Like most blokes, I have a football claim to fame shared a few too many times after a few too many pints with a few too many pals. The day in question was a cup final played at Throstle Nest for Farsley Celtic against Rothwell over 20 years ago.
Disappointed to be named as a substitute, the only positive was watching the ability of Rothwell’s speedy right winger – talented beyond his years and technically better than everyone else on display. The player in question was a young Alan Smith.
It was the first and only time I have witnessed a player and known instantly they would become a professional one day. You could sense it in all he did. Though the two teams were evenly matched, with Smith on the wing Rothwell edged it, running out eventual winners by a single goal.
But what of the football claim to fame? You may well ask. Well strap yourself in and I will tell you all about it.
It was the 81st minute of the game and I had given up hope of being granted any game time. Suddenly my name was called and I was informed I would be heading on to the pitch. Like all late subs I was determined to make a difference, yet at the same time frustrated I had not been afforded more time to do so.
I headed onto the pitch and tried to get involved, but hardly touched the ball. In the 86th minute, Smith was substituted and left the field, walking passed me in the process. Little did I know, but that winger would go on to make 19 senior appearances for the England national team. I know right. I was so close to becoming a professional footballer it is untrue!
Fast forward several years and there I was in the Lowfields Road End at Elland Road with my pal Steve as we looked through the match day programme. We cheered “YES!” in unison when spotting a picture of Alan Smith signing youth terms at the club. It was a great feeling of accomplishment, like one of our own had made it. This was huge!
Talk grew amongst Leeds fans over the next few years about a precocious young talent in the youth ranks, held in high regards by the coaching staff.
The next big milestone came when he was named on the bench against Liverpool away in the 98/99 season. I was listening to the radio with my Dad, Leeds losing by a goal to nil with little over 10 minutes to play.
Suddenly Smith’s name was announced as he was set to come off the bench for his debut. I confidently predicted that Smith was going to score. My dad suggested a little caution, citing that being a young player he may need time to develop before being able to make an impact in the first team. Though his rationale was sound I rejected his comments out of hand.
It was strange, but I felt certain he was going to score. There was an air of excitement anyway, as always when a young player breaks through into the first team. In Smith I trusted. In true Roy of the Rovers fashion, he scored the equaliser with practically his first touch moments later. It proved to be the catalyst to change the game and Leeds ran out eventual 3-1 winners. I looked forward eagerly to see the highlights that evening on Match of The Day.
The most memorable aspect of Smith’s time at Leeds was not his goals, but his fearless attitude on the pitch. He would not be seen to shirk a tackle for his beloved hometown club and never did he display that more than in the battles against Arsenal. The way he would turn the air blue, shouting abuse and taunting the defensive behemoths of Martin Keown and Tony Adams.
Never before had I seen a young player with such blatant disregard for the reputations of the players who opposed him on the field. Adams and Keown were both renowned hard men of the game and few dared to throw down the gauntlet to either, let alone challenge them both together as a pair.
His performances against Arsenal are unquestionable among his finest in a Leeds shirt. Every time Smith came into contact with them he managed to crawl further under their skin. The look on the faces of Adams and Keown was priceless during these battles. As respected senior professionals of the game, this was not how they were used to being treated.
Smith destroyed them using one of the purest forms of psychological warfare I had seen deployed on a football field and they were left wondering how they had been dominated by this cocky, teenage upstart.
Smith carried the fire of every Leeds fan onto the field with him during his time at Elland Road. His departure to travel to the wrong side of the Pennines to sign for Manchester united left a sour taste in the mouth and for many, it was a decision that could never be forgiven. It was never his desire to leave the club and financial problems forced his hand.
Leeds fans will not take any pleasure from the injuries he sustained over the years causing him to fall short of the expectations once placed on him. Though he never reached his true potential, Leeds fans will probably agree they saw the best of him during his time at the club.
I for one will always look back fondly on his time at Leeds. I can say with pride that I shared the pitch with that lad; even if only for five short minutes over twenty years ago.
Featured Image – All Rights Reserved by John Blenkinsopp.