I recently interviewed Alan Smith, ex Arsenal no 9, double Golden boot winner, 89 Anfield scorer, Scorer of the goal that beat Parma in the 1994 Uefa cup winners cup final, and a whole lot more.
Alan is now a Sky commentator, and Daily Telegraph columnist. The interview covered his career on the pitch, and his work today and the modern game, this is part one of a two part article
Alan Smith aka Smudger to his close friends and ex team mates is probably one of Arsenal’s biggest heroes, certainly when you look at his achievements he should be right up there. When you look at his contribution on the pitch, and on that night in 89, that is forever stuck in all Arsenal fans minds, he certainly is one of our biggest heroes.
So why is Alan Smith, not spoken of more? Why isn’t he mentioned as much as some of the others?
The reason I set out to do this article was to show why Alan Smith is indeed an Arsenal, hero up there with the best. I wanted to show fans and particularly younger fans, what a vital and massive part of the team Alan was when he played for us.
When I started talking to people who knew him personally, I found the reason why maybe he isn’t talked about so much. When I asked him about his goal vs Parma he didn’t comment, and even didn’t want to take credit for his assist to Mickey Thomas at Anfield.
Alan is a modest pragmatic and professional guy now, and was then, but I’ll let someone really close to him describe him
Alan Smith Football career statistics
Club appearances and goals
Season by Season Stats
I won’t try to tell you my version, let Alan Smith tell you it in his own words
LHW – Can you explain or remember how you felt when you were playing for Alvechurch and Jock Wallace’s Leicester offered you a full time contract?
AS – I was at Coventry Polytechnic and playing for Alvechurch when Leicester City signed me. I tried to find a way of continuing my studies whilst playing professional football, but it wasn’t possible. That said, I didn’t feel this was a gamble as Leicester offered me a four-year contract. I was thrilled. I actually thought before this, that professional football had passed me by. At the time I was busy thinking about what I was going to do with my degree, but along came Leicester City.
LHW- What was your first day at Leicester like, did you feel over awed?
AS – I was terrified on my first day. I had only just passed my driving test too, so getting to Leicester was a big nervous affair in itself. I walked into a dressing room dominated by Scottish lads. It was noisy, and full of banter. The main thing I noticed about becoming a pro was the full time training. I was so knackered at first. But I was loving the life. I was still living at home in Birmingham with my parents and so I shared the driving every day with some other lads who lived my way – Steve Lynex and Bob Hazel amongst others.
LHW- in 1982 Gordon Milne took over at Leicester from Jock Wallace, how did it feel at the time with the manager changing, did you have doubts about your future ?
AS- I hadn’t expected to get in the first team straight away but when Gordon Milne took over from Jock Wallace in pre-season he gave me a chance on the opening day.
It is obvious Milne appreciated Alan’s talents and his youth players more than his old guard
“In a practise game between the old guard and the younger players I thought the young group look a bit lively. As well as “Smudger” (Alan Smith) we had a raw Gary Lineker and Stevie Lynex. I used to think that Stevie could get us 12 goals a season and Alan and Gary could each get us 20, so we weren’t going to get relegated”. – Gordon Milne Leicester manager. (Quote courtesy of Lcfc.com)
LHW- In your time at Leicester you had a prolific partnership with Lineker, how did you work together?
AS – My partnership with Gary more or less clicked straight away. His style which was running behind defences, really complemented and suited my back-to-play style. We worked on it in training but it felt pretty natural.
LHW- When you became the main striker at Leicester did you feel it was more difficult?
AS- It was difficult when Gary left. They were all wondering how we would manage without him. The onus was on me to produce a few more goals and I managed to do that. Funnily enough, when Gary left I was able to get into his old positions and score even more goals.
LHW- How did you cope with that expectation, it is obvious you delivered from the stats but given the pressure on players today, did that pressure play on your mind, how did you cope with that.
AS- I can’t remember ever feeling too much pressure. I just got on with it. I have always been very level-headed. I really was never was one for getting too excited about doing well, and didn’t get too down about failing. That pragmatism, helped me a lot in my career I think.
LHW- When you were transferred to Arsenal the deal loaned you back to Leicester for a season, and you had to play against your new team before you had even started at Arsenal, that must have been a strange feeling? (today it couldn’t happen) How did you cope in that game or was it just another game for you?
That game when Alan as an Arsenal player played for Leicester on loan from Arsenal
AS- I signed for Arsenal in March 87 on deadline day. Because Leicester were fighting relegation the two clubs agreed I could return to Leicester on loan to help in the fight. Playing for City at Highbury was so weird. I asked if I could swerve it but Gordon Milne said he needed me. Everyone has heard this story by now – me waving at both sets of fans and getting a bollocking from a teammate (Gary McAllister). I was glad when the ref blew the final whistle. (Leicester lost 4-1)
LHW- How did arriving for the first time at Highbury feel, what were your impressions?
