Alan Smith

Why didn’t Leeds win any­thing? Was Sven wrong not to take him to the World Cup in 2002? What did he make of Keano’s MUTV rant? And is he still a BMX ban­dit?

Australian Four Four Two - - JUNE 2015 - In­ter­view Andy Mit­ten Por­trait Jill Jen­nings

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 that 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... 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, via Face­book 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. 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, via email 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, via Twit­ter 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, via Face­book 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 $55m. 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, via Twit­ter 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.

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, via Face­book 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

“It was my fault I didn’t go to the World Cup. I got sent off. Some­times I couldn’t help it”

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, via email 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, via Face­book 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, via email 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, via email 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.

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 up­front 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, via Twit­ter 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.

“Roy Keane never said any­thing on MUTV that he wouldn’t say to us”

Be­low Joy at beat­ing Man United – he’d join them two years later

“We’ll swap shirts af­ter the

game, Alan”

Above Not all Leeds fans were quite so un­der­stand­ing Be­low “But I don’t want to play away at Gilling­ham, Robbo...”

Lorenzo: leg­end

Smith wel­comed Wazza... hon­est

Above “This meant more to me than I ever let on”

Ten years af­ter this hor­ri­ficin­jury, Smith is still go­ing strong

Above “Hmm, now should I preach what I prac­tised?”

Be­low Viduka: big but beau­ti­ful with a ball at his feet

“The Cham­pi­onship’s an­swer to Makelele? Yes, Smithy, very funny”

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