The former Highbury and Filbert Street favourite looks ahead to this weekend’s crucial Premier League clash and reminisces about beating Liverpool at Anfield to clinch the title
Leicester City host Arsenal on Saturday night at the King Power Stadium as one of the form teams in the Premier League go for another three points at the expense of an Arsenal side who have missed out on Champions League qualification in each of the last three seasons since Leicester’s historic Premier League title. The stage is set, then, for a truly memorable game.
“It’s an intriguing one,” says Smith, who played over 200 games for both clubs, “For the first time in a very long time, you’d look at the two sides and say that Leicester are the better team, which is an indication of the problems facing Arsenal at the moment.”
While Smith is positive about the attacking prowess of both Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, he identifies that the North London side’s problems are further down the pitch.
“The vast majority of their problems lie in their inability to protect the defence,” he says. “The opposition can just move the ball through the lines so easily. They’ve got the players. It just seems to be a chronic lack of organisation there.”
Smith doubts the players training is preparing the players thoroughly for each game in a defensive manner.
“I’m not quite sure what they’re doing in the week, but you look at some of the underlying statistics about the number of times the opposition get in those pockets of space between the midfield and defence and it’s so much more than against the top teams like Liverpool and Manchester City. They consistently concede so many more shots on goal no matter what opposition they’re playing.”
When Smith was at Arsenal, the manager was the Scottish taskmaster, George Graham. There was a lot of focus on defensive work, with Graham famously working on the back four religiously. That didn’t only involve defenders.
“I was a part of that, along with Brian Marwood, Paul Merson and David Rocastle, those kinds of characters. [We were] trying to break down the back four and that was without any protection from the midfield; it was the back four on its own. That kind of understanding only comes from practice.”
Smith doesn’t hide the fact that some of Arsenal’s players weren’t entirely happy with that constant defensive focus, but the end justified the means.
“Our lads might have moaned about it, ‘Oh no, we’re working on the bloody back four again’, but come match day, they had a great confidence that they knew each other inside out, their positions and what their individual jobs were. With Unai Emery at Arsenal at the moment, it’s a question of the midfield in conjunction with that back four and denying space and offering much better protection.”
While Smith famously made the move from Leicester to Arsenal, Jamie Vardy reportedly had that option after Leicester’s incredible title-winning season in 2015/16. Smith believes it wouldn’t have been right to.
“I think Vardy felt it wouldn’t have suited him, certainly under Arsène Wenger, and probably now it wouldn’t. The Leicester team is geared towards getting the best out of him and Brendan Rodgers is doing that brilliantly. I’m not sure Arsenal would go about it in that fashion.”
While only Vardy can answer why he didn’t fancy the move, Smith believes it could have come down to the service he enjoys at the King Power.
“He maybe didn’t feel he’d get the service that he’d been getting and is still getting now at Leicester. The grass isn’t always greener and it’s quite refreshing that he decided to stay.”
With Smith having made his own move from The Midlands to England’s capital, he noticed a lot of changes in the way he had to go about his work. Everything was heightened about the change in strip from royal blue of Leicester City to the red and white of Arsenal.
“The thing you notice straight away is the increase in pressure and expectation and that would still be the case now between Leicester and Arsenal, which is a bigger club. It’s a London club and the London media give you so much more scrutiny and criticism.”
Smith had and early experience that demonstrated the extra pressure he was under perfectly.
“I went the first three games of my Arsenal career without scoring and the back page of The Sun said the club were going after Kerry Dixon because I’d failed to make a mark. It was three games, and it was an immediate difference. At Leicester, nobody would have said anything about it.
Thankfully for Smith and Arsenal fans alike, the tall, rangy striker with an eye for goal and superb hold-up play acclimatised and coped with those heightened expectations. On the last day of the 1988/1989 season, Arsenal trailed Liverpool by three points, and with the Merseyside club four goals ahead of their North London rivals on goal difference, needed to go to Anfield in the final game of the season and win by two clear goals.
At half-time, the score was goalless, and Liverpool were looking likely to end the night as champions. Even after Smith’s flicked header from a Nigel Winterburn free-kick in the 52nd minute, Liverpool didn’t panic, and with just a couple of minutes on the clock, Arsenal needed to score.
“Looking back, I always felt we were going to do it.” Says Smith. “The Kop had been whistling for full time for about ten minutes and we weren’t altogether sure how much time was left. You do start to wonder whether it’s going to happen. I can’t remember worrying about that, though. I was concentrating so hard on trying to do the business. When John Lukic got the ball and Lee Dixon got the ball, you’re just thinking ‘Do your best here, we’ve got to do something pretty quick.’ You’ve just got to keep the belief.”
