Exclusive Interview: Alan Smith

James Rowe for The Secret Footballer

JR. “Alan, what a pleasure!  Many thanks for taking the time to talk to me at TSF this afternoon.  Let’s start with everybody’s second favourite club… You played for five seasons with Leicester City making over 200 appearances…

AS. “That’s right, and I look back with a lot of fondness, there is no question about that. Leicester City were my first club and it was a family club, it was very friendly then and it still is now.  It was the perfect beginning and the perfect stage for me because I joined the club when they were in the old second division, we gained promotion in my first season but I wasn’t expecting to be in the team. 

Jock Wallace signed me but he left shortly after, he told me that I would be in the reserves for a couple of years to learn my trade because I had come from Alvechurch FC in Non League. But when Gordon Milne came in he cleared out a lot of Jock's players and he gave me my chance.  To gain promotion in our first season was amazing because within 12 months I had gone from Non League to the top flight.  

I was actually up there and playing against household names.  I will never forget playing against West Ham United and the morning after there was a shot in one of the tabloids of me and Trevor Brooking tussling for the ball and I just couldn't believe it because Trevor was one of my heroes.  It just brought it home that I was playing in the top flight.  

Leicester City are a great club and I was lucky that I forged a partnership quickly with Gary Lineker so that helped, our games naturally gelled and that did help me a lot.”

JR.  He gets everywhere that Lineker chap!  After Leicester came eight seasons with Arsenal FC where you scored two of the most important goals in the club's history, the first at Anfield in 89 and the second in Copenhagen in 94… I mean if you want to become a club legend….

AS. “I am very proud to have pulled on that famous red and white shirt.  It's a club with great history, standing and tradition and it is a club where there is a lot of scrutiny.  I noticed that having come from Leicester City where if you have two or three games without scoring it’s not a big deal, but all of a sudden at Arsenal FC the papers would say that the club is after a new striker, that never would have happened at Leicester City. 

I was fortunate in some ways in that I joined at the start of a really successful period.  I looked at George Graham and he looked like a man that was going places and meant business.  I also looked at the youth team players coming through in Tony Adams, David Rocastle, Michael Thomas, Paul Merson… these kind of characters were very talented and it looked to me like Arsenal FC were on the up. 

I could have gone to Manchester United and Chelsea FC before that but I had a good feeling about Arsenal.  Sometimes in football you need a bit of good fortune, I joined at a great time and I look back with a lot of great memories.  Winning the league at Anfield in 1989 was the biggest moment for me and for all my teammates I think, I mean, to do it in that fashion in the last seconds of the game against such a fantastic Liverpool FC team.. and on their own patch… it was storybook stuff.  I don't think any team is going to overtake that. 

The Uefa Cup Winners Cup against Parma in Copenhagen in 1994 was marvellous because Arsenal FC have only won two European trophies which is amazing in itself. So to have been a big part of that and to have played for Arsenal FC for eight years and to have been their centre forward more or less right through that period… well, it was a great honour.”

JR. “It is astonishing that Arsenal only have two European trophies.  Aside from the clubs collective success at this time, you also won the First Division Golden Boot twice in three seasons in 1989 and 1991.  You must have been pretty sought after around Europe at that time?

AS '' Arsenal FC were probably contacted but nothing too much came to me directly, it’s different now, back then I never really had an agent to speak of so there was not that avenue to go through.  Maybe Arsenal FC did have offers and I never found out about them and George Graham knocked them back. 

I was linked with Valencia CF when I was at Leicester City towards the end and I quite fancied going to Spain because I have got a background in languages and I studied French and German at university, I just thought living in another country would have been a fantastic experience.  I had seen Gary Lineker go to Barcelona and grasp the language and the culture but it never quite happened for me.  

Towards the end of my career at Arsenal FC, Nagoya Grampus Eight, where Gordon Milne my old Leicester City manager had gone, wanted to team me back up with Gary Lineker but it didn’t quite happen.  I am always a little bit envious of players that go abroad and make a career because I think it adds something to you as a person as well as a footballer.”

JR. “Even so, you played in England at a time when some serious heavyweights were plying their trade.  

AS. “That’s right, it’s difficult to compare defenders to attackers because they are two different jobs but when I played with England Bryan Robson was just a marvellous footballer, a real all round player who could do absolutely everything.  He was two footed and great in the air and he was also as brave as a lion, he could score goals and he was a wonderful player to train and play with. 

I also played with Paul Gascoigne when he was at his peak fitness wise and he was something really special, you just could not get the ball off him.  He was obviously one in a million in terms of his personality and character.  I also played with some of the best defenders that England has ever seen with that famous back four and the likes of David ''Rocky'' Rocastle.  And great strikers too, such as Gary Lineker.  

I think Ian Wright was the best finisher in terms of his instinct for goal, and the best that I played with, maybe even better than Gary, because Ian was just a one off, but I was lucky to have played with different sorts of players and some great lads and great professionals.’’

JR. “On the International stage you played against some of the best defenders in the world, who stands out?”

AS. “I remember playing against Germany at Wembley Stadium and it was the first time they had come over as a unified nation.  I played against two fantastic centre halves in Jürgen Köhler who played for Bayern Munich, Juventus and Borussia Dortmund and Guido Buchwald who made over 300 appearances for VfB Stuttgart.  They hardly gave me a kick.  I believe that Buchwald had man marked Diego Maradona in the World Cup Final at Italia 90 the year before and they were both so quick and strong that everything I came up with they could match.  It was a really difficult night and we lost 1-0 so that is the level that we are talking about. 

I also came up against some brilliant players in England as well, Kenny Dalglish was a big favourite of mine and he was a wonderful footballer, but I always think back to Jürgen Köhler and Guido Buchwald as two of my hardest opponents.”

JR. “Alan I really appreciate your time today, I know you’re a busy man these days.  Let’s finish with your coaches, who stands out?

AS  “Well I only had two managers.  I had Gordon Milne for four of the five years before Bryan Hamilton took over in my final year at Leicester City.  But Gordon was a big influence on my career.  He came from Bill Shankly’s Liverpool FC school and he got promoted and won the league with the club.  He was a real football man and a great person to have in my formative years to teach me about the game and the professionalism that was required. 

I only played under George Graham at Arsenal FC and again, he was someone who pushed you every day of the week.  He was very good tactically having been a striker himself so there were various tips that he could pass on to me, one of which was heading, it was a favourite attribute of his.  

I played under Graham Taylor and first Sir Bobby Robson with England but it is a little bit different at international level in that you are not with the squad and the manager for as long. It’s kind of a case of getting in there and doing your best, but at club level Gordon Milne and George Graham were great managers for me.”

James Rowe is a Dutch Football expert based in the Netherlands, professional writer and translator for The Secret Footballer. He has featured on talkSPORT and regularly features on talkSPORT 2 and Love Sport Radio. You can follow him on Twitter here.