AS- I remember being shown around Highbury by Steve Burtenshaw, the chief scout. He took me out on to the pitch and said “Alan, many strikers have worn the number nine shirt here but not many have succeeded. It takes something special to cope with the expectation”. I thought, “’Bloody hell! What have I got myself into here?”
LHW- How was your first impression of George Graham?
AS- George Graham was away in Portugal with the team at the time I arrived. We met for the first time when he got back. You could tell straight away he was going to be a hard man to please.
LHW- What were your impressions of your team mates, how did they react to you, was there an initiation ceremony?
AS- All the lads welcomed me on my first day. No there was no initiation ceremony. But I could certainly feel the rise in standard after only a few minutes of training. This Arsenal squad were better players than at the ones I knew at Leicester.
LHW- I asked you earlier about pressure to deliver at Leicester, how much more pressure was there or did you feel there was more pressure to do the business at Arsenal.
AS- This was going to be tougher, and more was expected of course. Match days felt much different – there was more pressure, far more scrutiny, especially with Arsenal constantly being in the papers. I remember when I hadn’t scored after three games, the headlines were saying Arsenal were going to sign Kerry Dixon to replace me. (Thanks god we didn’t LHW). That kind of speculation took a bit of getting used to but I did and responded accordingly.
LHW- How do players cope with mental pressure; surely there isn’t a position with more pressure than the one you excelled in
AS- When it came to pressure, for me it wasn’t a problem, if I was playing with confidence. Everything flowed. You didn’t over-analyse anything. It was only when the goals dried up that I felt some pressure. That’s when you’ve got to dig in and show some character. Keep working hard in training, keep volunteering in matches.
LHW- Did you meet George Armstrong, how do you remember “Geordie” as he was known do you have any anecdotes about time with him?
AS – Geordie Armstrong was reserve team manager for most of my time at the club, so I only really trained with him when I was struggling or coming back from injury. But I will never forget the shuttle runs he used to put us through on the training ground car park. Very tough but very good for fitness.
LHW- Can you explain how an injury affects your mentality when you first come back?
Do you feel hesitant to challenge for a ball, does it make you pull back from a 50/50, I ask as we saw Pires and now Walcott go through the same thing. I remember you being injured but never saw you do either of these things so I am guessing again it is a mental thing?
AS- When you are coming back from injury you always feel a little hesitant. But once you sprint a few times and come through a few challenges you forget about the injury.
LHW- Did you take part in the famed ‘Everyone vs the famous back 4 defence” training sessions, did it help hone your game to have to try to outdo Adams and co?
AS- George Graham would regularly get myself and Merse (Paul Merson) to take on the back four, with maybe a couple of wingers too and a midfielder serving up the ball. We would do it for ages, until we were blue in the face. There weren’t many times when we would break through that barrier.
LHW- During the game at Anfield in 1989 , when you scored the first goal, do you remember the kafuffle of Liverpool players trying to claim you hadn’t touched the ball and saying the indirect kick flew straight in ?
Steve Nicol told me he was trying to persuade the ref that you hadn’t touched the ball from the indirect free kick, did that affect you or were you just ecstatic to score.
Seems like Nicol knew Alan Smith scored here judging by the look on his face!
AS- When the Liverpool lads complained to the referee, after I scored my goal, I wasn’t quite sure why. But watching on, I was convinced the ref was going to disallow the goal. Only after the game, did I find out that some of the Liverpool players thought I hadn’t touched it. The others thought the linesman had raised his flag for offside. It was a great relief when the ref pointed to the centre circle.
LHW- In those last minutes as Lee Dixon pumped the ball up to you, and you flicked the ball to the onrushing Mickey Thomas, I saw you spin and watch and run to the side. How did you feel watching him go through to score there?
AS – I had the perfect view of Micky running through on goal. In my mind I was just begging him to shoot before someone got a tackle in. But Micky never rushed anything. He did things in his own time. And thank God he did here too.
Watch the goal again and watch Alan Smith control the ball and hook it straight in to Micky Thomas’ path, a magnificent piece of control and passing in a flash
LHW- When he did score you were the second to reach him, with Liverpool players dumbfounded lying all around you.
Have you ever considered you probably made the most worthy and biggest assist ever in Arsenal’s history, possibly English football i.e. the flick that led to the breaking of Liverpool’s hold on English football?
LHW- Alan was too modest to answer the above question, but I had to ask the question
LHW- When did the enormity of what the team achieved that night sink in?
AS – We sat in the dressing room afterwards, we all agreed that nothing ever would top this night. Even then, we knew how unusual and dramatic it was. Strangely as time goes by, the achievement of that night seems to have grown in stature. For me it really feels like an honour to have been involved in one of the most famous matches ever.
LHW- You won two Golden boots, one in 88/89 season when you scored 25 goals and the second in 1990-91 with 22 goals, how much does winning that trophy mean to you and to a striker?
