An oversized Leeds United shirt with 39 on the back of it – the sort of random squad number a club digs out when an academy player is asked to fill the bench – did not do justice to the 18-year-old wearing it.
One chance and three minutes was all Alan Smith needed to announce himself with a debut goal at Anfield, 20 years ago today.
Smith had the look of a boy in men’s clothing when David O’Leary sent him on as a substitute with Leeds trailing Liverpool 1-0 but his finish on 79 minutes, a deft shot into the bottom corner after David Hopkin’s effort broke to him in front of the Kop, was the start of a love affair which ended six years later in defection and bitter divorce.
That moment against Liverpool began a furious fightback in which Leeds overturned a Robbie Fowler penalty with three goals in seven minutes, the others scored by Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. Nigel Martyn, United’s goalkeeper, had given Liverpool’s penalty away by misjudging a bouncing ball and poleaxing Karlheinz Riedle.
“Alan dug me out of a bit of trouble that day,” he said. “It was my mistake for their goal but he came on and changed the game. I think it’s what they call a dream debut.”
Smith was accustomed to training with Leeds’ senior players but at Anfield, on November 14, 1998, he was named in a matchday squad by O’Leary for the first time. Eddie Gray, O’Leary’s assistant, worked as reserve-team coach before joining the Irishman’s backroom staff and liked Smith’s tenacious attitude.
There was, in any case, a trend of Leeds making use of their academy. Jonathan Woodgate, Harry Kewell and Stephen McPhail had already graduated from it.
After Smith’s dramatic debut on Merseyside, O’Leary admitted to shying away from using the forward as more than a last throw of the dice.
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“I wasn’t brave enough to play him from the start,” he said.
Gray felt O’Leary timed Smith’s introduction perfectly. “He was ready to play, there was no doubt about that, but it was brave on David’s part to throw him into that game,” Gray said. “We were 1-0 down at Anfield and it’s a big call to turn to an 18-year-old boy. David was never frightened of using young players.”
Martyn, who by then was an older head at Elland Road and an England international, saw in Smith a reserved and focused teenager. “He was quiet,” Martyn said. “That was my first impression of him: a quiet lad who was never full of himself but had a very professional streak and a great work ethic.
“When you’re stepping up from an academy, and if you’re going to make it in the game, you have to earn the respect of the senior players. It’s essential.
“He did that very quickly and it didn’t take any time before we were looking at him as a first-team player instead of a kid from the academy.
“People maybe forget the speed with which he established himself.”
Smith was everything the crowd at Elland Road looked for: a local boy who grew up in Rothwell, was schooled in Lofthouse and supported Leeds. There was fire in his make-up, a footballer prone to red and yellow cards, but an aggressive workrate and a decent supply of goals.
“It wasn’t that Alan had amazing skill or amazing pace,” Martyn said, “but he had enough of both and on top of that he gave you effort in spades.
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“He could keep a whole back four busy on his own for 90 minutes. I’d imagine that someone like Mark Viduka appreciated him because Mark was never the most mobile player and Alan did a fair amount of his running for him. He could hassle defenders all day.”
In terms of natural talent Gray had worked with better players than Smith. The 70-year-old often says that Stephen McPhail, Leeds’ Irish midfielder, was the most technically competent of the lot. “Alan would say himself that he didn’t have the natural ability as someone like Stephen or Harry Kewell,” Gray said.
“But when it came to attitude he was up there on his own. He was so hungry.
“Talent’s one thing but in young players you need to see confidence in their own ability, courage to do it in front of a crowd and enough character to mix with the first team.
“You get kids with loads of ability who go in with the first-team lads and are too shy to play their own game. Then you’ve got lads like Alan who come off the bench at Anfield and get a goal in front of the Kop. He’ll have gone on that day thinking ‘I’m going to score here’. He’ll treasure that moment for the rest of his life.”
Martyn remembers Smith’s goal at Anfield as a “cultured finish” but said the striker made little of it afterwards.
“It just wasn’t his style to be bouncing off the walls,” Martyn said. “That’s a big moment in anyone’s career but he wasn’t going to dine out on it.”
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As if to prove the point, a week later Smith scored again in a 4-1 win over Charlton Athletic. Fifty-six goals came over the course of his career at Elland Road and 13 of them in Europe, the most memorable of which earned Leeds a 1-0 win over Lazio in Rome during United’s Champions League year.
The story ended for him with relegation from the Premier League in 2004, a desperate season which finished with Gray as caretaker manager.
“It got very tough for everyone but his attitude and commitment was always great,” Gray said.
“I wish every player was the same as him. Then it might have been different. But that’s football.”
What happened next opened a wound which has never truly healed.
Three weeks after being carried off the Elland Road pitch on the shoulders of supporters after a 3-3 draw with Charlton, Smith joined Manchester United for £6m.
Leeds were chronically skint and needed to sell him but though Valencia and Liverpool made overtures and Everton, Newcastle and Middlesbrough were strongly linked with him, Smith left for the one club the public in Leeds believed he would never sign for; Manchester United, of all teams.
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He was not the first player to make a move which was seen in West Yorkshire as sacrilegious but others who had – Eric Cantona, Rio Ferdinand, Joe Jordan, Gordon McQueen – never carried the tag of ‘Mr Leeds’.
Smith felt the ire around him but was unrepentant.
“Not a lot of people would have been brave enough to make this step,” he said on the day of his transfer.
“It was a difficult decision because crossing the Pennines always causes a lot of hostility. But from a personal point of view Manchester United can offer me everything I want.”
Some in his home city have not forgiven him for that, though Smith has always been open to speaking about his controversial exit and returning to the club sporadically.
He has attended games at Elland Road over the years and earlier this season he was at Thorp Arch for a development-squad game between United and Nottingham Forest, albeit in dark glasses.
Martyn, as a former professional, sympathised with Smith’s situation.
“At that time Leeds were desperate to sell players,” he said. “I know that because when I left they were desperate to get rid of me. The finances were shot.
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“Politically I can see the problem with that transfer but professionally he was joining the best team in the country.
“As a former footballer myself I don’t blame him for that.
“But I understand why fans would see it differently and why some might find it hard to forgive.”
Gray felt the same. “I wished Alan well when he went,” he said.
“He’s a Leeds boy and a Leeds fan so he knows the history of the two clubs but there was never any chance of him staying at Leeds because the club were selling anyone they could.
“In the end he did what he thought was best for his career.
“I know why he got the reaction he did because I’ve seen it with other players.
“I’m still big friends with Joe Jordan and Gordon McQueen. But I did feel for him.
“I saw him grow up and whatever anyone says, he was a player who cared.”