Alan Smith enjoyed a rich career with the Uniteds of Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle, before dropping down the leagues to play for MK Dons and Notts County. The Yorkshire-born player also played 19 times for England and admitted it could have been more had his younger self been more reliable about staying on the pitch.
While at Leeds, Smith wasn’t popular with Manchester United fans because he was a hero in Yorkshire, a talented local boy playing for an exceptional Leeds side who’d reached the semi finals of the Champions League, even more so when he said that he’d never play for Manchester United. But he did cross the Pennines and later admitted: “I did say that. I’ve also learned to never say never in football. I was young and naive and never thought that a) Man United would ever want me and b) Leeds would ever sell me. Look how silly I was.”
Smith only started 61 times for United but came on in a further 32 games between 2004-07. He picked up some severe injuries but his strengths and values were appreciated.
“My biggest strength was being full on, 100 per cent committed, doing your best, running through a brick wall for someone,” he tells the new official UTD podcast which is released on Monday. “I feel like I was so grounded with my upbringing at Leeds that even when I went to Manchester United, at a bigger level, the characteristics of the clubs are very, very similar. The people who were involved in the club [Leeds], we had a lot of British influence, a Scottish influence with people like Eddie Gray who historically at the club demanded first and foremost 100 per cent work rate and effort. And the fans demand, the working-class fans – Blackburn fans, Leeds fans, Manchester United fans - they all demand the least that you do is give everything you have got to give them. That’s what people want to see. Even at Manchester United, who are on the next level, the fans still want to see working-class players who want to work hard for the club. That is a basic fundamental, and anything more that you can give them is great. But that was my main thing – I wanted to win every game, sometimes to my own detriment.”
Smith had a reputation as a winner at Leeds. As his club faded towards relegation, he joined then serial winners Manchester United.
“I look back and think, ‘What drives those lads to make sure that they get over the line every time?’” he said. “For me, that was the biggest difference, the experienced players just asked that much more of each other. And all different personalities. Keane, Giggs, Scholes, the Nevilles – all totally different personalities but all with an inner desire to be the best. Getting a group together like that, there have only been a few teams over the years, even over the history of football as I know it, a few teams who have managed to get to that level. Everyone is still searching to find that again.
“People go into a dressing room and everyone there is a normal lad who has had a normal upbringing so we have all been in similar situations and that’s something that I always speak to the kids about – the best players who I have ever played with have always been the nicest people. [They were] great lads as well as great players. Going from Leeds to Man United, you think about, ‘What’s he going to be like, what’s so and so going to be like?’ Driving across in the car thinking, ‘Oh, my god, I’m going to sign for Manchester United tomorrow’. You get there and you go, ‘Well, they are just normal people.’ That’s why they did so well because they were actually just normal lads who pushed each other to levels that no one else could get to.”
Leeds fans were not forgiving. They’d been stung when previous heroes Eric Cantona, Rio Ferdinand, Gordon McQueen and Joe Jordan has headed west to join their great rivals, but Smith believes there are similarities between both clubs.
“You know the passion that both clubs have got and that’s why I loved playing for both. Just because they are very, very similar. Leeds fans don’t like me for saying it, but they are. The characteristics of both clubs are very, very similar in terms of the beliefs, the history of the clubs, the people who are involved in it, the styles. The passion of the fans is very, very similar. I think that’s why it made my transition quite easy in that first year. And you’re surrounded by world-class players, which makes it a little bit easier as well.”
Asked whether the reaction to his move to United bothered him, Smith said: “Not really, because I’d been through it myself. I was a kid when Eric [Cantona] went to United and I was probably one of those throwing stones at the team bus when he came. No, I don’t think I did, but you understand what I mean. I was there as a player when Rio [Ferdinand] left and I think it was a bit different for me, because I was one of their own players, if you put it in that way. I’d been there from 10 years old, so it was big for them that I chose the destination that I did. But as I look at it, they should be proud of one of their own young players going on to whatever destination it was, in terms of the calibre you go to. That should not be forgotten because it’s a Leeds-Man United rivalry. It didn’t really bother me because it was a decision I made purely based on the good of Leeds financially and myself footballing wise.”
In Manchester, his captain was Roy Keane.
“Roy Keane is probably impossible to replace as a player and as a character, especially at Manchester United,” said Smith. “I still don’t think it’s been done now and it’s been crying out for someone like Roy Keane to be in the dressing room and on the field as Roy was. No-one could ever replicate it, so it was [about me] trying to do as good a job in a similar position. It wasn’t like, ‘you’re going to be a Roy Keane’. I could never do that job. It was a case of trying to learn and trying to understand the position that you’re playing in and do it to the best of your ability as a replacement for one of the best midfield players there has ever been.
"It was a difficult task, it was one I would never be able to do it to that same level. I wouldn’t have had to do it as much as I did if Roy would have been as fit as normal. It would probably have been a longer process, rather than being thrown in through necessity. Ability-wise, I was probably put in there because I could tackle and I was brave enough to do it and physical enough to try and do it, not because my actual ability warranted going into that position. I had a great relationship with Roy and it was sad how he ended because he went to Celtic and I couldn’t learn anymore.”
Smith was an admirer of Keane and plays down suggestions by critics that the Irishman was overrated as a player.
“I’d say watch Roy Keane at Nottingham Forest and when he first came to Manchester United and make your decision based on that,” he says. “Because a lot of people forget and they don’t have a broad spectrum on actually the development of Roy as a player and how he evolved as a player through necessity, through injuries et cetera. For me, I don’t even have to answer that question because like you said, you only have to look at how good Roy Keane was as a box-to-box midfielder when he was a younger player and how good he was as a defensive midfielder towards the end of his career.
“You could ask any player that’s played with him or against him and I’d say 99 per cent of them would all have the same answer for you. For me, it’s not just a case of Roy being a leader. That’s so disrespectful to him as a footballer as well. You don’t play for Manchester United and captain them based on just being a leader. That’s such an unfair criticism of someone who’s probably been one of the Premier League’s greatest central midfield players.”
Smith played the last of his 605 professional club games in 2018 for Notts County.
“The hardest thing looking at it now, the hardest thing mentally was having to accept that you are not at that level anymore and I think that the quicker you can accept that - you have got to try and move on from that. It is strange for me because I love football, I love the environment, I have loved being at all the clubs I have been at but I very rarely ever go back. Even when I was still living at home I would never come to United games because I think that you don’t want to always be looking back on what’s gone on. And I love chatting like this and being part of a club’s history but going back is sometimes more difficult because you know what you are missing. And I think that it is so difficult to be able to look back at the past and think about what might have been so you have got to live for the moment. I only ever went back for one match to Manchester United when they played Rangers in the Champions League.”
Smith had originally left Manchester United for Newcastle United in 2007, with Sir Alex Ferguson telling him, ‘I know you don’t want to go but I think you have to’.
“For me looking back, even though you want to pretend that you are at that level, you know that you are definitely not,” he recalls. “I realised that in the pre-season and I spoke to Mickey Phelan about it also, sometimes you need someone just to put stuff into perspective, what you’ve been through, the injury and the process you have gone through. You have got to look at longevity and how long you can keep playing for. Unfortunately it has happened to a lot better players than me, that your time at a club comes to an end and you have to move on.”