'Palace were losing 2-0 at home to Wolves. At this point fans hurled their season tickets on to the pitch and sang "Stand up if you want Smith out".'
The final ignominy came on Saturday 27 April 2001. Palace were losing 2-0 at home to Wolves and staring into the jaws of relegation.
At this point Palace fans hurled their season tickets on to the pitch and sang ‘Stand up if you want Smith out’. And within hours manager Alan Smith was sacked. April is indeed the cruellest month.
Smith’s dismissal closes one of the more entertaining chapters in the history of football management. After a dismal start to the season, Smith launched an extraordinary public attack on his players. He branded the players ‘lazy’ and ‘sloppy’; they lacked respect for the coaches, they cared more about their cars, they even whinged about his food: ‘I took them to an Italian restaurant last Thursday, paid for it myself and it was quite nice. They didn’t like the lasagne, though, they wanted spaghetti bolognese!’
‘If these attitudes don’t change’, Smith warned, ‘it will be anarchy and you’ll have the lunatics running the asylum’. Smith was widely applauded for taking a stand against the greed and power of the modern footballer, but his motivational strategy was becoming increasingly bizarre.
Following another defeat, Smith pointed to Latvian goalkeeper Alex Kolinko who had been in tears after the game. ‘I made up a story about him. I said he came from the poorest mountain village in Latvia where he had to fight bears when he was eight. I said his grandparents had been shot by the Nazis, his mother had died of cancer and his sister was raped by a gang of mountain rebels. But he never shed a single tear because he was strong and brave. Then I told them that one month playing behind our defence had turned him into a blubbering wreck! The players didn’t know what to say. Except Clinton Morrison – he said, “It’s a shame about his sister”.’
Entertaining, yes, but are fairytales really the best way to motivate professional footballers?
By late October 2000, Palace were in the relegation zone and the fans turned against the manager. Smith gambled by transfer listing three star players – Clinton Morrison, Hayden Mullins and Jamie Smith – saying, ‘I feel like Michael Caine in Zulu. A pistol in my hand, 16,000 coming over the hill trying to claim my head. I can’t shoot all of them so I might as well shoot the three fellas nearest me who are causing all of the problems’.
For a couple of months the short sharp shock appeared to pay off. Palace put together a run of good results and reached the semi-final of the Worthington Cup. Smith’s public criticism of his players gave way to praise. But the good times were short-lived. At the end of February 2001 the goals dried up and a string of confidence-sapping defeats followed. This time Smith was unable to lift his players.
Before taking the Palace job, Smith had run Fulham’s youth academy. The problem was that he treated the Palace first team players as if they were youth trainees; scolding them one day and rewarding them with praise the next. Worse still, he chose to play his mind games in public. Senior players who questioned Smith’s management style were purged and dressing room morale was reportedly low.
Smith’s colourful soundbites may have been great copy, but they concealed pretty poor man-management.
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