The Monday Profile: Alan Smith
How many former England internationals are there currently plying their trade in the third tier? Not many, I’d wager. And how many League One players can boast that they once appeared in a Champions League semi-final against Valencia (even if that appearance was curtailed by a red card)? Again, not many. But, as of 29th January this year, there is at least one: Alan Smith. Even still, us Newcastle fans would be very wary of hiring a tent from the MK Dons fan who claimed Smith was a “marquee loan signing“…
Smudger started out with hometown club Leeds, whose fans soon took to the wholehearted local lad, twice awarding him the accolade of Supporters’ Player of the Year. Vilified as a traitor when he left the relegated Whites for Man Utd in 2004, Smith was converted to a defensive midfielder (apparently at the suggestion of Roy Keane) by Fergie, who belatedly realised that goalshyness wasn’t actually a particularly good trait in a striker. The Yorkshireman might possibly have made a name for himself across the Pennines had he not suffered a career-threatening injury at Anfield in 2006. Sidelined for eight months, he never regained a regular first-team place at Old Trafford and, in the summer of 2007, Newcastle stepped in to take him to Tyneside.
Smith had scored on his senior debuts for both of his former clubs, and repeated the trick by grabbing the only goal of a pre-season friendly win over Italian outfit Sampdoria. Talk about flattering to deceive. We were soon disabused of the notion that we might have bought a striker, though remained baffled as to what role our new £6m man actually WAS capable of performing. Sam Allardyce’s brand of combative, direct football should theoretically have helped make the most of his prosaic talents, and yet games would go on around him. It’s telling that even when our defence was shipping goals at an alarming rate as we waged an ultimately unsuccessful battle against relegation from the Premier League in 2008-9, Smith’s appearances were few and far between.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise, though, that Smith instantly looked more at home and valuable in the Championship. Faced with less pacy, more modestly skilled creative players, he started to assume the assured air of a man in control rather than all at sea, breaking up attacks and generally leading by example – even if he did still pick up the odd booking and early bath. And his commitment to the cause wasn’t restricted to on-field contributions. When we suffered a humiliating 6-1 pre-season trouncing at Leyton Orient, he was apparently one of the group of senior pros who held a players’ inquest, demanding that those uninterested in turning out in the second tier (Obafemi Martins, Habib Beye) pack their bags and urging a togetherness and unity among the remaining squad. Much of our subsequent rehabilitation can be traced back to that incident.
Smudger featured less in the second half of that promotion-winning campaign, though, and back in the top flight he reverted to being the “slow, clumsy bludger” (as I once put it) of yore, leaden-footed and all too easily out-thought. Of course it didn’t help that we brought in Cheick Tiote, another yellow card magnet but one whose ability to protect the defence was inestimably greater. There remained the suspicion, though, that Smith’s sidelining might partly also be a consequence of Mike Ashley’s desire to crush those with significant influence in the dressing room, just as the owner gave Chris Hughton the boot for being too close and too easily manipulated by his squad.
The forgotten man has been restricted to just a couple of cameos in black and white this season, his appearance suggesting that he’s spent most of his time out of action cultivating the sort of prodigious mane of which a salon-coiffed lion would be jealous. Even Smith himself admitted: “I’ve been more like the head cheerleader this season“. Not an ideal situation for a player who is now 31 and who will be out of contract in the summer – so when an offer of first-team football came in, even from a club two divisions below the level Smith still believes he’s capable of playing at, it was gratefully accepted.
Upon sealing the signing, delighted MK Dons manager Karl Robinson declared: “I would publicly like to thank Alan Pardew and Newcastle United for going the extra mile to help us complete this deal“. That “extra mile“, it was claimed, was to continue paying £57,500 of Smith’s £60,000-a-week salary. If true, it could hardly be said that we’d managed to shift him off the books. It would also echo the situation last season when Cardiff were able to boast a loanee, Craig Bellamy, whose wages they could only afford with considerable assistance from his parent club Man City – surely, like the Bluebirds’ Championship rivals, MK Dons’ opponents would have good grounds for complaining about a distinctly uneven playing field.
Unsurprisingly, Smith has been a regular since arriving in Buckinghamshire, employed in both attacking and defensive roles while continuing to collect bookings like a good restaurant in the run-up to Valentine’s Day. If he can bring to the Dons midfield what he did to ours as we came to terms with life in the Championship, then he could prove to be an extremely valuable asset in their push for promotion. Off the field, too, his experience will no doubt come in handy for a rookie manager like Robinson and young players coming through the ranks, including fellow Toon loanee James Tavernier.