It’s not hard to imagine what the reaction will be to Alan Smith’s appearance at Elland Road this Sunday. The mere mention of his name is usually enough to spark furious debate about a player who still divides opinion, seven years after he left Leeds United to join Manchester United.
I’m all for banter in football, and many players have come in for special attention from the Elland Road crowd over the years, I don’t have any problem with that. All I’d ask is that the fans who want to make a point to Smith make sure they don’t overstep the mark. It’s in nobody’s interests to see a high-profile friendly against Newcastle United marred by anything unsavoury.
Alan’s a hard lad with thick skin and he doesn’t need me to speak up for him or defend him, but I’m going to defend him anyway. I’ve heard the complaints, the criticism and the anger over his transfer to Manchester United more times than I care to remember and I do appreciate why so many of our supporters find it so difficult to come to terms with. But it really is important to state once again that the move to Old Trafford was more for the benefit of Leeds United than it was for the benefit of Alan Smith.
Thinking back to the summer of 2004, the time when he was sold, it’s difficult to explain exactly how much trouble the club were in. We’d been relegated from the Premiership and, as a member of the board, I was privvy to the situation behind the scenes. It was absolutely desperate.
We needed money and we needed it fast. In amongst a very mixed squad, some of whom were worth little, Alan was clearly a most valuable asset. He’d spoken at one stage about wanting to stay and help Leeds get out of the Championship and back into the Premier League but, quite frankly, that was never going to happen. As a board, we couldn’t afford to let it happen. The funds raised through selling him were essential to us and it didn’t take much time for interest to develop, in England and abroad.
Even now people claim that Smith could and should have gone to Newcastle or Everton, or continued his career in Spain or Italy. But here’s the crux of the matter – only one club were willing to pay the entire fee up front and pay it immediately. That club were Manchester United.
Everyone else talked about instalments or payments at a later date which, to a club in as precarious a position as we were, was no use whatsoever. The valuation of Smith as I recall was around £6m and those funds were crucial in helping the Gerald Krasner board fight their way through to the start of 2005, when Ken Bates came to Elland Road and took control of the club. Without that £6m I’m not sure we’d have made it that far without an unmanageable crisis.
One morning, I was asked by the other Leeds directors to call Alex Ferguson directly and discuss a deal for Smith. I know Ferguson well enough to speak to and it had become apparent by then that Manchester United were not only interested in Alan but were ready to sign him and cough up the fee immediately.
After talking to Ferguson, the process was so quick that Alan was out the door and into Old Trafford before I could even speak to him. As I recall, there was no messing about and that suited us down to the ground – sad though we were to see him go.
Now I’m not daft enough to think that Alan himself had no interest in going to Old Trafford, or was forced to accept the move against his will. He’ll have earned a tidy wage over there and he was going to a club who were likely to win major trophies, but the point is that it was made clear to him that Leeds United – his team, don’t forget – would gain most from him signing for Manchester United. If criticism is due then perhaps it should be aimed at those of us who were on the board. We did what we thought was best for the club.
The hostility between Leeds and Manchester United was bound to make the move contentious, and the fact that we’re discussing it seven years later shows exactly how contentious it’s been. The rivalry can’t have been helped by the fact that we’d just been relegated and were heading into turbulent waters. In the years since that relegation, I’ve detected a definite deepening of the dislike towards Manchester United among our fans and I guess that’s understandable. It’s frustrating to be a long way beneath your bitterest foes.
But transfers between the clubs have occurred several times in the past, and they haven’t all been one way. Joe Jordan and Gordon McQueen went in their direction but two of Leeds’ finest midfielders came from Manchester United – Johnny Giles and Gordon Strachan.
They were welcomed with open arms and did the business for us. I can’t believe that anyone resents their backgrounds or dislikes either player because of their Old Trafford connections. If you’re being fair to Smith, his move wasn’t really any different. And I know for a fact that it wasn’t his intention to upset people in Leeds by moving west.
He’d probably never say so, but I’m sure the abuse he gets in certain quarters saddens him. He’s a Leeds lad, after all, and he’d want nothing more than to see the club thrive and return to the Premier League. Whatever else can be said about him, he was someone who gave everything every time he played for us. He wore his heart on his sleeve and he was proud to wear the shirt. When I think of him, I think of a lad whose commitment never fell below 100 per cent.
Knowing him, he’ll cope with the atmosphere on Sunday. He got quite a bit of treatment when Leeds played at Newcastle in pre-season a couple of years ago and, back in the days when he was on the books at Elland Road, he was a player who opposition fans liked to target.
But I’ve got no argument with Alan Smith and he’s someone I respect. To me, he’s done nothing wrong.
There was talk of him rejoining Leeds this summer and the feeling among some fans seemed to be that he owed us. To be honest, I don’t think Smith owes Leeds United anything. In actual fact, we owe him a great deal for his performances and for a transfer which helped to keep the club afloat in the hardest of times.
That might not please people to hear, but it’s the truth.