Following Manchester United taking on local rivals City in a far from classic stale-mate, AmericanGambler.com spoke exclusively with former Manchester United star Alan Smith in a rare, open and honest interview. You can bet on Premier League games in the USA in New Jersey, Colorado, Indiana, Illinois and other states where online sportsbooks operate. Try William Hill promotion.
The former striker turned centre-midfielder spoke of the trust that needs to be placed in Solskjaer, and that the United youth of Mason Greenwood and Scott McTominay may be the options to trust over bringing in Declan Rice and Jadon Sancho.
Smith, the man tasked with replacing Roy Keane in United’s midfield 16 years ago, spoke of how Keane is yet to be replaced to this day, but that central midfield man Bruno Fernandes is United’s go-to man that now has to step up and deliver in the big games as Messieurs Cantona, Rooney and Ronaldo did before him.
What did you make of the Manchester Derby?
Everyone expects fireworks, the way the history of the Derby has always been. I think that the hardest thing for ex-players looking at games like that is that the game has changed a little bit. Is it a case of that the top four is now essential to teams rather than actually winning the Premier League?
I don’t know if had the hallmarks of that, but it was probably better for both teams to get a point than it was for one team to go and win. Man City would expect to be title contenders, but a place in the top four is essential for both teams whereas winning the league isn’t essential, which never used to be the case.
In a game like that, you’d look at it and think that both teams had lost ground in a title race, because that would have been the main goal for either of the clubs. They would have pushed to get a winner to gain ground on the teams who are going for the title. It would have been seen as dropped points.
With the way that the Champions League is now set up, with the top four guaranteed a spot, it takes the emphasis away from having to go and win big games. If you can draw those games and win your games against the so-called ‘lesser teams’, then the big games that we all wait for sometimes aren’t as good as we’ve seen in the past.
The incentive to win isn’t as big if you’re not going for the league title but content with top four.
Under Ferguson, did United think that you didn’t have to win the big games but had to beat the teams in the bottom half twice in the season, and that you would leave you there or thereabouts?
I think that you want to be there or thereabouts at Christmas, and that’s what both managers (Ole and Pep) were looking at, and arguably looking at the weekend results, a point was a good result reflecting on it. They didn’t lose ground on Liverpool drawing, on Tottenham drawing and Chelsea losing. It looks a better result now than it did before the match.
Of course the players want to win these matches and they want to win leagues, but the Derbies of old – the blood and thunder – the game has changed with tackling, it’s getting taken out of the game, so Derby matches aren’t as they used to be.
Not having full stadiums also has an effect as the emphasis would be on the home team to push to try and win the game. I don’t think the fans should have that much effect, but in games like that, they probably do. I remember the big games against Liverpool in my time, and the fans did have an effect with the intimidation factor.
Everyone seems to be beating everyone in the league this year. As ridiculous as it seems, could United still win the league this year?
After to the weekend and the start they had to the league this year, you would probably say no. But looking at other teams performances and the results that they have been getting and the surprise element of some results, I wouldn’t say that they’re favourites but with inside Old Trafford they will believe that they can run very close. The results at home were where they were struggling early season, but playing away from home is where they can play on the counter-attack, where they can beat teams and come from behind, which shows great character. Nobody knows who is going to sign who in January, so I think this season still has a lot of play out.
There’s so much talk about Pogba, and his agent saying ‘it’s over for Paul at United’. Do you think it would be better to get rid of Pogba with the toxic atmosphere it is creating?
The club has been through it a million times with other players, so from a club and player standpoint, it won’t make any difference whatsoever. I think that anything coming out of there can be taken with a pinch of salt.
Paul has played the last few games and done really well, and changed the game when he came on in Europe. For me it’s all about the relationship between Paul and Ole, and if the manager is playing him then his mind must be in the right place to play, and his last couple of performances have shown that.
