I swore I would never play for Man United – but then I got the call

Alan Smith swore that he would never play for Man United and yet he went on to win the Premier League with the Reds

“Historically, it has been there for a long time,” Sir Alex Ferguson once said about the rivalry between Manchester United and Leeds.

“I have always said Liverpool-Manchester United games are fierce, but it never reaches the levels of Leeds United. Never.”

The rivalry between Manchester United and Leeds can be traced back to the days of Matt Busby and Don Revie in opposing dugouts.

However, as the years went by, the rivalry between the two clubs intensified to new heights.

The clash between the two sides would become fueled by hatred, with the fixture often marred with violent off-field incidents among supporters.

When Leeds were relegated in 2004, United’s fans rejoiced.

Alan Smith, Leeds born and bred, who had vowed to stay at Elland Road despite relegation, was pictured in tears and kissing the Leeds badge on the day they were sent down.

Smith’s raw outpouring of emotion for his hometown club wasn’t surprising.

However, after claiming he’d never join United, Smith sealed a move to Old Trafford that summer, and Leeds’ fans were left stunned.

This is the story of the man who dared to cross enemy lines.

In an interview with Soccer AM in 2002, Alan Smith, Leeds United’s rising star, was asked an array of questions, including: “Is there a team you’d never play for?”

“Yeah, Man United,” Smith uttered with an innocent smirk across his face.

Hailing from Rothwell, Leeds, Smith joined Leeds United’s academy at the age of 10 before progressing through the youth team ranks.

Smith’s talent was recognised, and the proud Yorkshireman would represent England’s U16s before making his first-team breakthrough.

Just three weeks after his 18th birthday in November 1998, Smith scored with his first touch in senior football away at Anfield, providing the inspiration for Leeds to win 3-1.

That performance had Leeds fans dreaming – Smith was one of their own.

The following season Smith would consolidate his first-team position, becoming a key component in Leeds’ team that would enjoy great success.

He was adored by Leeds’ supporters, and while his contribution in terms of the number of goals was never spectacular, Smith captured hearts through his relentless nature and grit.

Smith would play alongside Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Michael Bridges and Mark Viduka in a golden era for the club, helping them to challenge for European football.

But, with looming debt hanging over the club, Leeds would soon endure a spectacular fall from grace, selling Rio Ferdinand and Robbie Keane before the summer window of 2002 ended.

I swore I would never play for Man United - but then I got the call

Smith celebrates during an FA Cup match against Manchester City in January 2000.

Their results inevitably began to deteriorate that season, and Leeds went from finishing fifth to narrowly avoiding relegation.

There was one silver lining, though, as Smith’s development continued, making him one of the country’s most exciting forwards

As a token of appreciation from the fans, Smith won the club’s Supporters’ Player of the Year award for two years running between 2003 and 2004.

This was a first in Leeds’ history, although Smith would soon make a huge decision that would send reverberations around Elland Road, angering the club’s supporters.

“There had been talk about me signing in January and I spoke to Sir Alex Ferguson about it,” Smith explained, speaking to the Utd podcast. “But I couldn’t sign in January because I wanted to keep Leeds up.”

Smith’s efforts to maintain Leeds’ Premier League status were in vain, with the club suffering relegation at the end of the 2003/04 season.

After 14 consecutive seasons in the top flight, and with the club in financial crisis, Leeds fans were left devastated, but another bitter blow was about to land.

“United went and signed Louis Saha from Fulham, so I just thought my move was dead and buried, and that they wouldn’t want me,” Smith reflected.

“I was at home at the time and Sir Alex rang and I made my decision there and then without consulting anybody else.

“I don’t want to make any excuse for signing for Manchester United because it was a football-based decision. From the club’s [Leeds] point of view, it was financial.

“I’d be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t sign for, arguably at that time, the biggest club in the world.”

Smith completed his transfer to United in late May 2004 in a deal worth £7million.

The lifelong Leeds fan, a 23-year-old at the time, was also contractually owed a cut of his transfer fee because he never requested a move.

Notably, Smith waived that fee for the club’s benefit, but it wouldn’t prevent the outrage from Leeds supporters who labelled him “Judas.”

I swore I would never play for Man United - but then I got the call

Leeds fans show their respect to Smith before his transfer.

Despite the criticism, United’s latest addition said he was joining “one of the world’s biggest clubs”, and Sir Alex Ferguson, speaking immediately after the move, also shared his delight.

“I have never been more impressed with a young player, his desire to play for Manchester United is fantastic,” Ferguson said.

“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 me, it wasn’t even a rivalry anymore. If you’re not in the same league as someone I don’t understand how it can be,” Smith said last year, touching upon the controversial move.

“I’d been there from 10 years old, so it was big for them that I chose the destination that I did. But as I look at it, they should be proud of one of their own young players going on to whatever destination it was, in terms of the calibre you go to.

“That should not be forgotten because it’s a Leeds-Man United rivalry. I think it didn’t really bother me because it was a decision I made purely based on the good of Leeds financially and myself footballing-wise.”

While it was a decision Smith made in terms of footballing ambition, he had claimed just two years previously that he would never play for United.

“I was a kid when Eric [Cantona] went to Man United and I was probably one of those throwing stones at the team bus when he came!” Smith laughed before drawing comparisons neither set of fans would likely want to hear.

I swore I would never play for Man United - but then I got the call

Smith and Liam Miller pose with Sir Alex Ferguson.

“The characteristics of both clubs are very, very similar in terms of the beliefs, the history of the clubs, the people who are involved in it, the styles.

“The passion of the fans is very, very similar. I think that’s why it made my transition quite easy in that first year.

