Our conversation may have been delayed, but it was nevertheless good to learn how he’d managed to clock up the air miles while comparing his own sporting code with another.
No, this wasn’t Gareth Southgate making a busman’s holiday of this January’s Super Bowl we were talking about. It’s a reference to his old mentor Alan Smith’s attendance at Test matches in Brisbane, Adelaide and Sydney before returning to the UK via Thailand.
While it certainly helps you keep across the Ashes when you have a son living down under, someone else Smith talks of in paternal tones would be the most recent incumbent at St George’s Park, Southgate himself, who has had a barmy army of his own to contend with lately.
“Yes, I was lucky to catch so much cricket over the winter, but I did combine it with some work for Melbourne City out there,” Smith insists. “I’ve also been working in Kenya via the League Managers Association, but it’s good to be home again.”
Not that he isn’t on the other end of the phone for any of his player proteges from his two stints as manager of Crystal Palace, wherever he may roam. Chris Powell was the first of these high achievers we happened to discuss.
“Of course, just as I have with Gareth, [Sunderland boss] Chris Coleman and [West Brom’s] Alan Pardew, we’ve stayed in touch, and with Chris I think our decision to send him to Southend on a free transfer all those years ago, where he is the manager now, really ended up helping him.
“Their manager back then, at the turn of the nineties, was Colin Murphy, who created a pretty tough environment which helped him blossom. He was bright in his outlook but he’d previously kept himself within himself, if you know what I mean.”
Powell’s spells in charge at Charlton, Huddersfield and, if only as caretaker, at Leicester and Derby, bear testimony to an intellect attuned to learning the manager’s trade from day one. Smith is perfectly comfortable switching decades to trace the Surrey beginnings of some of his other apprentices, too.
“Coleman might have been more of a wild child than Gareth, but along with John Salako, Richard Shaw and Simon Osbourne, they were all on the brighter side of the dressing room, almost academic in some cases. Still, they were also pretty much what you see is what you get while remaining very much switched on, the lot of them.
“Gareth has always been a thoughtful person – he just gets it. I certainly don’t remember any particular argument arising over a ref, but that does not mean I go along with those who go around saying he is simply too nice to be in charge of the national team.
“He featured in every side I took from the age of 16 up to 22, and in many ways he epitomised what the club should be about. What is more, he has always, even from that young age, seen the bigger picture, at least since we had one particular clash when I was coaching the reserves and he was my captain.
“We would take the team out and play against institutions like the University of London and the British Army. It achieved more than one objective in that we were exposing players as young men to the outside world, as well as trying to represent the club and spreading the word with the correct standards and so on.
“So we played the army at Aldershot and they really went out of their way in making an occasion of it, putting on a brass band and everything. Stan Collymore and Alan Pardew were both in our side that day but Gareth was still captain and we somehow contrived to lose 3-0!
“I wanted more than just a word with Gareth afterwards, put it that way, but by the time I’d tracked him down he had been going around making sure he’d shaken everyone’s hand and told me that he’d heard they were putting on a meal with beer for us in the Sergeants’ Mess, and wasn’t that good of them…
“I’m not ashamed of the industrial terms I used as I reminded him what we at the club expected and that he had better look into becoming a travel agent instead, because he was never going to make it as a player!
“I’d like to think that message hit home and he developed the steel required for what has been a successful career in the game without forgetting there is a right way to go about everything.”
As one of football’s less animated touchline figures in his own Premier League day, what is Smith’s opinion of the theatrics demonstrated by some of the more high-profile modern managers?
“I think it has reached the point where it is disrespectful, to be perfectly honest, to see how far Jurgen Klopp, for example, will go on the touchline in front of his opposite number. Where’s the need for it, none of my old boys indulge in too much of that.
“A clenched fist when his team scores is the most you can expect from Gareth, for example, but I wonder if it’s a sign someone has become too mindful of their brand, and I can only say that a player seeing his boss act that way is more than likely to ask, how in control is he?
“Jean Tigana was an example of someone whose calm exterior during a match helped maintain his dignity… it was only his tooth picks that bore the brunt of any frustration!
“I’m not just singling Jurgen out, by the way, and while Conte seems to have calmed down somewhat, I doubt he can be focused enough to take the kind of decisions he is being paid to make, the state he gets himself into! You can’t tell me a lot of it isn’t purely for the cameras.
“I’ve good reason to take issue with the hysterics some coaches go in for, as things turned sour for me at Wycombe sooner than I might have expected. I came into the job after the fans had got used to seeing Martin O’Neill charging around and up and down, so as soon as results went against us, what was to blame? The static, non-theatrical new manager, of course!
“In Four Four Two magazine they had a feature on the watches worn by the top managers. Even Sean Dyche, who you’d have thought would be as down to earth as they come, surprised me with his choice of bling, and it does make you wonder sometimes.
“I feel sorry for those fourth officials caught in the crossfire when these managers face off. I honestly feel most people at clubs have no idea what it takes to be in that position and how hard it is both to referee and to patrol the technical areas.”
So football life goes on for the man you must not mistake for the Leicester, Arsenal and England alumnus who’s juggled Telegraph and Sky Sports jobs with such success, or the lad who made a memorable Anfield debut for Leeds and plyed his trade at SJP and Old Trafford before landing various roles at MK Dons and Notts County. There’s also the current lead Aston Villa physio, helping to render the chant ‘there’s only one Alan Smith’ a rare thing indeed.
A confirmed Fulham fan who jumped at the chance to run Kevin Keegan’s Academy at Craven Cottage between his stints with the Eagles, this Smith is in thrall to a certain handsome devil when the subject of Johnny Haynes crops up.
“It was a privelege to meet the great man, as well as seeing a lot of his games for Fulham and England. He came to two of the annual dinners I help run as our special guest, and there’s not many could live up to him, even in a team that contained Bobby Robson and George Cohen!”
We end our chat with less than nostalgia for the days of the amateur ref; days Smith is more than happy were consigned to history in 2001, while his parting shots could serve as a contemporary rallying cry for the cause of the match official.
“They brought in professional referees just as I returned to Palace, and while there is still room for improvement, it was far too long coming in if you ask me. It has been nothing less than a magnificent success, yet because every decision is dissected by pundits on Sky, people tend to think our referees are not as good as they are.
“The pressure on VAR is intolerable, for example, but it was never going to work straight away and, given time, I am sure all the issues can be dealt with.
“In the meantime, the PGMOL should do all they can to prevent initiatives like the Respect campaign being paid no more than lip service by the clubs… get referees out on the training ground, working with the players, and why not pay them more while they are at it!”