He has proven that he is a world-class player over time, he’s won everything that there is to win at such a young age. As a player himself, no player likes criticism and criticism affects every player so that you’re not playing with as much confidence. I hope he does stay, and prove to people that he does want to be there. His last couple of performances have spoken volumes, and he just needs a good run, stay injury-free and prove to people just how good a player he is – and I’m sure that’s what he wants to do as well.
You mentioned that the important thing is the relationship between the player and the manager. Is the problem the toxic agent Mino Raiola?
It’s an agent’s job to create speculation if they can get someone a move, so we can probably take the stuff that comes out of there with a pinch of salt. Ultimately, whatever the agent says, the player is the one who will decide where he wants to go. Until Paul says he wants to leave, and United say that his future doesn’t lie at Old Trafford, take it with a pinch of salt. They were speaking about giving him a new contract not so long ago, so maybe his agent is playing devil’s advocate on that one as well!
Ole Solskjaer was one of your teammates, did you imagine him going into management?
Probably not from a personality point of view, but internally he’s obviously a very driven person. I think because he wasn’t a ranter and a raver, someone who was that vocal, but the personality traits of a manager have changed from what they were 15 or 20 years ago. Some leaders lead by example and in different ways, and I’ve not been privy to what’s going on inside the club, but it seems as though Ole is the person that the club want to take them forward.
He understands the history of the club, and as Gary Neville said before, for the club to keep swapping managers so quickly from David Moyes to Mourinho, it’s not in their DNA to be doing that because of the Sir Alex reign. I imagine the board want to see consistency, and Ole knows as much as anyone that he needs to win and get results, because the history of the club and winning trophies is proven. Everyone inside the club, especially Ole, will know what is expected of him.
There has been a lot of speculation about Pochettino, do you think Ole is right man for the job?
I think we need continuity, and I don’t know how long the continuity will last before we need to win trophies again, but at this moment in time and with the last two transitions in managers, they will want continuity.
They’re still in a decent position and we have seen progress, which is what people want to see. If we hadn’t seen progress and hadn’t made strides to go forward, then they would demand a change. But at this moment in time, I think everyone is quite content with things the way that they are.
People are greedy and everyone wants to win the league, but unfortunately not everyone can. When people look at Manchester United, because of the history that they have had, that’s what everyone automatically expects.
What do United need to do to get back to the levels of the Fergie era, and really match up to Liverpool?
I think that the biggest thing when I went to United as a player was the dressing room environment – they demanded a winning mentality. If you look around the Premier League, there aren’t many teams that have been filled with that winning mentality over a period of time. It might be something that will never be repeated, the serial winners who won 7 or 8 Premier League titles during their career. I think it’s so difficult to create something like that, so to recreate it would be virtually impossible.
I think they’re got to get people in the dressing room that have the experience, who know what it takes to get over the line. The difficulty is where do Untied find them?
Does Maguire strike you as someone who inspires like a Roy Keane?
It’s difficult not knowing him and how he motivates people, bet he’s a completely different character to Roy when he plays, but I’ve never had a conversation with him personally, but he looks a completely different character.
What was Roy Keane like as a person?
I can’t speak highly enough of him. As a captain you have to be able to lead by example, lead with your own performance and also be able to motivate every one else, and those are the things that Roy always managed to do. Really motivate everyone else around him.
He was respected by everybody else, which was massive, and you only earn that respect through the people that you were coached by. He obviously had great respect for Brian Clough, then Bryan Robson and Paul Ince when he went to United, and you learn by the people that you learned from and have traits similar to yourself.
My biggest assets when I played were my work rate, my desire to do well and my commitment to the team, and I think regardless of whether things are going well, knowing that is the makeup of you as a player, nobody really asks any more of you because they know you’re giving your best every time you step out onto the field.
When you move back into midfield, how much did you learn about the role from Roy Keane?
It was a difficult time for me, because it’s obviously impossible to replace Roy Keane, simple as that. It doesn’t happen. It has still not happened. We’re talking 16 years on, it has still not happened. I respected him and the players that I played with and against.
