Of all the sentences with which to open your autobiography, a blunt statement such as “I’ve never liked revealing too much” is perhaps one of the bravest. Still, it’s with that ominous declaration that Alan “Smudge” Smith chooses to open Heads Up. The remaining 295 pages suddenly seem an intimidating prospect, but you needn’t worry: while Smith’s book may lack any explosive revelations, by the time he gets to Anders Limpar’s pubic hair styling regimen you may well be left wishing he’d stuck to his original mission statement.
An Arsenal great in his own right, Smith is today best known for his work for Sky and FIFA games, his broad Brummie accent providing the soundtrack to a generation’s worth of smashed PlayStation controllers and Ultimate Team sessions. For those weaned on football in the late 1990s and beyond, it’s sometimes easy to forget the amiable co-commentator so often heard on Sunday afternoons enjoyed a glittering club career of his own, navigating the old-fashioned route from non-League football at Alvechurch all the way to title and cup successes with the Gunners under George Graham, collecting 13 England caps along the way.
But Heads Up starts at the end, with an exhausted Smith failed at 32 by a broken body and suffering from the familiar anxieties of a footballer forced to give up the only thing he truly knows. Those worries and self-doubts are, it turns out, a running theme throughout the book, Smith struggling with goal droughts and a nagging sense of inferiority, first alongside Gary Lineker at Leicester and then, much later, an ebullient Ian Wright at Arsenal. Indeed, such is his tendency for self-doubt that it comes as a surprise – not least to Smith himself – that he was able to turn down an interested Alex Ferguson with such defiant swagger, insisting instead on a move to Highbury.
The unassuming No 9 was the kind of player who often lurked in the background as a future pub quiz question. You’re reminded it was Smith who provided the assist for Michael Thomas to stab past Bruce Grobbelaar at Anfield in 1989, and it was Smith who came on for Lineker for that infamous final substitution in 1992. You get the impression that’s exactly how he liked it, and his unease in the spotlight marks him as a surprising candidate for a successful media role, something he himself acknowledges. His stuttering England career comes under the most unflinching levels of self-scrutiny, his obvious pride laced with candid concessions of regret. But while he may sometimes be too humble for a man of his lofty achievements, there is no hint of bitterness at what might have been, just refreshing honesty and a suitably self-deprecating sense of humour.
Smith is also proud to disclose that he had no need to employ a ghost writer while writing his book, and with good reason. As articulate and intelligent a writer as he is a broadcaster, Heads Up – long-listed for the 2018 William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award – is a thoughtful, self-effacing read that deserves a wider audience beyond Leicester and Islington.