During the 2005-06 season, Manchester United were short of options in midfield. Roy Keane and Paul Scholes were the starting pair, although the former only made a handful of appearances thanks to injury before leaving the club for Celtic in the November. That left us with a young Darren Fletcher and striker Alan Smith, who Sir Alex Ferguson opted to use in the middle of the park.
The best performance from Smith in this position came in United’s 1-0 win over Chelsea when we ended their 40-game unbeaten run, playing alongside Scholes and Fletcher, and up against Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Claude Makelele.
Speaking with the official United podcast, Smith has spoken about what it was like to be given the job of trying to fill Keane’s boots that season.
Roy Keane is probably impossible to replace as a player and as a character, especially at Manchester United. I still don’t think it’s been done now and it’s been crying out for someone like Roy Keane to be in the dressing room and on the field as Roy was. No-one could ever replicate it, so it was [about me] trying to do as good a job in a similar position. It wasn’t like, ‘you’re going to be a Roy Keane’. I could never do that job. It was a case of trying to learn and trying to understand the position that you’re playing in and do it to the best of your ability as a replacement for one of the best midfield players there has ever been. It was a difficult task and, like I said, it was one I would never be able to do it to that same level. I wouldn’t have had to do it as much as I did if Roy would have been as fit as normal. It would probably have been a longer process, rather than being thrown in through necessity. Ability-wise, I was probably put in there because I could tackle and I was brave enough to do it and physical enough to try and do it, not because my actual ability warranted going into that position. I had a great relationship with Roy and it was sad how he ended because he went to Celtic and I couldn’t learn anymore.
Watch Roy Keane at Nottingham Forest and when he first came to Manchester United and make your decision [on whether he was overrated] based on that. Because a lot of people forget and they don’t have a broad spectrum on actually the development of Roy as a player and how he evolved as a player through necessity, through injuries et cetera. For me, I don’t even have to answer that question because like you said, you only have to look at how good Roy Keane was as a box-to-box midfielder when he was a younger player and how good he was as a defensive midfielder towards the end of his career. You could ask any player that’s played with him or against him and I’d say 99 per cent of them would all have the same answer for you. For me, it’s not just a case of Roy being a leader. That’s so disrespectful to him as a footballer as well. You don’t play for Manchester United and captain them based on just being a leader. That’s such an unfair criticism of someone who’s probably been one of the Premier League’s greatest central midfield players.
It’s easy to see why Smith was the player Fergie opted to use in midfield, giving his battling nature and never say die approach to the game. What he lacked in ability, he made up for in effort, chasing down every ball and making tackles to win back possession regardless of the position he played. While not many football betting sites would have fancied Smith to replace Keane, the player recognises that his commitment to doing his best was his greatest attribute.
My biggest strength was being full on, 100 per cent committed, doing your best, running through a brick wall for someone. I feel like I was so grounded with my upbringing at Leeds that even when I went to Manchester United, at a bigger level, the characteristics of the clubs are very, very similar. The people who were involved in the club [Leeds], we had a lot of British influence, a Scottish influence with people like Eddie Gray who, historically at the club, demanded, first and foremost, 100 per cent work rate and effort. And the fans demand, the working-class fans – Blackburn fans, Leeds fans, Manchester United fans – they all demand the least that you do is give everything you have got to give them. That’s what people want to see. Even at Manchester United, who are on the next level, the fans still want to see working-class players who want to work hard for the club. That is a basic fundamental, and anything more that you can give them is great. But that was my main thing – I wanted to win every game, sometimes to my own detriment.
In the United dressing room he wasn’t short of role models when it came to having a winning mentality. Smith reckons there aren’t many teams in the history of football who could rival the United team he played in.
I look back and think, ‘What drives those lads to make sure that they get over the line every time?’ For me, that was the biggest difference, the experienced players just asked that much more of each other. And all different personalities. Keane, Giggs, Scholes, the Nevilles – all totally different personalities but all with an inner desire to be the best. Getting a group together like that, there have only been a few teams over the years, even over the history of football as I know it, a few teams who have managed to get to that level. Everyone is still searching to find that again.
People go into a dressing room and everyone there is a normal lad who has had a normal upbringing so we have all been in similar situations and that’s something that I always speak to the kids about – the best players who I have ever played with have always been the nicest people. [They were] great lads as well as great players. Going from Leeds to Man United, you think about, ‘What’s he going to be like, what’s so and so going to be like?’ Driving across in the car thinking, ‘Oh, my god, I’m going to sign for Manchester United tomorrow’. You get there and you go, ‘Well, they are just normal people.’ That’s why they did so well because they were actually just normal lads who pushed each other to levels that no one else could get to.