When people ask ‘who was the best player that you played with?’, it’s impossible to answer because it was a collective, and every player brought different things to the team, which was why it was such a great team and it’s so difficult to emulate now.
Don Revie’s Leeds were the team when I was growing up, with Billy Bremner, Norman Hunter and Jack Charlton. That group were synonymous with Leeds United. And the team that Fergie built with Keane, the Nevilles, Giggs, Scholes and Butt, that era and type of player were very similar to the history of the great team that Leeds had in the 70s, and it’s so difficult to emulate that.
It has been so long since Roy Keane left without really replacing him, is there anyone in world football that you think United could bring in as that kind of leader in a centre midfield role?
I don’t think that type of player is about these days, they are are a different type of character and personality. Not even Roy, but that team across the board that I was lucky enough to join, had so many of those characters in there. The mentality of Ryan Giggs to play well over 700 games, break all the records, to go and reinvent himself as a central midfield player, the inner drive that he, the Nevilles, Keane and Scholes had as a group was just incredible.
It hasn’t been replicated, and it probably won’t be replicated. It will take another bunch to come through together for that to happen, because that group didn’t just appear. They knew about the history, the philosophy and the standards and that’s whythey created such a good team and went on to do incredible things.
Are there any players that you see that you would love to bring into the united setup?
I look at certain teams and players, and I think we in a transition and an evolving way within football. The players that I grew up playing with and watching are completely different to what people want to see now. The defensive midfield players used to be the ball winners, drive into tackles, whereas now they are more possession based.
Calvin Phillips at Leeds for example, he is more of a passing midfielder type of player rather than a robust, breaking-up play, tackle winning David Batty, Roy Keane or a Paul Ince type of player that they used to be.
How do you think Declan rice would slot into the Manchester United team?
I like Declan Rice as a player, and I think he would be a great addition, and is a British based player which obviously helps. I think he’s one that is a bit more old school than a lot of defensive midfield players are now.
Rice seems to be able to do the box-to-box element pretty well too?
Yeh, and I think we will start to see a change in that, as every team sets up with a defensive midfield player. Every team used to play a 442 or a version of it, and the foreign influence in the game made it a slightly more possession-based game, so it has changed. With Brexit, we might see a change in the regulations around British players, which might mean a change in the overall influx of overseas players coming in.
There has been a lot of talk about Jadon Sancho, do you think having him and Rashford on either side of the wing would fit well to Solskjaer’s philosophy of playing on the counter attack?
I haven’t seen enough of him, but I think it’s more about the spine of the team. That’s what wins you titles. I look back at when I was a youngster playing at Leeds, and it’s the experience that gets neglected.
If you had £100million to spend at United, would you go for Rice over Sancho?
It all depends on how good Scott McTominay is going to be, as you don’t want to get someone like-for-like that is already coming through the system. He’s obviously someone that Ole holds in high regard, he sees him in training every day, and you wouldn’t want to block the pathway of a young lad coming through the United system.
If he (Rice) is someone that can go in there and virtually guarantee you a league title then obviously you’d say yes, but have you’ve got someone in there that you’d be swapping like-for-like.
Young players bring inconsistency. Young players get all the plaudits, but it’s the experienced players that keep everything going.
What was Ronaldo like when he joined United? Could you tell how good he was already?
The potential was definitely there. The skills, thrills and tricks were already there when he was signed from Sporting Lisbon, but I think he got a really good grounding at a really good age by coming to Manchester so young.
I heard that he used to get smashed with tackles in training so he learned to move the ball quicker; is that true?
I don’t know if that was to teach him, I think that was just as close as you can get to him!
Did you ever take him out in training?
If you could get near him you would! Cristiano would say himself, the strides that he made from joining United to when he left were just extraordinary, and that’s a lot to do with the standards of the players and staff that were there, to not let him drop below his own standards.