“And you’re surrounded by world-class players, which makes it a little bit easier as well.”

Smith would make his United debut in the Community Shield at the old Wembley against Arsenal in August 2004, lining up alongside Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes among others.

As he wished, he was surrounded by world-class players, but it was actually a moment of brilliance from Smith that provided United with their goal.

After anticipating the trajectory of a ricocheting ball, Smith emerged between Arsenal’s defenders to volley home from 20 yards to score United’s equaliser.

While the Reds would lose the game 3-1, Smith’s goal was a moment of individual inspiration, with the youngster instantly making an impression on his United debut.

I swore I would never play for Man United - but then I got the call

Smith celebrates his goal against Arsenal in the FA Community Shield in August 2004.

The reaction of Smith to that goal years later gives an insight into his mentality, as he clearly possessed the required mindset to succeed at Old Trafford.

“It was nice to get a goal against Arsenal, but the defeat made it a little bit more difficult.

“It wasn’t really great [scoring on his debut] because we got beat, but in terms of getting off to a good start at a new club, scoring is always nice.

“Going to Manchester United, you aren’t bothered about your goal ratio, you’re more bothered about getting back to winning.

Impressively, Smith scored another volley on his league debut against Norwich and would finish the season with 42 appearances across all competitions for United, having scored 10 goals.

However, with Wayne Rooney proving sensational for United and with Ruud van Nistelrooy returning from the sidelines, Smith was relegated to the bench for the 2005/06 campaign.

Smith scored just one goal that season with Sir Alex Ferguson opting to use him in a deep-lying midfield role, attempting to fill the void an injured Keane had left behind.

I swore I would never play for Man United - but then I got the call

Smith celebrates with Cristiano Ronaldo in August 2004.

Changing position to fill Keane’s boots wasn’t easy for Smith. “Roy Keane is probably impossible to replace as a player and as a character, especially at Manchester United,” he explained.

“No one could ever replicate it, so it was [about me] trying to do as good a job in a similar position. It wasn’t like, ‘You’re going to be a Roy Keane’. I could never do that job.

“I wouldn’t have had to do it as much as I did if Roy would have been as fit as normal,” he added.

Smith’s determination and attitude could never be questioned. He tirelessly worked in his newly-adopted position, but disaster would soon rock his United career.

In February 2006, during United’s 1-0 defeat against Liverpool in the FA Cup at Anfield, Smith suffered a double leg break and a dislocated ankle when attempting to block a free-kick from John Arne Riise.

Sir Alex Ferguson described the injury as “one of the worst” he had ever seen.

“It was strange really, your body just goes into shock, you’re not really thinking about the future,” Smith said last year when describing the injury.

“My biggest concern was I thought I was going to lose my foot.

“It was all a blur. I was in the ambulance going to the hospital, and the doctor said to our club doctor we need to get blood flow to his foot. I thought I could have gone from being a professional footballer one day to having no foot the next.”

I swore I would never play for Man United - but then I got the call

Smith receives treatment after breaking his leg and dislocating his ankle in February 2006.

The injury was horrendous. Smith suffered breaks to his tibia and fibula, but it was the ankle that was left in an unnatural position.

“I was lucky the bone didn’t come out of the skin,” Smith said.

“The dislocation of the ankle was the worst. We had to get a hand surgeon to do the surgery on my ankle because there are so many complications getting it back in place.”

United paid tribute to Smith in their 4-0 League Cup triumph over Wigan, collecting the trophy wearing t-shirts printed with the words “For you Smudge”.

Coming back from such a horrific injury was never going to be easy, and Smith has later revealed he “ended up with probably sixty per cent of movement” in his ankle.

After grueling rehab, Smith returned to training an incredible six months later – three months ahead of what was predicted.

“For me, getting back to some sort of level was a big thing,” Smith said.

With the departure of Van Nistelrooy to Real Madrid, Smith had the perfect opportunity to relaunch his United career in attack – sadly, his body wouldn’t allow it.

“I came back on a high, playing against Roma in the Champions League, and you’re getting by on adrenaline,” Smith explained.

“Initially it’s alright, but then you start to realise. When you’re going home you just know this isn’t how you were before.

“Everything is so much more difficult to do, even the simple stuff. I couldn’t really strike the ball with my left foot, there was no power, no confidence.

“There’s that horrible realisation. If you’re one percent off it at United, you’re probably gone. If you’re fifteen percent off it, which I was, you’re in a different world.

“It becomes such a difficult conversation. I knew I had to leave.”

I swore I would never play for Man United - but then I got the call

Manchester United line up against AS Roma (Image: Getty)

United’s quarter-final game against Roma in April 2007 was Smith’s first full 90 minutes of the entire season, having previously been involved sparingly after struggling for fitness.

His goal on that occasion was his first for United since November 2005 and, whether fueled by adrenaline or not, it was a fitting reward for a player that had encountered such misfortune.

The Reds would shortly be crowned Premier League champions after that fixture.

Despite making nine appearances in the league, falling one appearance short of qualifying for a winner’s medal, special dispensation was granted for Smith to receive the accolade.

Although Smith’s United career was hampered by a horrific injury, the United faithful built a great relationship with the former Leeds man over his three years at the club.

“We speak about passion, I think intensity is a great word for what fans want to see,” Smith said, reflecting on his time at United.

“Charging down the defenders, tackling from the front, that effort, it endears you to fans because sometimes they don’t expect.

“I think playing for United, the demands were very similar at Leeds. The fans want to see you run through a brick wall for them.”

Smith receiving a Premier League winner’s medal – after giving everything for that United shirt – seemed a fair reward for a man who once dared to cross enemy lines.

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