Alan Smith is poised to join Manchester United in a move that will further infuriate Leeds United's disillusioned supporters. The England striker, who was yesterday put on stand-by for the European Championship finals, spent the day in Manchester talking with United representatives.
As a lifelong Leeds United fan Smith is well-aware of the trans-Pennine antipathy, a rivalry which will not have been dimmed by Leeds' relegation. He will have seen at close hand the abuse that Rio Ferdinand and Eric Cantona received from Leeds fans following their transfers to Manchester United.
However, last week Smith refused to rule out a move to Old Trafford. He argued that with Leeds heading for the Nationwide League, Manchester United were no longer rivals. "I'm not ruling anything out," he said.
With Sir Alex Ferguson a long-time admirer of the 23-year-old striker, that was all the encouragement the deposed champions needed. Smith was contacted and quickly decided United were his first choice. Assuming he is able to agree terms, his move will disappoint several Premiership clubs including Newcastle United, Middlesbrough and Birmingham City. There was also foreign interest in Smith, notably from Juventus and Valencia.
The two Uniteds are yet to agree a fee but Leeds have little bargaining power. Though Smith is under contract, their financial crisis means they must remove him from the wage bill. If Smith insists it he is only interested in Manchester United they could offer a derisory fee, as Liverpool did last year to secure Harry Kewell for £5m, £2m of which went to his agent. However, with Smith insisting he still loves Leeds, and wants to come back to play for them, a more reasonable price, perhaps £6m, may be agreed.
The transfer will fuel speculation that Ruud van Nistelrooy will, after all, leave Old Trafford for Spain. Like Van Nistelrooy, Smith works well outside the box and his game should dovetail with Louis Saha. However, he has never been a prolific goalscorer and Ferguson would prefer to keep the Dutchman. With Ole Gunnar Solskjaer expected to leave Old Trafford, Diego Forlan a failure and David Bellion looking likewise, Ferguson would be left short of strikers.
One of Ferguson's first tasks will be to curb Smith's temper. The forward has been dismissed 11 times including once for England. Frustration usually appears the motivation, often at his or his team's performance. This may ease if he is not playing for his home-town club. The irony is that off the field Smith, teetotal and a regular volunteer for community work, is the perfect professional.
That international dismissal, against Macedonia in October 2003, has severely hampered his England career. He was omitted for more than a year then sent home after being called up against Denmark in November. It had emerged he was under police arrest after throwing a bottle into the Elland Road crowd after the Carling Cup defeat against Manchester United. No charges were preferred and he appeared as substitute in England's last two matches. This took his total of England caps to eight with one goal.
Smith would follow Paul Robinson out of Elland Road, the goalkeeper, who was named in the England squad yesterday, joining Tottenham for just £1.5m. Tottenham also had a bid rejected for James Milner, who is now interesting Newcastle. Mark Viduka and Dominic Matteo are also expected to leave as Leeds, heavily in debt, prepare for the £20m drop in income relegation brings.