If you sign Jadon Sancho, are you stopping the pathway for Mason Greenwood coming through? I think that Ole has one eye on increasing the standards to those that they need to reach, but also he saw Sir Alex’s philosophy of bringing younger players through the system. That’s something that all the clubs will have to start thinking about, there will be an emphasis on bringing young British-based players through the system.
A lot of the lads in United’s squad are British-based, and if you look at the younger lads you have Henderson, Maguire, Wan-Bissaka, McTominay, Shaw, Greenwood, Rashford, Williams, so quite a British-based influence. They might not be the players that are going to guarantee a title, but you have the basis of a British-based squad, which is what you’ll need when the new rules come in.
Do you think it helps having Fernandes around the other players?
I definitely do yeah, and I think every team needs to have that one player who people look to for inspiration. Fernandes brings the quality and opposition are worried about him. We talk about United playing on the counter-attack but I think the next element that people would like to see for Fernandes is in the big games, have we got a player who can bring the star quality to be a match-winner like a Cantona, Rooney or Ronaldo?
When united beat Newcastle to the league title, Cantona scored four or five goals in 1-0 victories, and they are the difference makers that win you championships, but it’s so difficult to find those players.
Did United get lucky when they signed Ronaldo, due to his unbelievable dedication? Do you remember the extent of Ronaldo’s dedication?
Yep 100%, his dedication was massive. To get to those levels, it’s no coincidence really. That club demands it, and I love being at United because we would never really have a day off as we would be in every competition going, so it really was an environment where you had to love the game to thrive in it. He’s a prime example.
Not just Cristiano, but also the other ones that came through the system long before him. Ryan Giggs playing to 40. Roy Keane was still playing when I was there, and his hip was nearly falling off! I remember him telling me a story that he couldn’t get out of the car, and his wife said ‘what are you doing?’, and he said ‘I’m going to go and play!’
There are all these players who love the game so much, that they wanted to be involved in it for as long as possible, and that is the environment that the club created.
Did you find that the double leg break against Liverpool had a massive impact on your mental health?
Not really to be honest.
I think the hardest thing is that your level of performance never gets back to where it was, but it was easier to come to terms with it because I had a reason why.
It wasn’t as though someone said one day I just wasn’t good enough for United, there was a reason why. I knew I would never get back to the same level, and it was tough.
They said at the time if you left Manchester United you are on the way down if you have to leave that club. It was a difficult conversation with the manager, because he knew how hard I had worked to get back to the level that I was at.
What did Fergie say to you?
He said to me after such a bad injury, first and foremost you have to get back to playing, and more consistently in terms of what he would be able to offer me. Unfortunately, for the club at that time, the demand was to win the league title regardless, so you need players who you know are at that level. And if you’re not at that level, you’ve got to go and he’s got to get someone else that is.
It was pretty cut-throat, but I respected that because I’ve always been like that and I’d rather hear the truth even if it hurts at the time. The conversation was probably the best and the worst that I’ve ever had with a football manager.
You obviously became a bit of a United fan when you moved clubs, so you obviously wanted the club to do as well as possible, right?
Yeah, definitely. I think that people thought I used to play the way I did for Leeds because it was my hometown club, but I remember thinking that’s just how I play. That’s how I played as a kid, regardless of who I was playing for, my motivation and my hunger to play would never change.
When I left Newcastle, I nearly signed for Orlando City in 2012, which funnily enough is near where I’m based now, but the big reason that I didn’t was because there was no promotion or relegation, and I just felt that for me and the way I am, there needs to be success or failure.
Do you think switch to the MLS would be a good move for Mesut Ozil?
I think it would be a shame if he came out to the MLS so early in his career. Obviously we don’t know what’s happened at Arsenal or what is going on there. Everyone knows about his talent, but sometimes the best talent doesn’t fit into a system or into the team makeup, and I think that’s just what is going on there at this moment in time.
