19, another three in the reserves and probably four in the first team squad. Competition is good but you don't want too much of it."

At first he found the going tough. His grandfather was seriously ill at the time and an ankle injury before Christmas knocked the stuffing out of his season. He'd hurt the same ankle as a kid and, back then, he would apply an ice-pack and be back between the posts the following week.

At Rangers they put it into a cast, even though there was no break, and oversaw four months of rehab. Now his ankle feels stronger than ever and he can't wait for the season to unfold.

Nothing proved more what they were about: not rushing players back from injury, taking the long-term view. He hopes it's a good sign. Sometime around December or January he expects to hear word from Sincy [academy director Jim Sinclair] about whether they'll offer him a new deal at the end of the season. The next stop, he hopes, is a place in the reserves and a shot at making the first-team squad.

He's settled enough that it would be a wrench to leave now. He can't recite the history of the club chapter and verse or tell you how many Irish players graced these walls before him. He is mystified too when he hears the word "brave" being ascribed to him, as if he is doing something noble or heroic. He scoffs at the notion that he is some kind of pioneer, consciously laying a path for others to tread after him. He sees himself as a young footballer hungry to go places, not as an agent of change.

"They treat me like any other player here and that's the way I want it. They don't feel as if they have to protect me from anything because that would only put it into your mind. You're just another player. I don't know if they're doing anything behind the scenes but in front of people they don't treat you any differently. If I was getting special treatment I don't think that would go down too well with the other players."

His father keeps an eye on the various Rangers websites and, the odd mindless comment apart, the vast majority of fans have been supportive. People inevitably wonder how, if it comes to it, he'll be able to cope with the heat of an Old Firm derby in the toughest place of all between the posts. He just shrugs and asks if it is any different to Emmanuel Adebayor lining out for Tottenham at the Emirates or Owen Hargreaves taking the field in Manchester City blue.

"It is intense," he says of the Glasgow divide, "but it's no different to any city rivalry. You get people who are die-hards, hate everything about the other side, but the majority are there for the atmosphere on the day. They're passionate but they have nothing against the other side. It's the same with the players. There's no bitterness at all. You see the pics in the paper when they're away with Scotland, Allan McGregor joking with Scott Brown on the golf course. Charlie Adam having a laugh with Kris Commons. They all get on great together."

Adam's brother, Grant, is one of those ahead of him in the Ibrox queue and he loves spending time watching McGregor and the diligence he brings to the craft of goalkeeping. He has the taste of big-time football now. He sat on the bench when Chelsea visited Ibrox for a pre-season friendly and the occasion gave him goosegumps. He was in the squad for last year's Youth Cup final against Celtic at Hampden Park and, although the crowd was just over 10,000, it still generated the atmosphere and electricity of a full-blooded Old Firm clash.

By all accounts, he is rated highly by his coaches but he is wary of hype. Soon after his arrival Walter Smith was quoted as saying he would be a first-team squad member within two years, but he hadn't met Smith at the time and he is certain the then Rangers manager couldn't possibly have seen him play. "The only time I'd pay attention is if Ally McCoist came to me and said something to me directly," he says. "If it was in the papers that McCoisty said this or that about me I'd just ignore it."

Judgement day will arrive soon enough, he supposes. Right now all he can do is shake off the minor groin injury he picked up in his last game against Hearts, keep impressing Kirky and cement his place in the Ireland under 19 team under Paul Doolin. "That's the next step," he says. "Try and get into the reserves. If that doesn't happen then see what else I can do. Go to another place and try again. Keep going."

His work is done for another day now. The threatening skies have cleared and he's ready for the short stroll home. Happy as a football kid could be. When he leaves, whenever that might be, he knows he'll go a far better goalkeeper than when he arrived and he can think of no better reason to be here.

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