Football: Threat to quit uncovered

By Michael Burgess

Tommy Smith clashed with All Whites management over requirements for last month's World Cup play-offs. Photo / Getty Images
Tommy Smith clashed with All Whites management over requirements for last month's World Cup play-offs. Photo / Getty Images

All Whites captain Tommy Smith threatened to retire from international football over a club vs country clash ahead of the recent World Cup qualifiers against Mexico, according to sources close to the team.

The clash between management and skipper came over Smith's desire to turn out for his club team, Ipswich, first - a week before the first leg at the Azteca Stadium.

The revelation continues the fall-out from the qualifying series, which the New Zealand side lost 9-3 on aggregate to El Tri.

Smith was adamant enough to suggest he would withdraw from the All Whites and at one stage even threatened to retire from international football (usually if a selected player fails to front in a sanctioned Fifa window, they are unable to play for their club for at least a week; retirement would have got around that unavailability).

In the end, he relented but sources say Smith disagreed with the All Whites' preparation plans that required him in Los Angeles five days ahead of the game against Mexico.

Before the All Whites squad for the first match was named on November 5, players were told they were required to assemble in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 9.

The naming of the side was delayed by almost 24 hours, as New Zealand Football apparently tried to reach agreement with clubs over player release. Most of the focus at the time was on the Phoenix - they had six players in the team and were unwilling to see their All Whites miss the A-League clash against Perth Glory in Christchurch. At the time, the Wellington club dug in their toes; they took legal advice and clarification from Fifa over when exactly the players had to be released, before eventually NZF and the A-League club came to a compromise, allowing Andrew Durante, Jeremy Brockie and the others to play for their club.

However, in the background, more drama played out over Smith. There was genuine concern the 25-cap All White would not make the trip. He apparently took issue with the NZF requirement to be in Los Angeles by November 9, believing that arriving the following day would still allow sufficient preparation for the match on the afternoon of November 13 in Mexico City.

Ipswich had a match in Blackpool on November 9, almost 400km from London. That precluded Smith from making a commercial flight out of England that would see him arrive in the United States in time.

West Ham were planning to fly Winston Reid on a private jet across the Atlantic (before injury ruled him out of the tie) but there was doubt that Smith would have been able to hitch a ride with his All White team-mate, again because of the distance from Blackpool.

There have been other club versus country dramas in New Zealand football - Wynton Rufer once played for the All Whites against the wishes of his Swiss club, Ryan Nelsen missed many matches during his long stint at Blackburn Rovers and Chris Killen has had several injury withdrawals over the years. It is not known how much pressure was applied on Smith from his club.

Smith is the longest serving player at Portman Road, having been at the club since 2007. Injuries and form fluctuations have seem him occasionally struggle to maintain his place but he was named supporters' player of the year last season. Ipswich, who last appeared in the Premier League in the 2001-02 season, are in the top half of the Championship, a few points outside the play-off places. It is their best start to a season in five years.

Eventually Smith gave in and was named captain of the team, in the absence of Reid, though coach Ricki Herbert's other armband options were limited. On November 9, Smith posted on his twitter account: "Gutted to be missing the game today! Explored every avenue in order to be able to play but just couldn't make it happen. Rules are rules."

The 23-year-old was one of the best performers across the two legs for the All Whites but the pre-game dramas may have caused some disquiet, as some of his team-mates may have been aware of the issue.

- Herald on Sunday

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