It does seem crazy to leave out your most creative player when you can’t score a goal?
It’s something that we don’t know if there’s more to it than meets the eye and we can only speculate, but there’s a very talented player there and I’m sure that Mikel Arteta and Steve Round know that, they can see that there’s a talented player, and whether it’s for Arsenal or someone else, you hope that he gets out on the field soon because it would be a waste of a talented football player if he doesn’t get back playing.
Did Riise or all Liverpool ever get in touch after the incident at Anfield?
I don’t put the injury down to anyone it’s just something that happened, and I had Liverpool fans sending me well-wishes. At the end of the day, it was a freak accident and I don’t look back and blame anyone for it. You could charge down a free-kick a million times and nothing would happen. Things just happen sometimes.
Messi or Ronaldo?
I think they’re just completely different players. The only thing you can say is that Messi has been at Barcelona for his whole career, whereas Ronaldo has tried his hand at different clubs and in different leagues, but the players are completely different, but they are in a period of time where they are competing against each-other and I’m sure they have massive respect for each other as much as everyone else does. I hope that they keep motivating each other to go on for as long as possible so that we get to watch them!
Did you ever see the classic Ferguson hairdryer?
Not really. The majority of the time we were doing well so we never really got it too badly. The lads that I was with in the dressing room, they preferred to do it themselves internally. It didn’t need the manager to oversee that and address the situation.
I think for managers, to have players in the dressing room like Roy, they would run the dressing room like a manager would normally have to do, but they demanded the standards in the dressing room the players themselves.
How impressed have you been by Leeds this season?
I will be happy when they get 40 points. I think they started really well, and everyone loved to watch them, the style of play, the way they press, it has been encouraging to see. The biggest worry is conceding from set pieces, and as a supporter of the club, first and foremost we want to stay in the league.
I look at the other teams, I’ve watched West Brom play and although they don’t have the points, they’re a good team. Fulham’s results have picked up of late, and had a great performance against Liverpool.
The other side of Christmas, you always know looking at the table. I think there are a few big games over Christmas, we have United at home, but there are a lot of games to play over the period.
Playing-wise, they’ve been brilliant and a breath of fresh air, it’s just picking up the results necessary to make sure that they do enough to stay in the league.
Bamford seems to go from doing the incredible, to failing to do the ordinary. Does he just need to find some consistency?
Players aren’t immune to criticism, and I think that a lot of it boils down to confidence with Bamford. You’ll see periods of 7-10 games that strikers go through where they tend to struggle and then 6-7 games where they’ll score every game. I don’t worry about Patrick’s goals, as he has already scored 8 in the league, but I think the other players need to chip in with goals to take the weight off his shoulders, especially in the Premier League because the onus is on him because of how well he has started.
We create chances as a team, so the centre forward is always going to miss chances. I’m not worried about the ones that he misses, it’s encouraging that he keeps getting there and most managers will tell you it’s when you’re not getting the chances that you start worrying.
When did you take up golf?
I took up golf when I was playing for Newcastle, so probably about 8/9 years ago. Joey Barton, Shola and James Milner got me into playing, and they made me play straight away with them which was a bit intimidating as I had to get up to speed straight away, because there’s a 3, 4 and 5 handicapper in there!
What do you play off?
I play off 7/8, I get a bit more time to play and the weather in Florida is decent year-round so I get out more. I started to improve, and at the moment I’m at the point where I’ve maxed out and don’t know where to go from now. It’s one of those where golf can get you to a point, but now I’m thinking I need to spend more time practicing, which is no fun whatsoever!
Best footballer you’ve played golf with?
I played with Jimmy at Woburn when we both played for MK Dons and he was phenomenal!
I’m lucky to be here in Florida, as we are within touching distance of Sawgrass and Pinehurst. There’s a course called Streamsong about 25/30 minutes from my house that I didn’t know about until someone told me, but that’s going to be on my bucket list for when I have improved a little bit more!