Alan Smith, One-on-One: "The greatest club manager ever wanted me... how could I turn Man Utd down?"
The Smiths play on a loop in the kitchen of Alan Smith’s new house, overlooking the rolling hills at the southern fringes of Derbyshire’s beautiful Peak District. “The Smiths are class,” says Smith, a charming man, as he puts a brew on while singing along.
The Notts County player-coach shows us around the home that he will share with his wife-to-be. BMX, Motocross and Moto GP memorabilia adorn one room. “She’s told me to put it all in here,” he laughs. One hero is champion Spanish motorcyclist Jorge Lorenzo, “who risks his life and rides like it’s an art”, and Smith has a flag that affirms his loyalty to a man he’d love to meet.
“I’m not really one for interviews,” he says in a distinctive Leeds accent. Ninety minutes and another cup of tea later, he’s still talking, recounting a career which has taken in Leeds, Manchester United, Newcastle, MK Dons and now the world’s oldest club (oh, and 19 caps for England as well). But first...
- Date of birth: 28/10/1980
- Place of birth: Rothwell, Yorkshire
- Height: 5ft 11in
- Position: Midfielder
Do you still BMX? I’m sure I read that you won trophies as a kid. How close did you come to dropping football because of it? Can you still do it? Just like riding a bike, right?
Joe H Harman, via Twitter
It was the other way around – I started off riding BMX as a young kid, a long time before I played football. I was into BMX because my dad used to race motocross; my family was into bikes. I watched motocross videos every day and watched Junior Kick Start religiously. I remember films like BMX Bandits. As for trophies, I won the British championship at eight. I had a few different bikes – my dad bought them, to my mum’s dismay. I’d race from Inverness to Slough. Dad was a heavy goods driver who would come home on a Friday, pack up the camper van and we’d be off for the weekend, driving through the night. My parents put a huge effort into my brother and me racing. Most mates wanted to be a footballer – I wanted to race bikes. I think I’d struggle to get on one today.
You attended the now defunct FA School of Excellence at Lilleshall when you were 14, featuring in an ITV documentary. Is it true you were so unhappy that you walked out after a few months?
Kieran Kennedy, Winchester
It is true. I was a very young 14-year-old coming from a close-knit family. I was at Leeds by that stage, but Lilleshall was a completely different environment. I was homesick in the boarding-school environment and wanted to get back with my mum, dad and brother. It was a very hard decision to leave the national school, but I think my style of football suited Leeds better than how I was being coached to play at the national school.
How did you feel when you scored with your very first touch in the professional game, a rasping drive past David James at Anfield?
Robert Barry, Wokingham
It felt important, but every goal meant the same to me, from the youth team to the first team. The difference was that scoring in the first team meant so much more to everyone else. That goal changed my life. I was meant to be in Israel with England’s U18s but it was cancelled because of the political situation. I went back to Leeds, someone was injured and I was asked to train with the first team. I was picked in the squad and thought I was going as an extra body. We were getting beat, but I got brought on and bang – I scored. I wanted more of that. We played Charlton a week later and I came on and scored again. We had such a good environment at Leeds, and Eddie Gray was a massive influence on me. He’d been managing the youth team with Paul Hart and I never wanted to let them down because they’d shown so much belief in me.
Smith scores against Liverpool
You were part of a very youthful Leeds side, playing alongside Jonathan Woodgate, Lee Bowyer, Harry Kewell and Stephen McPhail. Who was the standout talent?
Dominic Mellor, Harrogate
I was the youngest and they looked after me. They all had talent and a hunger to succeed, which was vital. McPhail’s footballing ability was incredible, Kewell and Jonathan went on to do great things in football, and Bowyer did too. Stephen had a few health problems, which stopped him along the way, but I remember them all being great lads.
What were your highlights of Leeds’ Champions League run in 2000-01?
