Smith faces fans' anger over move to hated United

Alan Smith's choice of logo for the range of casual clothing that bears his name was a scorpion. Now the striker who became a figurehead for Leeds United followers appears likely next season to be donning the shirt that their supporters disdain above all others, that of Manchester United. Talk about a sting in the tale.

Alan Smith's choice of logo for the range of casual clothing that bears his name was a scorpion. Now the striker who became a figurehead for Leeds United followers appears likely next season to be donning the shirt that their supporters disdain above all others, that of Manchester United. Talk about a sting in the tale.

Smith was the club's most popular player since Billy Bremner. His cult status was confirmed by the 20-minute love-in between himself and thousands of pitch invaders after the home match against Charlton 10 days ago. Not only had he stayed at Elland Road while others bailed out, but his commitment to the cause remained as fierce as any fan's.

A week earlier, on the day Leeds' relegation from the Premiership became a reality in a crushing defeat at Bolton, Smith had stated his intention to remain in the top flight. He had an international career to think about, he explained, though he hoped that one day, when Leeds were in a healthier state, on and off the pitch, he might return.

Smith had two years on his contract, but even if he had been prepared to stay until, say, Christmas to see whether Leeds were well-placed for promotion, a club looking to slash its wage bill simply could not afford to keep him. His "ambition" was reluctantly accepted by the adoring hordes. Whether their understanding attitude will survive a switch to Old Trafford must, however, be doubtful.

Gordon McQueen, a former Leeds player, was astounded last year to see his name on a T-shirt listing the "traitors", like Eric Cantona, Rio Ferdinand and Joe Jordan, who had defected to Manchester United. After all, McQueen noted, it was a quarter of a century ago. The teetotal Smith was more popular than any of them. Leeds-born, bred and buttered, he was the fan who played in the team.

He scored with his first touch at senior level, firing the equaliser in a 3-1 win at Liverpool two minutes after being sent on by David O'Leary in 1998, a fortnight after his 18th birthday. A week later, on his home debut, he repeated the feat against Charlton, though he became known for his work-rate and disciplinary problems rather than clinical finishing.

O'Leary appeared unconvinced that he offered sufficient scoring threat, buying a clutch of other strikers such as Michael Bridges, Mark Viduka, Robbie Keane and Robbie Fowler. Yet he saw that Smith was too good to leave out, often playing him in a right-sided midfield role.

Smith's natural aggression was often improperly channelled. He would sprint 30 yards to make a sliding tackle on a defender clearing upfield and, inevitably, he sometimes took the man rather than the ball. His style of receiving the ball with his back to goal also led to confrontations with opponents who alleged he was too free with his elbows.

The red cards came regularly ­ most notably in the Champions' League semi-final in Valencia, in an FA Cup defeat at Cardiff which many Leeds-watchers now identify as the beginning of the end for O'Leary, and even for England against Macedonia. Hapoel Tel Aviv's captain, Shimon Gershon, called him "the dirtiest player in Europe" after a Uefa Cup game (Smith's revenge was to score four times in the second leg).

Sven Goran Eriksson, whose tenure with Lazio he had helped to end by scoring Leeds' winner there in the Champions' League, professed himself an admirer. Smith duly scored against Portugal on his full England debut, but he continued to be regarded as a potentially loose cannon.

Last autumn he lobbed an empty plastic bottle back into the crowd during a game against Manchester United. He was suspended for two matches but on returning in January it was clear that he and the caretaker manager, Eddie Gray, had worked hard at controlling his temper.

A 10th booking would have incurred a suspension which Leeds could ill afford. The effort remained lung-bursting and the Billy Idol hair ensured he stood out as much as ever. But the self-styled scorpion was not cautioned once in his final 17 games, hinting at a new maturity which can have only enhanced his desirability in the eyes of Sir Alex Ferguson.

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