Countdown to the FA Cup Final: United for the cause

Once the heart and soul of Leeds, Alan Smith has quickly won over the Old Trafford fans.In a rare interview, He tells Phil Shaw why cup glory will give him a special reason to celebrate
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There can be no footballer whose trophy cabinet groans under the weight of gongs like Alan Smith's. The only problem, muses the Manchester United striker as he works towards what he hopes will be an FA Cup winner's medal against Arsenal on Saturday, is that they all date from when he was "a little kid". And they were won at BMX biking.

There can be no footballer whose trophy cabinet groans under the weight of gongs like Alan Smith's. The only problem, muses the Manchester United striker as he works towards what he hopes will be an FA Cup winner's medal against Arsenal on Saturday, is that they all date from when he was "a little kid". And they were won at BMX biking.

"There's hundreds, but not much from football," Smith says, even if a dozen England caps by the age of 24 is no mean tally for someone who "wasn't really interested in the game" until he turned 10. "I was British BMX champion when I was eight. Ask me to identify any moto-cross rider just from his bikes and I could do it. I still love bikes."

The cycle that brings Smith to the Millennium Stadium with United began with an FA Cup final. Wembley 1988 captured his seven-year-old imagination by conjuring one of the greatest upsets. He remembers Wimbledon as "massive underdogs" when they beat Liverpool. Some of their fabled commitment seems to have rubbed off on him, too.

Smith certainly showed it with his home-town team, Leeds United. When their progress was punctured by debts, defeats and defections, leading to last spring's relegation, the fans carried him like a conquering hero. He was soon on his way to Old Trafford.

United's fans knew of his allegiance to Leeds, where his parents still live, but the intensity of Smith's performances in a season of collective under-achievement has persuaded them to set aside their prejudices.

At a time when Malcolm Glazer's takeover is causing such uncertainty, here is a player who puts in on the pitch what the red hordes feel in their hearts. Smith has bitter experience of what debt can do to a club. Yet he is also aware that the players must focus on the task facing Sir Alex Ferguson's side in Cardiff. So the talk is of football rather than finance - and the final that "can't come quickly enough".

"I've crammed lots of highs and lows into my career," he reflects as we chat, surrounded by pictures of United triumphs at their training HQ. "But look at the photos and you can see what the FA Cup means to the players. That's the sort of thing I came here for. You never know when it will be your last final, and I never take anything for granted. Some great players never appear in one. If I'm fortunate enough to play, I'll treasure it."

United's 100 per cent record over Arsenal in this season's three meetings includes the infamous "pizzagate" match. "I was desperate to get on, and I did. The atmosphere was unbelievable. Games like that just fly by. This is the final everyone wanted. It's definitely the one we wanted.

"Growing up as a Leeds fan and player, I've never really known much of a Cup run. We got to the quarter-finals two years ago but lost at Sheffield United. That day was probably as badly as we played in my time there. Here, all the lads have played in FA Cup finals. Some have been to six. If they're really up for it, as they are, imagine what it means to me."

Whether or not he starts on Saturday is open to conjecture. He gave his customary workaholic display at Southampton last Sunday - but in midfield. There has been speculation that Ferguson sees that as his eventual position, perhaps channelling his natural aggression into the Roy Keane role. "I've heard that one," Smith chuckles, "but there's too many good midfielders here for me to get in there.

"I've played over a hundred games in that department and I don't mind a tackle. I also played there in the Champions' League against Lyon, and against Arsenal at home I ended up at right-back because we doubled up against Thierry Henry. If you can play different positions, it helps the manager when he's coping with injuries and suspensions. But I reckon Roy has a few years left in midfield, so I may have to wait!"

One charge levelled against Smith is that he does not score enough goals, yet his first 12 games for United brought a highly respectable six. "I felt I really settled in well. Then the gaffer rested a few of us in the Carling Cup at Chelsea. He put me on for the last five minutes and I tore my ankle ligaments. It cost me three and a half months of the season.

"The trouble with getting injured here is that it's a hard team to get back into. You have to bide your time and I've worked my way back in. The important thing is I believe in myself. If you can fit in with world-class players, you become a better player yourself. We've got fantastic strikers like Ruud [van Nistelrooy], Wayne [Rooney] and Louis [Saha], but you have to see the competition as a challenge. I feel I do offer something different in terms of my all-round game."

Brian Clough once said Stuart Pearce would run through a plate-glass window for Nottingham Forest. The same quality endeared Smith to Leeds United's followers. That, plus his ability as a player and his statement, on the television programme Soccer AM that he could never play for Manchester United. He explains: "I was a young lad and at that time I couldn't envisage Leeds ever being outside the Premiership. Simple as that. One lesson I've learnt is 'never say never'."

But why United? "Once Leeds were relegated, I knew I was going to sign for the best club I could. When I realised Manchester United were interested, with the mentality of the people and the manager here, I thought it was the ideal place to develop as a player."

His post-bag from Leeds was "mixed", though "the majority" understood he had stayed and fought when others did not. "In one sense I cared too much about the club. That's what made me stick it out to the end. It still frustrates me that I'll go down in history as part of the team that got relegated."

He was not surprised that some Leeds fans were angry when he followed Eric Cantona and Rio Ferdinand across the Pennines. "I'd have felt it myself because I know how strongly they feel about Manchester United. But I walked away knowing I did as much as I could for the club. There were lots of people who couldn't do that."

Ironically, it was Smith's point-saving header at United in February last year that convinced Ferguson to buy him. A picture of his celebration shows him with arms aloft before a hostile crowd. "It's weird that those same fans are now chanting for me. I think my performances have shown how much I care about doing well - whoever I'm playing for."

He does not, however, kiss the Red Devil badge after scoring and is confident United fans respect his decision. "I've never tried to hide that I'm a Leeds fan. It's a bit late for that now. But they know I'm committed to this club. The reaction has been better than expected. It used to be said I tried extra hard because it was Leeds, but supporters here can see that's just how I am. It's inside you: you never want to let anyone down."

If he let Leeds down, it was in leaving them a man short too often. His discipline improved last season because "it was vital I played every game". Four of his five cards at United have been yellow. "There's added responsibility playing for a club like this. And you can't afford to get suspended because some top player will take your place.

"I look back at some of the things I got sent off for and think: 'I shouldn't have done it'. You're going to pick up bookings for tackles. But the stupid ones, like lashing out with an elbow or fighting - you deserve whatever punishment you get for them."

Is it a relief not to have the baggage of being the local hero? "Definitely. I've felt less pressure here than trying to keep Leeds up last season, and I believe I've become a better player. I've also matured as a person. It's the first time I've lived away from my parents. Moving away has allowed me to relax more. Where I live now, people don't bat an eyelid."

If reports that he will leave to secure a regular starting place are correct, Smith may soon be on his bike again. "I'll definitely be here," he grins, "unless they want to sell me." He wants to stay and strive to enhance that modest medal haul by "having a right go" at the Premiership title.

First, with splendid symmetry, it is back to Cardiff, where he launched his United career with a stunning volleyed goal as Arsenal won the FA Community Shield. "I'd be well pleased if I could repeat that," Smith says with his trademark enthusiasm, "except with the result reversed."

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