Scott Roberts, Dewsbury
It was an amazing adventure for the whole club, and an incredible experience for a 19-or 20-year-old lad, right from the beginning. I scored our first goal in the play-off match against 1860 Munich and the winner in the second leg at the Olympic Stadium. In the second group stage we were drawn against Anderlecht, Lazio and Real Madrid, but managed to qualify with a game to spare. I got another good goal against Lazio, but I have to admit I only did the easy bit – Mark Viduka did all the hard work for me! We went through with a game to spare, and so did Real Madrid, so we went to the Bernabeu pretty relaxed. It was great for us to play at one of the biggest clubs in the world without any pressure, and we had amazing backing – I think half of Leeds was out there with us. Viduka and I both scored again, but we still lost 3-2. We beat Deportivo in the quarter-final but the semi [against Valencia] was one step too far us. It was the only time we couldn’t impose ourselves on the opposition’s back four. We drew 0-0 at home, then lost 3-0 away. I was sent off for a bad tackle late in the second leg, mainly through sheer frustration. That tarnished our great run in the competition, for me. I wouldn’t have changed it though; I loved every minute of the whole journey.
You must have played against some great defenders in that Champions League run. Who was the best?
Ryan Gulliver, Portsmouth
I had the pleasure of playing against a man who, in my opinion, was the best defender ever – the great Paolo Maldini. Our game at the San Siro was an amazing night and we were backed by five or six thousand Leeds fans. It was my best performance in a Leeds shirt: although I didn’t score, the rest of my play was the best it had ever been. I swapped shirts with Maldini at full-time and it’s still the only shirt I’ve ever had framed.
Why did that Leeds team fall short of winning anything? And when did you realise the club’s finances weren’t quite right?
Matthew Parkinson, via email
There were better teams than us – great sides like Manchester United and Arsenal, with more experience and world-class players. Being local and knowing the club as I did, I realised that everything wasn’t right and heard grumblings that players needed to be sold. We sold Rio [Ferdinand] to Man United in 2002 for £30m. Leeds couldn’t turn that down and it made me think we weren’t as close to bridging the gap as I’d thought. We finished fifth, fourth and third – David O’Leary got sacked for finishing fifth, which was ridiculous. I realised there were problems when I came back for pre-season in 2003 and we had eight or nine players. James Milner and Aaron Lennon played at 16. We had lads from France who’d never played in England. Relegation was tough – the worst feeling ever. I blamed myself but I don’t think I could have done any more. My last memory of playing for my hometown club was relegation. Horrible.
How upset were you to miss out on England’s 2002 World Cup?
Ellie Coates, Madrid
I felt I was better than people who were going, but it was my own fault. I’d been in every squad and I got sent off against Macedonia in a qualifier. Sven, who was always brilliant with me, needed me on the pitch, needed me to be reliable – I understand that more now. But sometimes I couldn’t help it [smiles]. I went to the U21 [European] championship instead with David Platt.
- Clubs: 1998-2004 Leeds United 228 games (56 goals); 2004-07 Manchester United 93 (12); 2007-12 Newcastle United 94 (0); 2012-14 MK Dons 83 (3); 2014- Notts County 57 (0)
- International: 2001-07 England 19 (1)
- Playing honours: Playing honours FA Youth Cup 1997; League Cup 2006; Premier League 2007; Football League Championship 2010
Considering you stuck around after many others had left, how disappointing was it to hear Leeds fans criticise you after you joined Manchester United? Is it true that you waived the personal transfer fee owed to you by Leeds? And is it a myth that you once said you’d “never play for Man United”?
Trevor Hobbs, London
That’s not a myth [laughs] – I did say it. I was young and naive and never thought that a) Man United would ever want me, and b) Leeds would sell me. Look how silly I was. I also didn’t envisage Leeds getting relegated. I would probably never have left if we hadn’t gone down, but Leeds were trying to sell me to the highest bidder. As for the criticism, I’d have been a fool if I thought that wouldn’t happen. I’d been at the club when Eric [Cantona] left to go to Old Trafford. I was ball boy the day he came back and scored at the [Elland Road] Kop and saw the feelings that day. I spoke to Sir Alex and he said: “I never thought you’d be brave enough to make that decision.” But the Leeds I left wasn’t the Leeds I knew. There were people in charge of the club who I didn’t like. I went to meetings and saw some bizarre things. I had the chance to go from a team who’d been relegated to the champions. Arguably the greatest club manager ever wanted me. How could I turn that down? As for waiving the transfer fee – I had five years left on my contract. I was entitled to money, but the last thing I wanted was to see Leeds go bankrupt. I’ve never spoken about it because I don’t want to speak badly about my club. I’ve been back and most people were pleasant with me.