AS- To be honest, I never thought I would win a Golden Boot. So to go on and win two was amazing. They are great mementoes to have as a reminder of those seasons.
LHW- How did the squad deal with George Graham’s distance and harsh side, I am told David Rocastle cried when GG told him he was to be sold, Anders Limpar’s comments on that issue are well documented and not diplomatic. What did the squad think of that and similar acts?
AS- George was always a hard taskmaster. I know it was hard for him to tell Rocky that he was no longer required, since he loved Rocky as a person and he respected his honesty. As Rocky came back from the boss’s car and told us he was leaving we couldn’t believe it.
Everyone was gutted that such a popular lad was leaving the club. I loved playing with him and, as he was a close friend, it was very difficult for me personally. But we all knew the score. This is what happens in football.
LHW- The 91 squad were 90 minutes away from becoming the 1st modern invincibles, did any of you realise this at the time?
Note from LHW the 91 league winning side were deducted two points for the Old Trafford brawl, still won the league losing only one game and conceding only 18 goals! The loss to Middlesex in the cup semi final prevented the double.
AS- We were gutted to lose that game at Chelsea but there was a feeling that it was just one step too far. Mind you, we were even more disappointed to miss out on winning the Double when we lost to Spurs in the FA Cup semi. That was hard to take.
LHW- Your opportunities for England were limited, did that annoy you?
AS- I loved every moment of my time with England. Yes, I would have liked to have won more caps, and possibly to have resumed my Leicester partnership with Gary Lineker, but it was never easy adjusting to different teammates and different systems. My big regret, though, was just missing out on Italia 90 when Steve Bull was picked instead of me. It was hard to watch that tournament on TV.
LHW- You were booked only once in your whole career, only bettered by Gary Lineker (which I bet he goes on about if you meet !) who was never booked , the booking you received was in many’s eyes harsh, did that rankle that an overzealous referee besmirched your gentleman pro reputation ?
AS- Ah yes, well the booking at Wembley in the Final against Wednesday (1993) was just one of those things. “Ungentlemanly Conduct” the FA letter in the post said, because I delayed the taking of a free kick. I didn’t then and don’t mind now. I framed that letter and it always makes me smile. Mind you, I would never get away with avoiding bookings now. It was much easier to do so back then.
LHW- When you didn’t play football what did you do when not training, I can’t envisage you as a member of the infamous Tuesday club
AS- Ah, yes, the Tuesday Club. I did go along quite a few times, though not for quite as long as some! We had some real laughs out on the town and a good session on the Tuesday would sort out our stress levels afterwards. Today you could never do that, mainly because fitness levels have increased so much. Of course I had young children at the time like quite a few of the lads so I would go home in the afternoons and spend time with them instead.
LHW- Do you miss playing and If you could go back in time, and you could change one thing in Alan Smith’s glittering career at Leicester City and Arsenal, what would you change?
AS- I don’t miss playing football these days. I had my spell and I really enjoyed it but I was never the type who missed the roar of the crowd and all the adulation. Would I change anything in my career? Yes I would.
I never believe people who insist they have no regrets. I would have wanted to score more goals in my last few years at Arsenal. Those were tough times personally, with injuries and goals drying up, especially when I had been used to scoring regularly. But you can’t have it all. I have so much to be grateful for. So many wonderful memories during my 13 years in the game.
Alan’s assist at Anfield in 1989 was one of the most important in our club’s history, in one of the biggest games of football ever. That night Arsenal thanks to that assist and Micky Thomas’ finishing ended Liverpool’s domination of English football, and they have never really recovered from it.
I won’t say anymore about Alan’s sublime finishing, But Steve Nicol of Liverpool who played versus Arsenal in 1989 kindly had this to say about Alan Smith as a player.
His beautiful goal in Copenhagen won Arsenal the UEFA cup winners cup, just watch it here, and then watch the replay from behind the goal itself.
In part two I talk to Alan about his life as a commentator, writing in the Daily Telegraph, and his thoughts on the modern game. We also talk about defending today and pressure on players, social media and Alan’s thoughts on Olivier Giroud and Arsene Wenger’s recent comparison between the two players.
Follow me @Lordhillwood and Alan Smith at @9Smudge and follow @Gunnerstown and be sure to leave a comment.
For Part 2 of Lord Hillwood’s exclusive interview with Alan Smith, click here.
Lordhillwood (aka Steve) has been an Arsenal fan for 50 years, and was a season ticket holder at Highbury for 37 years. In the last 5 of those years he flew in and out for home games, and attended many away Champion league fixtures, despite working and living in Warsaw, Poland.
He was a member of the Bergkamp Wonderland podcast and featured in Little Bit Arsenal’s podcast and writes regularly for the Arsenal Identity blog . He still manages to get to London despite work and fatherhood to see games and meet friends.