Alan Smith is a born and bred and butter Yorkshireman from Rothwell, a beautiful market town south of Leeds. His accent is loaded with glottal stops and dropped ‘H’s, he presumably prefers his peas mushy and growing up his bedroom wall was plastered with Elland Road stars from the Howard Wilkinson era; Speed, Strachan and of course the forerunner to his local hero crown David Batty.
Famously Smith progressed to professional status from Lilleshall, the now defunct FA National School and at the tender age of eighteen made the type of debut every schoolboy dreams of, scoring with his first touch for his hometown club in front of the Kop at Anfield.
Under the guidance of David ‘my boys’ O’Leary the blonde haired scamp formed a devastating front three with Viduka and Kewell in a team so full of youthful adventure and attacking glee it was impossible not to get caught in the slipstream despite the badge on their shirt representing a lifetime of hated rivalry to those beyond the Pennines. At the beginning of a new century the rejuvenated Leeds were a breath of fresh air and their combination of quick-witted football and energetic hustling took them as far as the Champion’s League semi-final in 2001 with Smith playing an integral part. Granted his goalscoring record wasn’t the best but he was the heart and beating soul of that side, the supporter on the pitch, and his relentless running and terrace passion saw him win a clutch of awards from fans who adored him as their own.
For reasons that have been much covered elsewhere but involve over-reaching and expensive tropical fish the dream turned sour and amazingly Leeds found themselves relegated just three seasons after tearing apart the best of Europe.
Smith was distraught. Over-wrought. He kissed the badge and cried.
That summer, in a move that continues to stagger to this day, the 24 year old signed for the one club he wasn’t allowed to. The enemy. The loathed institution that had taken two of Elland Road’s finest in the 70s in McQueen and Jordan. Manchester United.
Seven years on the fresh-faced youngster is now a battle-wearied forgotten figure, released by Newcastle after another season of anonymity and picked up on a two-year deal by MK Dons. Yet he is still only 31 and the question must be asked – what the hell went wrong? Where did the promise and the spark go?
Certainly his horrific injury – ironically occurring in the same arena as his dream debut – has played a part in his slow slide into mediocrity. It was a leg and ankle break that made a watching nation recoil as if viewing a video nasty as we watched a young man slain on the turf requesting to the referee that he hold his hand.
His return the following season was heralded by Alex Ferguson as the reason for the departure of the prolific Van Nistelrooy but that was never a realistic intention. Smith was never a consistent finisher and now whatever pace he possessed – which was more of a jostling style anyway – was noticeably stymied by the injury.
So it was that Ferguson deployed him centrally, holding things together around the halfway line and attempting to utilise his undoubted quality of gritty endeavour. Newcastle did likewise later on to equally mixed results.
The promise turned to the ordinary because to my mind at least Alan Smith was always a player who fell between two stools. He lacked the touch and class to excel in the middle. He lacked the predatory kill of a natural striker. What he did have, to not only compensate for these short-comings but in such vast reserve that it gained him 19 international caps and made him a feared proposition, was passion and heart. And that cannot be coached or manufactured. It can only come from being a born and bred and butter Yorkshireman and playing for a club that flowed through his bloodstream.
As cruel as this is Smith is now forever destined to be considered a ‘what if’ player if he’s remembered at all. And that is entirely down to mistaking the dream for talent.