It may well have been the most popular double substitution Sir Alex Ferguson has ever made. Standing on the touchline with an hour played of Manchester United's Champions' League game against Copenhagen last Tuesday were Alan Smith and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, two warriors who have overcome career-threatening injuries to return to the battle.
The hugely popular Solskjaer, making his ninth appearance of the season, is almost a regular again, so the cheers were even louder for the muscular figure alongside him; following a five-minute cameo away to Benfica, Smith was back at Old Trafford, almost eight months to the day after the sickening blow he suffered at Liverpool in the FA Cup.
In rushing out to block John Arne Riise's fierce free-kick, Smith fractured a leg and dislocated an ankle, causing team-mates and opponents to look away in shock while summoning urgent medical assistance. A minority of home supporters indulged in distasteful chants; it will be instructive to observe the response from the Liverpool section if Smith should appear at some stage when the teams meet in Manchester this afternoon for the first time since that February day.
Naturally, he is desperate to do so, an inherently competitive edge only sharpened by Tuesday's half an hour in gentle circumstances as United eased to a 3-0 victory. It should have been four, but Smith missed an easy chance to celebrate his return with a 12th goal since joining United from Leeds for £7 million two summers ago. Fortunately, however, screwing the shot wide from a few yards out should hardly hamper United's prospects of qualifying for the knockout stage, and afterwards Man-chester's Tyke was in effervescent mood about the resumption of his career.
"It's brilliant. I just need games now to recover full fitness, but it's hard to get the matches because reserve-team football now is more like playing academy games. Especially with the Premiership now, it's so vital to keep winning, so it's difficult for the manager to leave out players, and this was probably the first chance he's had to change the team without any pressure."
Was there a mental hurdle to overcome along the way? "Not really, I think it just goes out of your mind. I've had a few whacks playing in the reserve games and they're always nice, because it shows that it's all right. The thing is, I did it so innocuously, it's not as if you're going into a tackle and thinking, 'Oh, my leg'."
With a 26th birthday on Saturday, Smith has also been around long enough to have drawn courage and inspiration from other players who have suffered serious injuries - the man alongside him on the touchline last week being foremost among them. "Ole is an inspiration. If you wanted to talk about mental attitude, Ole's the man to look to. Two years ago, people were talking about him having a testimonial, yet you look at him and he still seems as though he's 19 or 20. I mean, that's just good for everyone. When you know that you're injured for a long time, it's quite easy to get your head round it.
"You've got targets, you've got your routine and, fortunately for me, it was in a period where the season finished in May and didn't start again until late, so I had a long time in the off-season to get myself as fit as possible."
In the difficult early days, much time was spent answering mail; not just from United fans either, which surprised a player never regarded as the most popular outside his own club. "I'm not overwhelmed easily but a lot of the well-wishers did overwhelm me, to be honest. I could not tell you how much I've had from teams you wouldn't even think of. Port Vale sent me a shirt; I've got no connection with them, but they sent me a signed shirt. That means a lot to me.
"I got so many replica shirts it was a joke, Royal Mail bags full. You don't realise how much people think about you, fans from rival clubs, it's incredible. I was getting books sent from Chelsea fans and Liverpool fans, 'hope this helps you get over the injury' and so on, mad stuff, you don't really expect that from rival fans. I certainly didn't."
Some of the Chelsea followers might regret their generosity after hearing his take on how this season's Premiership is shaping up. Are United going to chase the champions seriously this time? "I think they've got to chase us at the minute. We've got players who are a year older and have got a year more experience and they've grown together. This year, you've seen different people come out of their shell more, like Darren Fletcher having a great season in central midfield, his natural position."
At the time of his injury, of course, Smith was also playing in that position, though nobody could pretend he was a natural there, let alone the new Roy Keane. Now United have wisely remembered that he is a striker. It should mean plenty of opportunities as his match-fitness returns, which he will welcome after realising during one frightening lunchtime at Anfield the fragile nature of the professional's lot.
"That could have been my last game," he explained. "So you've got to take every game, grasp it and give it 100 per cent. Not that I ever wouldn't. I haven't got a target to get back as a regular, but when I'm playing well and at my best, I'll be in this team."Reuse content