How did you feel when Man United signed Wayne Rooney so soon after yourself? Were you aware he’d be coming when you signed?
Shane Byram, via Twitter
No, but it wasn’t an issue. There were already great strikers there, as you’d expect at a club with ambitions of winning titles and European Cups. Wayne would only help us to get better so I was fine with the club signing him.
What went through your mind after blocking that John Arne Riise free-kick when you broke your leg? Did you fear that your career would be over?
Kennet Tan, via Twitter
I never let that cross my mind. It wasn’t Riise’s fault and he came to see me afterwards, but I attacked my injury as another challenge and it proved to be the biggest challenge of my career, keeping me out for 15 months. It was a severe injury – the dislocated ankle was worse than the leg break because I snapped ligaments and there were complications. I knew I was never going to be the same player again. I’ve appreciated every game I’ve played since that injury because I know how close I was to being finished. When the lads won the Carling Cup they wore T-shirts for me. I’d been in hospital for a week and got back to my flat in Manchester. I watched the game on TV, then saw my team-mates wear T-shirts with my name on. That meant more to me than I’ve ever let on. I had no idea they’d planned that.
Is the story true about Liverpool fans attacking the ambulance you were in after your leg break?
Stuart Smith, via Facebook
It didn’t happen – fans were still in the ground. I went back to Liverpool a few years later with Newcastle and had a great reception. I had loads of mail from fans after the injury, including a lot from Liverpool. And Liverpool’s medical staff were great. They were worried that because there was no blood flowing that I could have had a club foot. Some might say I might as well have in my left foot now...
Who is the toughest player you’ve played alongside? And the toughest you’ve faced?
Brede Skahjem Tokvam, via Twitter
That’s hard to judge. Football was more physical then than it is now, and that’s for the worse. If someone was better than me I’d have to find a way to stop them. Skill has triumphed. The Leeds team of the ’70s would be appalled!
Do you think moving into midfield – to the right with Leeds, then centrally with Man United – hampered or helped your career? Would you have preferred to stay upfront?
George Pitts, via Twitter
It helped me – more so after my injury, which took 10-15 per cent of my capabilities away. If you lose two or three per cent at the top you’ll struggle. I had to re-invent myself as a player; be a bit more reserved and learn the game again so that I knew how to play a position properly. At Newcastle I learned to play in defensive midfield. I had my injury in 2005 – 10 years on, I’m still playing. I’m pleased about that.
Did you try to talk Fergie out of playing you in central midfield? Did you honestly believe you could be the next Roy Keane?
John Norris, via Facebook
People said I was going to Man United to take Roy’s place. Nonsense. Most of my games there were in a three-man midfield with Roy and Scholesy. Roy had such high standards and would always be on at me for flying into tackles. In one game at Liverpool I left my position and went flying into a tackle. Roy was shouting at me to stay on my feet. Two minutes later he went after a ball and smashed a player. He got up and laughed at me, but he was the captain – he was allowed. I spent a lot of time with him. He’s a good lad.
I liked your attitude at Manchester United – you were up for a laugh with fans. Do you remember scoring from the halfway line in Prague during the warm-down, then taking the piss out of the fans who were singing “Smithy, kiss the badge”?
Ben Moores, Urmston
It was because I’d kissed the Leeds badge – the badge of my club. So the Man United fans were having a laugh. But it was quite intimidating, seeing 5,000 of them steaming in Prague and singing at me. I was a football fan and I still am: I’m a normal lad who ended up playing football, so I could see where they were coming from. I didn’t kiss it and they probably respected me more for that.
