MARK LILLIS insists he has no qualms whatsoever about giving the Huddersfield Town captaincy to goalkeeper Alex Smithies.
Golcar lad Smithies has packed plenty into his career already despite being just 22 – right from making his full debut amid the cauldron of Elland Road as a raw 17-year-old to being called up to the England Under-21 squad.
But it promises to be a special moment for the boyhood Town fan when he leads out the side against table-topping Cardiff City at the John Smith’s Stadium this afternoon, in the absence of the injured duo of club captain Peter Clarke and Keith Southern.
Smithies has blue and white coursing through his veins and while Manchester-born Lillis did not have the stamp of birthplace to endear himself instantly to Town punters in his playing days at Leeds Road, his whole-hearted performances soon marked him out as ‘one of them’.
Just as Lillis became a favourite, so Smithies is now with the captain’s accolade not just a short-term boost for him, but something he will also benefit from in the long term, according to the caretaker boss.
Lillis, forced to make a decision regarding the captaincy with Clarke ruled out of today’s game with concussion, added: “I analysed it myself and also talked with the staff and decided to give it to Alex. He is 22 years of age, as I was when I won promotion with the club.
“I called him in and asked him how he was and said to him I was a bit concerned he could not carry the armband, tongue in cheek. His chest just came out and even though I said, ‘We’ll sleep on it’, he just said, ‘No, we don’t need to.’
“He is a talker. I could easily have gone with a centre-half or central midfielder or forward. But I just felt it was right and to see his reaction was terrific. I think he was a bit surprised when I hugged him; I think he thought I was going to give him a smacking kiss.
“It is good for Alex. Maybe there are players in that side who have been captains before. But I just felt Alex, being a local lad, deserved the captaincy.
“People might say he is a goalkeeper, but he is a good communicator and that can have an effect on the back four, up to the midfield and forwards.
“In five or 10 years, this will also give him so much experience of being a (permanent) captain.
“This will help his career and make him think more about his team, organisation and leading.”
Selection-wise, it is fair to say Town are having it tough at the moment with a plethora of first-teamers missing today’s game.
But you will not catch Lillis lamenting the situation for too long, with the caretaker boss very much of the view that out of adversity comes strength.
Town showed their character in their last home outing, a 1-0 win over Crystal Palace, and you suspect they will have to do that and probably a bit more besides against leaders Cardiff, who are 10 points clear at the top and have won six of their last seven league matches.
After sampling the highs of the victory over Palace, which ended a debilitating 12-match winless streak in the Championship, Lillis clearly has the taste for it.
Lillis added: “With the three points against Palace, you could see all the players, staff and fans celebrating and we want more of that. Even though I am caretaker, I want to put points on the board for the club. That’s what it is all about.
“The players enjoyed the Palace game. As a player, even when you are sat in the car driving back and are shattered, when you get home, you have a great feeling when you have won those games.
“It is one of the best feelings in the world to be in a team that has given everything.
“When everyone is in it together, you have got a chance and we showed that against Palace.
“There are certainly no problems with the dressing room here.
“They are an honest bunch. Once we are in the building, we are all together and I can see that on a daily basis. If you stop or smell anything, you nip it in the bud because if you don’t, it grows and grows. But I have had no issues with anybody.
“After I gave Alex the captaincy, we had a hug and I said, ‘How is the dressing room?’ and he said, ‘It’s flying’.”
On today’s daunting task, he added: “Cardiff are a fantastic side. But we have to focus on ourselves and not be afraid of them.
“We will respect because they are top of the league, but we will try and go at them where we think there might be a weakness. There are not a lot, but we have to suss them out and if we do, we might have a chance.”
Team news: Despite wanting to play, Peter Clarke misses out with concussion, with doctors ordering him to have two weeks of total rest. Lee Novak is also missing along with Jermaine Beckford, Keith Southern and Danny Ward, with Joel Lynch and Ollie Norwood also doubtful.
Last six games: Huddersfield LWDLDW; Cardiff WWDLWW.
Last time out: Huddersfield 1 Cardiff 0; Sat, Jan 25, 2003; Football League Division Two.
Referee: M Brown (East Yorks).
SkyBet odds: Huddersfield to win 3/1; Cardiff to win 10/11; Draw 5/2.