‘An Ian Wright-expectation level’ – Former Eagles boss Smith on Eze and Wharton’s England impact

BY ANDREW MCSTEEN

On Monday night former Crystal Palace manager Alan Smith was at St. James’ Park in Newcastle to watch England play their penultimate friendly game before the summer European Championships in Germany.

Smith was there to support his former captain Gareth Southgate, now England manager and admits he was impressed by Eagles’ England debutant Adam Wharton, who came on as 62nd-minute substitute.

“He didn’t have any nerves, got on with it and to me, he was probably in our (England’s) top half of players,” said Smith about the cameo role from the 20-year-old defensive midfielder.

“I’m not being biased, and I didn’t go there to watch the Palace players – it was to support Gareth as we’ve been doing since he’s been England under 21 manager – but to have the bonus of our players playing and playing to that level, without looking as if they were out of it, was good.

“It’s difficult to come on in those situations,” added Smith, who managed Palace with Southgate as he captain to the old First Division title in 1994, about Wharton’s impact. “It was a good crowd, partisan and very much behind him, but he just fitted in.

“He has got a bit of a unique talent. He opens his body up; he sees the pass earlier than others. I wouldn’t really like to compare him to somebody else but if he goes on like he is, he’s going to have a bloody good career – he’s done well at the moment. He’s a steady lad as well. From what I heard, I don’t think anything seems to worry him one way or the other, he takes things in his stride. He’s grasped everything that’s been asked of him.

“We have to give a little bit of credit to Roy Hodgson here,” added Smith about the former Palace boss who signed Wharton from Blackburn Rovers for the Eagles in early February before new manager Oliver Glasner took over later that month.

“He’s actually given him a basis and a structure to play for. I know, sometimes, people are critical of Roy, but Wharton’s got quite a bit of flair about him and I think that Roy gave him a structure to play in. He sees a pass, he knows when to defend, he knows when to drop off. So, I have that down to good coaching and now, under the new regime it’s allowed him now to give his natural talent, it’s come on.”

Another Crystal Palace player who made an impact for the neutral observers was attacking midfielder Ebere Eze, who started the game and made an impact before being subbed off at the same time Wharton came on.

Eze was returning to England action for the first time since September 2023 after injury had curtailed his national team run and Smith was full of praise for the former QPR man.

“Eze just looked like he does for Palace. He looked exciting, he took players on, he didn’t change his game,” said Smith about the Greenwich-born player who made his first start for the senior England side on Monday.

“It’s quite unusual to get people to dribble the ball and attack players. He’s just different. He’s exciting. When he gets the ball he’s got that Ian Wright-expectation level.

“[On Monday] he was as good as anybody out there quite frankly. If I’d had to have picked a man of the match, without being biased, he wouldn’t have been far short. Again, I’m trying not to be biased, but he has a little bit more end product than (Jack) Grealish in my mind. Even if Gareth didn’t play him (from the start in the Euros) he’s an exciting player to come on as a sub.”

This Friday, Southgate and England take on Iceland at Wembley in their final game before the European Championship, with the current training squad of 33 being cut to 26 before the announcement on Saturday about which players are going to Germany.

And with well over 200 games managed at professional level as manager and 100s more at non-league level and as assistant coach, Smith knows all too well about getting the right mix of players to work towards a common goal.

With both Eze and Wharton impressing on Monday and with their own unique skills, Smith believes they could have a chance of being on the plane to Germany next week.

“I saw a quote from Gareth [where he said] that they trained as they played; they mucked in immediately,” said Smith in relation to Eze, Wharton and the other, newer members of the national squad.

“He hasn’t had to bed them in. In many ways, because of his relationship with Palace, he has probably gone the other way and hasn’t rushed into selecting Palace players. I think he’s always thought ‘I’ve got to be a bit careful; ‘Palace is in my blood I don’t want to show any favouritism’. It shows how well Palace and the boys have done to push themselves to get in there.

“The way the lads have gone about coming into the squad has reflected again his (Southgate’s) personality a bit – and (assistant coach) Steve Holland’s. He’s somebody that’s easy to bypass but a good coach and has bought the lads up quite steadily.

“I do, but I won’t name them here,” added Smith with a smile when asked if he knew which seven players he would cut from the current 33.

“The chemistry of the squad is important. For the Euro you’re away together for a long time,” he added. “You’ve got to have players there that buy into being away and get on with people. You can’t have too many moody people out there. It will be a difficult choice for Gareth, there’s no doubt about that.”

And with Wharton, Eze and a whole host of other Palace names, including captain Marc Guehi – who also started for England on Monday – being subject of intense transfer speculation, Smith, like most Palace fans is hoping Eagles boss Oliver Glasner, along with Sporting Director and Chair Steve Parish can keep the nucleus of players in South London for the near future and continue riding the feel-good wave since Glasner took over in late February and guided the SE25 outfit to their joint highest-ever Premier League points total of 49 and a top ten finish.

“I followed Palace before I worked there – because if you do your job properly, you have to follow the history of clubs – and I’ve never known such euphoria from Palace fans, who can be quite pessimistic,” said Smith.

“I’ve got a lot of people ringing me trying to get season tickets and it’s really brilliant to see. With the players that are involved here with England, it would be genuinely good for them if they did stay on another season as I think they are not even the finished article yet.

“You could argue that the club, Dougie Freedman, is also thinking, he’s been out there scouting – there are other players out there – you’ve got to balance that. Can he replace them? What can they bring?

“Personally, I’d like them to keep the players but Palace have always, unfortunately, been a selling club. I just think this would be once, where if we could hang on for a season, see how it develops, it would be quite interesting.”



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