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Schoolyard Stories: Alan Smith

August 2004. Football was just reeling from a shock Greece Euro 2004 triumph against Portugal on Portuguese soil. The Streets – Dry Your Eyes was UK No.1 and I was beginning to pay proper attention to football. The Streets have no relevance there other than I searched it and thought the No. 1 was going to be a random and humorous tune but it turns out it was a banger. Anyway, it was August 2004 and Alan Smith signed for Manchester United from Leeds United in a deal worth £7m, and following a few weeks of him at the club I was buzzing.

When you imagine a player making that kind of move - their flag will generally have to be tied to that mast forever, or at least they end up with an affiliation to neither club. Cantona made light work of that transition to say the very least, arriving from Leeds as a champion - before becoming the face of Manchester United and the catalyst of a new era. Denis Irwin done it himself with a mixture of obvious exceptional talent and honesty. How many times do you hear ‘you know what you got week in week out’ – it's all a supporter wants, and he left the club to join his boyhood Wolves as a Manchester United legend having won it all. Rio Ferdinand, I imagine isn’t that fondly revered in Leeds, although in red colours is another who has iconic status. Alan Smith is probably a case in between some of those more famous ones, with injury and an immense competition for places during his time at Manchester United potentially hampering his time at the club. As a young fan these factors of the comings and goings in a club never really mattered a great deal. I don’t remember at this age particularly caring where he came from nor do I remember giving any thought to where United signed Eric Cantona.

At the time of Smith’s arrival to Manchester United I was 10 years old and at an age where you really make the time to properly idolise players from the club you support. Roy Keane was the obvious idol being an Irish Manchester United supporter but I was all over Smith in these early days. You know the craic – imitating the celebration when you score a tap in on the school yard. MATCH magazine posters on the bedroom wall. Failing in an attempt at the same hair style - that kind of stuff. In adulthood, announcing to everyone in the vicinity your favourite player isn’t so much of a thing, thankfully, nor is seeing as many grown men with their hair gelled like Chamakh. You obviously have preferred personnel, but it’s a different kind of admiration with more rationale attached to it. Actual ability, how often the player performs well, club longevity and in some cases a dash of a ‘what have you done for me lately’ are all clearly involved. In school that rationale is somewhat hazy, and factors such as a hairstyle, shirt number or even what boots they wear come into play. I remember someone telling me I had the same boots as Phil Neville and thinking immediately – there’s a cool man.

The modern football supporter in me could lie and say it could have been the controversy of the move from Leeds to MUFC that spawned my early admiration for him, but in reality it was probably the bleached blond mohawk. I could sit here and say how much I liked his style of play and the way he carried himself on the pitch but initially it probably wasn’t even any of that. It could have been as simple as seeing a goal from him the Saturday and opening a sticker pack with him in it on the Sunday. I could list off his career achievements and the reasons for moves throughout - and a draft of this blog did have those kind of things - but what’s the point. None of that mattered for me at the time. It matters to me now but as a chap on the school yard with your jersey under your shirt, all that mattered was sticking the next ball that comes up into the top bin like your hero did, and fighting afterwards that you’re not a hatcher.

Top to bottom the Manchester United team of that era was full of stars and I obviously idolised them all, but for a time I was a Smith man for anyone that wanted to know about it on the school yard. Talking with some of my Leeds supporting mates they followed a similar trajectory before their youthful Leeds supporting nightmares were fulfilled. I could be getting this hugely wrong here with my sample space of about two Leeds supporting mates but I feel with today’s hindsight and information such as the reasoning for that move - Smith lies somewhere in an awkward spot. It feels maybe with the circumstance there’s more a sadness in his move than an actual dislike - but I could be way off with that. His final United goal arrived in that 7-1 demolition of AS Roma at Old Trafford, and following the horrifying leg break he’d received just a year prior meant it was probably the most widely celebrated goal that night.

Honesty is probably the biggest connection a footballer can make with a supporter. Coming with no outside baggage or moody days where they look like they can’t be arsed. You’d imagine that’s the minimum you’re expected to see but it's genuinely not. If you had someone who gave it everything 38 days out of 38 what more is there to ask for? Of course talent is hugely important for any success but a lot is to be said for someone you can rely on week in week out. That’s what I think of when I now imagine Alan Smith. Talent obviously - you don’t receive 19 caps for your country without it, in an era packed of superstars. External factors such as chance and an outlandish hairstyle might have drawn my admiration initially, but it was his honesty and willingness to leave everything on the pitch that kept my admiration through his time at the club and beyond.

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