Alan Smith is one of a number of famous sports personalities who grew up in the LS26 area. He initially found fame playing for his hometown club Leeds United where he developed a no-nonsense approach to his game and thus became a hugely popular member of the then Leeds United squad.
He left Leeds to play for Manchester United and then later represented Newcastle United, Milton Keynes and Notts County as well as also representing his country no fewer than 19 times.
Alan has been kind enough to answer a number of questions for us in the following exclusive interview:
LS26 Local: What memories do you have of growing up in Rothwell? The football teams you play for? Where would you have a kick about, and all that sort of stuff?
AS: Great memories really; my family moved there when I was about three years old and stayed there until I left, when I was twenty-three and joined Man United. My family still live there to this day.
As I say we have some good junior football teams, I played for Rothwell Juniors all through my childhood until I started playing for Leeds United.
Unfortunately when you are fourteen, you have to stop playing for your local team.
LS26 Local: It’s gets more serious, doesn’t it?
AS: Yeah, people take it a little more serious, you get people worried about players getting injured. You really miss having a kickabout when ever you could. We used to carry plastic goals from Mum and Dads street.
LS26 Local: Which street was that?
AS: St. George Avenue where we used to live, we used to play on the old St George’s hospital grounds; which we weren’t allowed to do, we used to jump the fence there, much to the porters dismay! and get chased off their now and again for kicking balls where we shouldn’t be.
And then we used to sneak onto the school field where both me and my brother went to Junior School, Rothwell Victoria Primary School, and we would just try and find any way we could to have a kick about.
We suddenly found people coming from far and wide to play, and during school holidays and light nights we would be playing wherever, and dark nights we’d be under the street lamps, as I said just kicking a ball about, just doing what kids do and just enjoying your time.
LS26 Local: Did you enjoy school days at Rodillian? What was your favourite non-sporting subject? And do you remember any teachers at the school that helped to inspire your career as a footballer?
AS: Yeah l loved my time there, and I’ve always been a social person which makes life a lot easier, and I think that – that school was great… academically we weren’t the best in terms of the best school in the country, but we always managed to get good results through other avenues, it produced some good athletes, so quite a few good Rugby League players; they went on to play for Leeds Rhinos, Hunslet Hawks and a few good footballers.
None of them, unfortunately, made their way in professional football but they had other opportunities to leave school and join YTS at a number of different clubs.
And there were a lot of good teachers; I wouldn’t like to pick out one, that not necessarily inspired – but they can see that, you are talented in one area, and not so talented in another area and I think that the actual diversity of knowing that, “well we’ll let you off a little bit this way, because your good at something else”, to give you that little bit of leeway.
I think that it’s important because although people think academically you need to be amazing to progress in life; I think sometimes that it’s been shown over a period of time now that actually the sport and the emphasis since we had the London Olympics, it’s a little bit favoured in the other direction.
And I think that for a lot of years especially in England in comparison to America; that they emphasise massively on sport and education, and I think for a while we were solely just education and not so much the sport, and I think that’s switched now and we are seeing the results of it.
As I said fortunately for me; the school I went to, saw and knew of my passion for football – not necessarily the talent, because you don’t see that until later on, but I think they knew we had a good football team, and they saw that the lads that played really cared about it, so they would give us leeway to leave a little bit earlier to go to games and do different bits.
LS26 Local: Who were your favourite footballers while you were growing up? Anyone from sort of the Leeds area that you particularly looked up to?
AS: Yeah, David Batty always… and Gary Speed, they were the two lads who came through the Leeds Academy system, or Leeds youth team as it was then.
They were two players, that obviously a lot of youth players who were at the club and growing up, respected and looked up to. I was eleven-twelve years old when Leeds won the old first division title; which was around the time of Italia 90, Leeds getting promotion to the first division and then winning the league title. These were probably the three big things in my life where I started taking a massive interest in football. I had always watched Italian football as well and Roberto Baggio was my favourite player.
And then; like I say, Gary Speed and David Batty were two people who I looked up to, because they came through the ranks, and were at the team that I supported too, so you always have an affiliation with the local players as well.
LS26 Local: You scored with pretty much your first touch in the Premier League, for Leeds United against Liverpool at Anfield. What memories do you have of your debut and how well do you remember that particular goal?
AS: I shouldn’t have really been there, I should have been away with England under-21s playing in Israel; and there was conflict during that period of time, so we didn’t travel and we came back to the training ground. The first team squad had a few injuries, so I got drafted into training with them on the Friday and travelled, but didn’t really expect anything, I just thought I was going as experience, because I had never even traveled with the first team before. Then he (David O’Leary) put me on the bench, brought me on and then I scored with virtually my first touch of ball which I know it sounds strange but scoring a goal on any level…I mean for anybody, is like the best thing, and for me it meant the same as scoring the week before for the youth team against Chelsea! It’s still a sense of achievement and it felt exactly the same.
LS26 Local: You were part of the squad built by David O’Leary that enjoyed success in both the Premier League finishing third in 99/2000, and reached the European Cup Semi Final. Do you think the club would have gone on to pick up silverware had the well documented financial implosion not happened?
AS: It’s hard to answer that question; “yes” because I feel you can only gain that with experience over a long period of time; the financial situation obviously has been well-documented over a number of years now and I think that the club maybe only just starting to find their feet again, which is frightening really because its something like fifteen years ago.
LS26 Local: The fact that they dropped to League One at one point, is indicative of that isn’t it?
AS: Yes, like I said, fifteen years on; the club is yet to get back to the position, where really they should never have dropped from.
