Retrospective #1: Alan Smith and his struggles as a Keane replacement
From the outside, the life of a footballer seems very alluring but for those whose potential is never fulfilled, the riches never compensate for the lingering disappointment. Alan Smith, at 23, had the world at his feet. But his club at the time, Leeds United were relegated. Banished from the top flight. Gone. And with that, it was the end of an era. For the club and for some of the players. Dreams faded. But not Smith’s. Not yet anyway.
“I have never been more impressed with a young player, his desire to play for Manchester United is fantastic,” said Sir Alex in 2004. “Certain young people come along with a special determination, and after speaking to him I expect that from Alan Smith. That desire will take him a long way.” For a player of such promise, a £7million price tag would be seen to be a bargain in present day and indeed he’d have cost so much more had Leeds avoided the drop. His talent shone at Elland Road and, sporadically, for England.
The feeling amongst fans when United unveiled their new signing wasn’t exactly met with great enthusiasm – for he had just moved away from their bitter rivals and his boyhood club. Others saw the humour in the situation, as Leeds were no longer a force, and so Smith in a red shirt certainly was a way in which United’s fans can gleefully poke fun at the enemy. Naturally, he’d take some getting used to but that’s not taking anything away from Smith. What was clear was that Smith, with the weight of expectation on his shoulders, had to make a good start. They say first impressions are everything – something, it would appear, Smith believed in.
In his very first competitive game for his new club, the season curtain raiser – the newly renamed Community Shield – Smith scored with a sumptuous, curling volley against Arsenal. The team lost 3-1 but it was an encouraging debut nonetheless. But the rest of his season was hampered by injuries. Still, he did score 6 league goals from 22 and ten overall – not exactly great, but there were reasons to be hopeful for the next campaign. The general consensus was that “he’ll do better next year,” but, in fact, the 2005/06 season was where it all went wrong for a wealth of reasons.
Since Roy Keane left the club, Manchester United had searched for a like-for-like replacement but had ultimately failed (some might still argue that, coming into the 2011/12 season, that void has yet to be filled). Owen Hargreaves might have been that man to fill it, but injuries cut short a career which, at one point, looked destined for better things. He enjoyed a solid campaign in 07/08 and was inspirational in carrying United to a famous Euro/League double that season. But it all went downhill from there – but actually through no real fault of his own. Instead, it was the ‘I’ word which meant Hargreaves can now only be regarded as a ‘would be’ player in Manchester United’s history; who would only succeed at the club in a hypothetical sense. Smith, who was affectionately nicknamed “Smudge” by teammates, can relate to Hargreaves. He was also plagued with a long-term injury and similarly tasked with replacing Keane.
If you had told Smith before he began his second season at the club (05/06) that he would only score a single league goal out of 15, he would have shaken his head in disbelief (and perhaps tell you to get off his lawn). Firstly, how can a forward of such quality have such a horrid strike rate? And play just 15 games? The latter question is perhaps easier to explain; he faced stiff competition from both Ruud van Nistelrooy and Wayne Rooney – and so was resigned to the role of first substitute rather than partnering either. Then, on February 2006, heartbreak. He suffered a horrific injury in a cup game against Liverpool – and his description of it said it all. “My ankle was pointing towards Hong Kong so I knew I was in serious trouble.”
In truth, nothing for Smith that year was synonymous with ‘luck’ – even before his afternoon of misfortune at Anfield. He was largely ineffective rather than ‘poor’, and perhaps it wasn’t his fault. He was being modelled as the Next Roy Keane. That, we would all later know, is pretty impossible as the Irishman proved irreplaceable. The anchor role in midfield would take some time getting used to and, in fairness to Smith, how could he be expected to adapt in such a short time? That sentiment was not shared; during one of United’s rough patches that season, he was used as something of a scapegoat. Most extraordinarily, he was even (quite cryptically) dismissed by his predecessor Keane in a television interview. This was rather strange, as only months earlier, Sir Alex said: “Roy sees characteristics in Alan that he saw in himself as a young player, which could help Alan develop into a very good player in that position.”
There were indeed some similarities. Smith tracked back willingly to win the ball. Like Keane, his tenacity and persistence bode well for him and he was a decent tackler, too. But the conversion was ill-fated. With an added twist, another player vying for a starting place was John O’Shea, also given the task of replacing Keane. That was to result in failure, too. O’Shea was also out of position. Like Alan Smith. This isn’t blaming Sir Alex in particular; but it was certainly an ill-fated miscalculation. (It is quite curious that he still went on to play in that anchor role for Newcastle, but to little avail. Alan Smith’s peak was not at 27 or 28, instead earlier when he had played for Leeds. As a forward. Now, he’s a free agent.)
Sometimes, a position conversion in football works. Ashley Cole is recognised as one of the best left-backs in world football right now, but he had played as a centre-forward in his early days. Striker Jason Euell prolonged his career by becoming a central midfielder. But Smith’s story was a tad different; he was not so young nor was he past his peak. At 24, he was still in England contention and his best days were still thought to be ahead of him (not to be, as we’ll find out). The midfield experiment was ended by Smith’s leg break; a career-defining setback. It was thirteen months before he would start another game.
When he did return for the latter part of the 06/07 season, things had changed. He was to be become a forward again. Hurrah? Not so much. Smith’s story was similar to former Southampton and Everton man James Beattie, who had once also dazzled with his prolificacy. They both came back to a different league, faster and more skilful; they were stranded in the past. Smith was reaching an anticlimactic end. It wasn’t how he’d have hoped it to happen.
“THE FORGOTTEN MAN IS BACK!” screamed ITV’s Clive Tyldesley as Alan Smith beautifully finished past Roma’s Brazilian goalkeeper Doni after a rapid interchange from Manchester United. That goal was later to be recognised as one of the best to have ever been scored in Europe. The Red Devils were 2-0 up thanks to Smith, and would later go on to sweep aside the Italian side 7-1 (agg. 8-3). For a moment, things were looking up for the Englishman. He would collect a league winner’s medal along with Henrik Larsson (despite both falling short of the ten games necessary) and then an FA Cup runners-up medal as well. Still, the inevitable happened. He left United.
The real Alan Smith was nifty, talented and clinical and United fans saw little of that beyond his debut season. He did not fulfil potential – the midfield experiment failed and injuries were devastating. He was supposed to excel at Manchester United, attain brilliance. That was the plan. But, the forgotten man wasn’t back. And he never would be.
We are accepting submissions for the Retrospective series. To find out more, click here.