You’ve played alongside some great strikers in your time, but who was the best?
Bill Simpson, Staines
They were all great, but I’d say Mark Viduka. Just before he signed, David O’Leary came to me and said: “What type of striker do you like to play alongside?” I’d never been with a targetman and wanted to play with one. He came from Celtic and we hit it off straightaway. He never looked like he was trying, but he always was. His skill for such a big man was frightening.
What did you make of that interview that Roy Keane gave to MUTV?
Sam Convery, Coventry
If you’re captain of a football club, you’re entitled to say what you want. Roy never said anything that he wouldn’t have said to us. He was probably calmer in that video than he was in the dressing room. I had a great relationship with Roy. I read his book, enjoyed it and appreciated what he said about me.
What did you make of the reaction when you faced Leeds for the first time in the summer of 2009, in a pre-season friendly for Newcastle? What would you say to those fans who booed you?
Ed Brooks, Weybridge
It wasn’t too bad. I’m not silly – I don’t live in a world where I think football fans would be complimentary about players who leave their club. If I had been a Leeds fan and one of the players had left for a rival club, I’d probably have booed. But if nobody cared when I left and wished me well because they weren’t bothered about me going, I’d have failed as a player. Leeds are the club I support. I’ve never spoken about leaving, but I don’t need to justify it given the circumstances at the time.
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How did being relegated with Newcastle compare with the feeling of being relegated with Leeds? Which hurt more?
Kay Z, via Twitter
I was injured for a lot of [Newcastle’s relegation] season, only playing a few games. But it still hurt because I was around people every day who cared about what happened. Nobody wants to get relegated. Luckily, we came straight back up. A lot of the players wanted to stay, pay back the fans and re-establish their reputation. Some people thought we’d go straight down again to the third division, but we had a great season. We beat the club record for points in a season, had 20-odd clean sheets and played in front of 50,000-plus crowds. Incredible support.
You never scored for Newcastle, despite making 94 appearances. Is this a disappointment?
Liam Nicholson, Stockport
Not at all. I was a defensive midfielder. But because I’d played up front previously, people expected me to score. Defensive midfielders don’t tend to score. I think Claude Makelele got one for Chelsea. I had a couple of chances to score at Newcastle and would have loved to have scored, but I think my biggest achievement there was getting the team promoted, as team captain in many games as Nicky Butt was injured.
How close did you come to a Leeds return in 2012, when manager Simon Grayson expressed an interest in you?
Dave Woodfin, via email
It was speculation. I heard nothing from Simon or Leeds. I don’t think I would have gone back – I don’t think I could have done myself justice. I wasn’t the player I had been; I was 33 and not 21, though I could have still had a big influence. Better for them to remember a younger me, and for me to maintain my unbelievable memories at Leeds when it was a different club.
You’re one of the few high-profile players of the last decade to drop down to League One. Should more pros follow your example, especially if they’re not getting a game?
Thomas O’Dea, via Facebook
I love football and wanted to carry on playing. I’d rather play and be part of something. I also wanted to do something different and give something to a team that maybe they don’t have. I’ve learned a lot about the other side of football: what coaches have to go through, coping with things that are taken for granted at a higher level, and that players who fight for a new contract every year might have great ability but one thing missing to take them to the top. I had two great years at MK Dons and we couldn’t quite get them over the line and get promotion. We were up against big teams and the standard is good.
You’ve said before that you’re interested in getting your coaching badges. I see you’re player-coach at Notts County…
Jane Graham, Newcastle
Definitely. I’m getting married in the summer so it will be difficult to fit them in before then, but if I can get another playing contract I’ll do them next season. I’ve wanted to concentrate on playing and I’m still fit, don’t drink and feel fine playing, but I’m ready for badges now. Paul Hart is head of the academy here. The manager Shaun Derry, his assistant and the players are so hungry. It’s a buzz going in every day as a coach and a player.
This feature originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!