When you’re involved in it you don’t really see it; I still to this day recall when we got relegated and I was still thinking this can’t happen, this won’t happen…And players left, obviously; players knew that we were struggling financially, they sold a lot of players, and eventually the team that we had wasn’t good enough to stay in the Premier league. Unfortunately we let a lot of our better players go, and we couldn’t offer people wages to come, so basically we didn’t have a team that could sustain Premier League status regardless of the size of the club.
When we look at the actual team that was playing that season and the lads who were only just making their way through the ranks, with the likes of James Milner who was just a young kid, and Arron Lennon who was only sixteen. For them to play in a relegation dogfight highlighted how the squad was stretched.
We were having to put players here, there and everywhere just to get a decent team out. The reason why we got relegated had begun the previous season, when the problems at the club had started. We could feel we were starting to dwindle a little bit and I think that the biggest, the most difficult thing is, that despite the size of the club, people pretty much could foresee what would eventually happen.
When you left the club in 2004 to join Manchester United a lot of Leeds fans felt betrayed; however most didn’t know that later in an interview with ‘The 42’, an Irish website; Steven McPhail would reveal that your transfer was to enable the club to get as much money as possible to help steer them through the clubs financial problems. Do you wish at the time that these details could have been more transparent to Leeds fans?
AS: Not really no, because I feel at that time for me; I’d always been a Leeds United supporter, like all my life – I’d played for the club since I was ten years old, so I knew the decision would not go down well. I was there when Cantona left and when Rio Ferdinand left….
I saw the reaction with those players and mine was a lot worse than them because of my affiliation with the club – but, I owed it to myself, to go to the best club possible. Leeds had been torn apart in terms of all the people who worked at the club. The people that I knew when I progressed through the ranks, were not at the club anymore, we had been fighting administration and a lot of the people who I associated with from the club, and I’m not talking about players, I’m talking about staff, people who cared about me, who I cared about, from the laundry girls to the girls who would cook our dinners, and a lot of the coaching staff, the people that I really respected had left the club so it didn’t really feel like I was leaving Leeds United to be honest.
The only ones you do say you feel sorry for are the supporters; because they’re the ones who pick up the pieces and keep supporting through thick and thin, which they always will do.
And I don’t have any qualms with any of them for the reaction that I got because they did feel betrayed, and at times when things are not going right you always need somebody to vent your anger at.
LS26 Local: Do you feel like you need to justify joining Manchester United?
AS: Definitely not, I don’t see why anyone should ever feel the need to justify signing for possibly the biggest football club in the world. I’ve seen people leave Leeds since and take sideward steps, and still be applauded when they come back to Elland Road which I find a little bit strange, because I came through the clubs academy from when I was ten years old and went on to play for one of the biggest clubs in world.
And they should be proud of that fact that someone who came through their Academy, went on to achieve playing for one of the biggest clubs in the world.
They should see that as a real positive; but because it is Manchester United they look at it as a scourge, but anyone I spoke to in football, inside the club, they all said to me “If they come for you, you’ve got to leave”. At that stage, the financial stability of the club was the most important thing because not only did they pay the biggest fee, they paid it the day after. Other clubs were interested in signing me, I could have gone elsewhere, but the other offers were to pay the fee over instalments, so the bottom line was that Manchester United was going to pay the full fee straight up, and hopefully that helped the club.
LS26 Local: When you were at Manchester United you switched from being a forward to a more defensive role in midfield? Which position did you prefer?
AS: I am more natural as a striker. But at a club like Manchester United who had a lot of strikers, who were all playing well, chances to play up front were more limited. It was down to circumstance when a few people suffered injuries that I fitted into a midfield role and then stayed in that position, it wasn’t really a massive change for me. But if I could choose one, I would play as a striker, I think that’s where I’m just more natural.
LS26 Local: Many fans looked forward to you returning to Leeds; was there ever a time where such a move was on the cards, going back to Leeds?
AS: No, I don’t think I could have done myself justice going back after my injuries. And I just think the club as it was; it wouldn’t have been the same going back.
I’ve got fantastic memories of my career at Leeds from when I was ten years old right through until I left, I spent nearly a third of my life at the club, and I think that to go back wouldn’t have been the same. David Batty said to me “the first time round we won the league title and I have fun memories but it’s hard to replicate it”.
LS26 Local: Is it tough to balance the roles of playing and coaching at the same time? Or do the two complement each other?
AS: I think they complement each other, to be honest, I think that you can learn every day which is still what I am doing; and learn the other side of football. Sometimes it can be frustrating because you want to play as much as possible. Which is just natural; everyone gets to a stage in their career where they think “well I know I can’t play but I want to play”, and that’s the most difficult thing for me.
LS26 Local: Is that where you’re at though? Because you feel like you can still play regularly don’t you?
AS: Yeah I still feel I can, I know there will come a time when that’s not the case. You’ve got to know your worth, and I think that for me, I will keep playing; as long as I know that I can contribute.
But I also want to see the young players do well and progress, I say to them; “some of you are doing yourself an injustice, because you are good enough to play at a better level”.
I’ve been so lucky I started at seventeen and I am thirty-seven now and that doesn’t happen very often. I’ve still maintained a love for the game and if you can dedicate all those years of your life to it; you can make a good living out of it and play at a very high level. So that’s the nice side of coaching and not playing; where you can pass on information and want them to do really well.
LS26 Local: Any ambitions to go into management? Would you return to Leeds in any capacity as a coach or anything like that?
AS: I think that just all depends on circumstance; I know people revert back to when I said I would never play for Manchester United, but also in the same breath, Leeds said they would never sell me. So it’s like it’s a double edged sword a lot of the time; and I think you can never say never in football; and it’s my hometown club, so I’ll always have the affiliation with them.
LS26 Local would like to thank Nick Richardson of Notts County for conducting this interview on our behalf.
Images published with kind permission of MK Dons FC & Notts County FC