Somehow, amazingly, it happened. Lukic’s throw to Dixon saw the right-back put a long-ball in towards Smith, who controlled the ball exquisitely, before pivoting, and turning the ball over three Liverpool defenders into Michael Thomas’s path. Thomas crusaded past Steve Nicol into the Liverpool area, and to the famous line of ‘It’s up for grabs now!’ by Brian Moore to millions of TV viewers, Thomas slotted home.
When the dust settled, all anyone would talk about was Michael Thomas’s magical moment, but Smith remains proud of his opener as well as his deft touch and assist for the winner.
“You can’t get the second without getting the first. It was definitely the highlight of my career, that night, and nothing was going to surpass that in terms of drama. The sheer joy of doing it in that fashion in the last seconds of the match. It was an amazing night and it gets more and more special the further away from it you get. People still want to talk about it. It was football’s JFK moment; most people remember where they were that night.”
After surviving one final Liverpool foray forward, The Gunners had broken an 18-year title drought, a number of years that, incredibly given their invincible vintage of 2004, they look destined to outlast. Smith remembers that brooding evening under the lights at Anfield clearer with every passing year.
“On the final whistle, you go over to the fans in the corner, that’s your first instinct. The gaffer came onto the pitch congratulating everybody. I remember policemen and stewards on the pitch saying well done. We did a lap of honour and a lot of people had stayed to applause us, even in The Kop which meant a lot.”
When the victorious Arsenal team returned to the changing rooms, there was a classy gesture from their beaten hosts awaiting them.
“We got back into the dressing room and the Liverpool lads had sent their champagne into us. Jim Rosenthal from ITV came in and interviewed me and Mickey. Things were being thrown all over the shop.”
Smith’s wife had only arrived at half-time, but the empty Players’ Lounge was the perfect place to celebrate and no Liverpool players were sticking around. There was then the simple matter of getting the team bus home through the phalanx of gleeful Arsenal fans who accompanied their heroes.
“We were on the coach, drinking singing, and players wavd to fans who were passing us, slowing down and overtaking us again, waving flags and scarves. The journey seemed to go in ten minutes.”
Leicester City supporters have more recent title celebrations to call on as they battle to achieve what many believe would be a far greater achievement than their first Premier League title- toppling both Liverpool and Manchester City one season after both sides got to within one win of 100 league points.
“I think that’s the difference between the two seasons,” says Smith, “The season they won the league Tottenham had their chance to do it, but the league wasn’t so strong. As good as they are and as good as they’re playing, I can’t see them performing the miracle again, but there’s every chance they’ll finish in the top four, there’s no reason they shouldn’t harbour ambitions of that.”
Smith is clearly hugely impressed by how Leicester have come at the season, highlighting their superb recruitment of players such as Ndidi, Ricardo Pereira, James Maddison and Youri Tielemans.
“It’s very impressive how they’ve moved on from winning the title. It’s allowed them to build a new team, a young team. Obviously the old stagers are Kasper Scheichel and Vardy and you could argue that Vardy has never been in better form. He’s still hungry, still got that pace.”
Vardy, who has followed in Smith’s own footsteps as Leicester’s number nine, is vital to The Foxes’ ambitions this season.
“If they were to lose him through injury, it would be tough for them, they wouldn’t be the same team, but it’s great to see. The players and their ages would have been a contributing factor as to why Brendan Rodgers joined the club.”
Arsenal’s failings are indicative of change, and perhaps that’s the difference between the two sides, that point of transition. Smith certainly sees issues that go to the heart of Arsenal’s problems this season. A key one is confidence, and the lack of in the team’s fans as much as the players.
“You’re never entirely confident going into any game with The Gunners that they’ll keep a clean sheet and win the match, which is a shame because they’ve got so much talent going forward and at the back. I like Tierney. I like Holding and I’d like to see him getting into the team – it’s just not transferring into results.”
While Smith will also be behind the microphone for Sky Sports on Saturday night, his voice is bound to be heard all weekend in many households, as he’s one half of the main commentary team for the newly released FIFA 20, too. It’s clearly a labour of love, as Smith explains when detailing the process.
“We do 8-10 days a year and add to what we’ve already done. I’ve been doing it for 10 years along with Martin Tyler, and they’ve got a big bank of recordings. They’re always coming up with new storylines, such as the street football, Alex Hunter and the introduction of women into the game. It’s brilliant and I love it, we both do.”
Smith’s vocabulary may be tested when he puts his voice to the actions of all the Premier League players in digital form, but it’s his passion for the live game that still shines through 30 years after his ‘JFK moment’ took the collective breath of the nation away. The man who conjured the first and second goals at Anfield might be integral in bringing to life the season where Liverpool finally end their three-decade wait for the title they so desperately crave.
On Saturday night, however, Smith will be at the King Power Stadium, as keen as any of us to find out whether Arsenal’s resurgence begins in Leicester or is delayed another week by the crusading team that bring back memories of Smith’s Arsenal, who went to Anfield and achieved a miracle.
It’s up for grabs for either team.