Ferguson feared fans' hatred would prevent Smith defecting to United

When Kevin Keegan was replaced by Kenny Dalglish in the dug-out at St James' Park, one Newcastle fan remarked that: "it was like seeing somebody else in bed with wor lass". Anyone crossing the Pennines yesterday to see Alan Smith sitting next to Sir Alex Ferguson beneath the banners of Manchester United would have felt like their favourite daughter had just married the black-hearted pit owner.

When Kevin Keegan was replaced by Kenny Dalglish in the dug-out at St James' Park, one Newcastle fan remarked that: "it was like seeing somebody else in bed with wor lass". Anyone crossing the Pennines yesterday to see Alan Smith sitting next to Sir Alex Ferguson beneath the banners of Manchester United would have felt like their favourite daughter had just married the black-hearted pit owner.

It was not always thus. When Joe Jordan left Elland Road for Old Trafford in 1978, his destination was largely uncontroversial. Asked if Yorkshiremen had seen his move to Manchester as a kind of betrayal, Jordan, who had led the Leeds attack in the European Cup final three years before, replied they had not. However, he had been born in Carluke, where the south-western fringes of Glasgow blur into the Lanarkshire hills, not a few miles from Elland Road. Leeds, although in slow decline, could also have counted themselves United's equals. This season the chasm between the two clubs is almost unbridgeable.

When in September 1994, Ferguson had spent an hour and a half at Elland Road with a woman just behind his dug-out screaming abuse at him for the duration of the match, the Manchester United manager commented that he found the hatred incomprehensible. If it had been Manchester City or Liverpool, he would have understood. But Leeds? However, when Rio Ferdinand returned to Elland Road eight years later to the Judas banners and a stadium full of poison, Ferguson would have been in no doubt what his players could expect.

"The only problem I had with Alan was whether he wanted to come here," Ferguson said yesterday. "He is a Leeds boy and I found that a difficult one. It would have been easier for him to take one of the half-a-dozen offers he had. When previously we had discussed him at staff level the feeling amongst us was: 'Oh he'll never come to United'."

When Leeds were relegated at Bolton, Smith's face was flooded with tears, the club badge, which he had so often kissed, was stained with vain sweat. His parents, back in Rothwell, were Leeds fans, so were his friends and leaving must have been a very bitter choice. "At some point in your life you have to go down a different path and the decision was easier than if Leeds had still been in the Premiership," Smith said. "If circumstances change, you have to change as a person. Your parents want what you want and, generally, if you make a decision they will stick by you. If you listened to what everybody else said, you would be left in no man's land, you'd be all over."

Smith has frequently been "all over". Ferguson will be his sixth manager in two years and some have farmed him out on the right wing, while others have employed him as a support to the main striker. When he travelled to Gothenburg for England's friendly with Sweden in March, Smith commented that he wanted to be given a decent chance to prove himself as a forward. He had his chance in the Ullevi Stadium all right but as a right winger.

Ferguson, a combative centre-forward himself, has no doubts. Smith, he said, had "been through all the gamuts of emotion" and now was the time for reassurance. "We have discussed that ourselves. Alan is a centre-forward, a real, old-fashioned, aggressive front-running player. The fact he has played other positions is only incidental as far as I am concerned."

Jordan, a similar type of player to Smith, thought he would thrive at Old Trafford. "I was older than Alan when I went which made a difference but he'll find that Eddie Gray, who Alan was very close to, has the same values as Alex Ferguson," Jordan said. "Manchester United is a big challenge but Alan is a very competitive man with a great attitude."

Attitude counts for plenty with Ferguson. Yesterday he voiced the familiar theme that Smith had been the one man to have fought hard against Leeds' fate, just as Roy Keane's desperate struggles to keep Nottingham Forest afloat so impressed him a decade or more ago. However, the fact is that Smith scored nine goals last season, four fewer than Mark Viduka, whose commitment was so often questioned in Yorkshire.

Yesterday Ferguson made other comparisons. With Smith, Louis Saha and Ruud van Nistelrooy, he now boasts the kind of strikeforce United possessed when winning the European Cup five years ago with Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solksjaer. "That's where we have been short in the last couple of years, having four strikers who would give you a problem every Saturday about which two you pick."

Smith, he said, had the kind of aggression Ferguson relished in his team of a decade ago, which with Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Bryan Robson muscled its way to the title. "This team has more technical ability but there are two ways of being brave and one is to want the ball."

Jordan said he went to Manchester United for the simple reason of improving himself as a player. Yesterday Smith stated that, "if you took the background away", Old Trafford was a logical destination, certainly far more so than either St James' Park or the vipers' nest that Goodison Park now appears to be.

Smith makes no apology for leaving: "They paid no money for me, I'd come through the academy ranks, so anything Leeds made would be pure profit. Before, I'd just enjoyed playing first for my local team and then for a team I cared about. When money comes into it, it's difficult to accept and so I just wanted to come to the best place I could.

"I spoke to Rio a little bit and he said that it takes a lot of courage to go from Leeds to Manchester United but if I wanted to improve as a footballer, I should do it. But it was different for me than for Rio because I am from Leeds but if you are a certain type of character you can make that step."

* Nicky Butt is expected to travel to America with Manchester United today despite renewed speculation linking him with a move to Newcastle. United have received no firm offer for the England midfielder and Butt is likely to be part of the squad that embarks on the 10-day, three-match tour.

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