Happy birthday, Alan Smith!

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Greatest 50 Players - 27. Alan Smith

Alan Smith was a striker's dream partner and was pretty nifty at banging in the goals too.

George Graham bought the rangy forward to Highbury in 1987 in what was, unusually for the time, quite a protracted transfer. Arsenal's agreement with Leicester came too late in the day meaning that Smith was loaned back to the Filbert Street outfit for the remainder of that season.

When Smith eventually moved south, it took him time to adapt.

Smith spent his first Christmas in London in the midst of a goal drought and was soon replaced, albeit briefly, by the younger Niall Quinn. As the critics sharpened their knives, the front man fought back with characteristic determination. He ended his first season with a goal in the Littlewoods Cup final defeat to Luton and hit the ground running in 1988/89.

Greatest 50 Players - 27. Alan Smith

In the opening fixture of that season the West Midlands native plundered a hat-trick against Wimbledon, setting the tone for a hugely-profitable season. His attributes, though, ran far deeper than just his finishing.

Standing at over six feet tall, Smith combined his intelligence with an unfailing work ethic to become one of the top-flight's supreme target men. His ball retention was second-to-none and, despite a clear 'English centre-forward style', he also had a penchant for cute, subtle touches. If a team-mate made the right run, he could be sure Smith would find him with a flick-on or well-timed pass.

As Arsenal charged towards the title, Smith continued his own assault on the Golden Boot. On the final day of the season both accolades were secured as all aspects of Smith's improvement came to the fore at Anfield. The front-man glanced home the game's opening goal, his 23rd of the season, from a Nigel Winterburn free-kick, and turned provider for Michael Thomas' historic strike in the dying seconds. Cue pandemonium.

The following year Arsenal and Smith failed to hit the heady heights of the season before, but all was good again in 1990/91. Alan found the net on 22 occasions and excelled as a provider, aptly supported by Messrs Merson, Campbell and Limpar. But Smith's increasing years sparked a downturn in goals.

Nevertheless he saved one his best strikes until last. With Ian Wright suspended for the Cup Winners' Cup final in 1994, Smith shouldered huge responsibility against Parma in Copenhagen. He answered the calls of the Highbury faithful with a sumptuous left-foot volley in the 21st minute to decide matters.

It sealed Arsenal's first European success in almost a quarter of a century, as well as Smith's place among the Club's greatest ever players.

This list of 50 Gunners Greatest Players was determined by tens of thousands of Arsenal fans from across the world. The vote took place on the club’s official website in 2008. To help prevent multiple voting by a single person, only registered members of Arsenal.com could take part.


Smith - Arsenal is always in your blood

Even to this day, Alan Smith remains underrated when talk comes to naming the best Arsenal strikers in our history.

But with 115 goals in 347 appearances to his name, along with two league titles, two FA Cups, one League Cup, two Golden Boots and the winning goal in the 1994 European Cup Winners' Cup final, he has more of a claim than most.

We caught up with 'Smudge' following the release of his autobiography, Heads Up, to discuss his time at the club and this is what he told us:

You scored 115 goals for Arsenal, and won two golden boots. It doesn’t really tell the story of what a pain you were to play against. Can you describe yourself as a centre forward?
Yeah, I was quite awkward. I always remember training against Martin Keown and you know Martin likes to mix it a little bit, and he always used to say, 'Smudge, your elbows and your knees, they’re so sharp!' I’d try and tackle and I’d kind of catch him, and I caught a few centre halves to be fair. I remember one night at Luton I went up in the air with Steve Foster, the old Luton centre half with the headband and I managed to give him 10 stitches underneath that band and he came back on the pitch after having the stitches and he was like, ‘Oh you did me there!’ – which I didn’t! It was completely accidental, but I was a player that liked to receive the ball, hold off my man, get it wide, get in the box, try to keep it simple and if we had good wide players, that was perfect for me. I could time my run and it was a successful recipe. When I was playing on-form, feeling confident, it all came quite naturally. When you’re not confident it seems like a foreign game to you at times, but there aren’t too many of my type around these days with the way the game has evolved. Strikers are quite different, most of them.

Click here to order your copy of Alan's autobiography, Heads Up

Your aerial ability is well renowned, could you talk a little about how you developed that part of your game? But also the areas where you maybe feel you were underrated or didn’t get credit?
The aerial thing was just something that came naturally. I’m tall so I was expected to win my fair share and, playing centre forward, you probably had more to go at then, in terms of crosses into the box and the keeper kicking it out as well, that was something you had to play your part with. Make sure the centre half doesn’t get a good clearance, even if you don’t flick it on. Try and back in, control it and just keep the ball alive, that was something that came quite naturally. My overall game and my technique, a lot of people thought I was left-footed because I did practice a lot with my left foot from an early age, banging the ball up against the side of our house when I was about 10 and controlling it with either foot. That’s something you still don’t see, a lot of players are one-footed, which is difficult to get your head around really in this day and age - why they don’t work on their weaker points? But I did feel I had good technique and a good first touch when the ball was played in and I was able to link play quite well.


A Day In Time: May 4, 1994

Of those 115 goals, lots of those were first-time finishes, seeing the space in the box and anticipating plenty with your head but how about the more spectacular ones? The one against Norwich, the volley at Luton, Copenhagen of course, do you have a couple of favourites and why?
I did like that goal against Norwich. Easter Monday in 1989, the first game back after the break in play after Hillsborough, and we bounced back in style beating Norwich 5-0 and that goal I got from distance – I got two that day – but John Lukic punted it down and it was that example of backing in, and I just swivelled that way and hit it with my left foot and I caught it really sweetly and it shot into the net! That was a nice one. That one you mention at Luton on the plastic pitch, I had a great relationship with Brian Marwood on the left wing and he just swung one in. Quite often he didn’t try and beat his man, he just put it into an area and I knew where that area was going to be, and I just met it on the volley, again with my left foot. Copenhagen was special because it was such a big night, such a big occasion and to get the winner from that distance with that kind of goal, it was lovely – and again, with my left foot! I didn’t score too many from outside the box or too many spectacular ones. A lot of one-touch finishes from getting my toe there first of my head there first.
Arsenal fans will really enjoy your book, Heads Up. What’s the one thing that they always ask you about when they see you in the street?
Anfield and Copenhagen, depending on how old they are. The slightly younger ones will say, ‘That was the best night of my life, Copenhagen!’ because I know a lot of fans stayed over that night and had a wonderful time. Unfortunately we had to fly straight back, but those were the two standouts and of course they are for me as well, in terms of goals on the big stage. When I go to Liverpool you didn’t get a touch and it’s that old chestnut about the first goal at Anfield that night, so we have a laugh about that. It’s just nice to be remembered by Arsenal fans - and football fans in general.

Can you summarise your time at the club and what it did for your career and that connection that you still have?

Arsenal has always been a special club and I think you realise that properly when you join - certainly the history, the tradition, I was made aware of that the day I signed. I was shown around the ground, the marble halls, the oak panel boardroom and of course the pitch. Steve Burtenshaw, the chief scout, said to me, ‘Alan, a lot of centre forwards have been here but not many have been a success’. I thought, 'Oh my god, what’s going to happen here?' But it’s always in your blood, Arsenal. Once you’ve kicked a ball for them in the famous red and white, and it is famous, you’ve always got a strong connection and the further away you get from your playing days, the prouder you become that you represented this famous football club. It’s just always a pleasure coming back. We’ve moved house but it retains its special feel for me.

Click here to order your copy of Alan's autobiography, Heads Up