‘I swore never to join bitter rivals Manchester United… but I ended up drinking tea with Roy Keane’

“I&aposve not gone out this morning, but it was probably about 90F at 8.30am,” Smith said in response to a typically British question about the weather before the conversation quickly turned to Manchester United due to time constraints.

The Manchester Evening News were offered the chance for a succinct interview with Smith this week and the informal chat took place over Zoom because he currently works in the United States at a football academy.

Smith is Leeds born and bred and he still considers them to be the &aposbiggest club in England&apos after his playing career, so why did he famously cross enemy lines and sign for their bitter rivals in May 2004, in a deal worth 7million?

He once told SoccerAM that he would &aposnever play for Man United&apos, which seemed like a good place to start the conversation.

“I made that comment a good few years before leaving to join the club and I think it was naivety. When I said it, Leeds were flying and doing really well,” Smith said, speaking about Premier League Betting with BoyleSports.

“Football is just a dream when you grow up as a kid. I got into the first-team so young and Leeds were doing well, so I never expected such a fall from grace. The quote was probably naivety and wanting more love from the Leeds fans.

“You know the rivalry between the clubs is there. It was something I don&apost regret saying because I was so young.”

Smith, now aged 42, is wiser and there are hints of grey in his beard, but he&aposs still able to vividly recall that period of his life, which shouldn&apost be a surprise given the transfer fee he commanded and the backlash from Leeds fans.

“When I spoke to Sir Alex, there was no real trepidation about the move for me,” Smith added. “Unfortunately, the club that I grew up playing for since I was 10 years old were going through very difficult times and financially as well.

“Wed been relegated and Id done everything I could to try to keep us in the Premier League, but most people I grew up with there, a lot of those staff I was close to from canteen staff to laundry ladies, were made redundant.

“Once I knew Leeds wanted and needed to sell me, football became real because it was the first time Id experienced anything that wasnt positive. It was then a footballing decision to go to the best club I possibly could join.

“I wanted to be part of something that I could really enjoy and I knew Man United would be an excellent club for me to join because of the history of it, the people involved and it was very, very similar to Leeds in terms of the British influence and history.

“There was a huge Scottish influence with Sir Alex at the club and we had that at Leeds and a big British influence. I knew the transition would be easy for me in terms of there wouldnt be much change.

“Id never lived away from home, Manchester wasnt that far away and when I moved I knew it was the right place for me.”

Smith added: “When I first went, I surrounded myself with Keane, Giggsy, Gaz Nev, Butty and Scholesy and I was asking question after question, wanting to know how they became successful and how they lived.

“I wanted to know how the team reinvented themselves each year and won championships. Thats what I loved about being there, as every day you had to be at it 100 per cent and thats why they were so successful.

“The older players all respected I wanted to learn from them and try to improve myself to get to their level.”

Smith made his debut in the Community Shield against Arsenal in August 2004 and he scored the only goal for his new club that afternoon – a brilliant volley from 20 yards fired into the top left corner – in a 3-1 defeat.

However, with Wayne Rooney proving sensational and with Ruud van Nistelrooy returning from the sidelines, Smith was relegated to the bench for much of the 2005/06 campaign and his position was changed to a deep-lying midfield role.

Smith was attempting to fill the void an injured Roy Keane had left behind. “He was impossible to replace because of his personality and the manager knew he was struggling injury-wise and couldnt play three games in a week,” Smith said.

“I was just someone who was willing to play that role, to try to do it to the best of my ability. I was never overawed by it because I thought it was a compliment, thinking that I&aposd never be as good as him but that I could fill in.

“It was a learning curve for me, although after my injury, it was probably the only position I could play, so to have the opportunity to learn it before I got my injury really helped me to prolong my career when I look back.”

Keane didn&apost drink alcohol by the time Smith arrived and that meant the pair gravitated toward each other on team nights out.

“Me and Roy had such a great relationship, to be honest. Ive been a football geek my whole life and we&aposd talk about that, but people dont see that side of me because they think Ive got a reputation, but Im the opposite,” Smith explained.

“I loved football from when I first started playing and for me and Roy, it was interesting because wed go out and we would drink pots of tea and just chat about football. Hed tell me about all of his experiences previously.

“It was good for me because I was genuinely interested in trying to improve and I think he saw that in me. I was learning from the best as part of my education and that probably helps me now, as in the school here now, weve got 130 students.

“Were trying to mentor them to make the right choices. The more people you can learn from can help you on your way.”

Some of the children at XL Soccer Academy in Orlando where Smith coaches weren&apost born when he signed for United and that means they can&apost remember the player he was, nor recall the almost career-ending injury he sustained.

In February 2006, during Uniteds 1-0 defeat by Liverpool in the FA Cup at Anfield, Smith suffered a double leg break and a dislocated ankle when attempting to block a free-kick from John Arne Riise.

Ferguson described the injury as one of the worst he&aposd ever seen. “There were question marks about whether Id be able to carry on playing. I knew that from a medical point of view but that never really entered my mind,” Smith said.

“I didnt really care about what level Id get back to, I just wanted to try to get fit, try and play. I remember speaking to the hand surgeon who did my ankle surgery, which shows you how intricate it was, and he was honest with me.

“He told me I&aposd be very restricted, even if I managed to recover. I worked with Michael Clegg every single day in the gym and that helped your mind more than anything else because you&aposre desperate to play and you can&apost.

“It was a period of time when people like that kept you so motivated. There were no shortcuts taken in my recovery and I was so fortunate to be at a club that didn&apost rush me back, which I still appreciate.”

Although it&aposs almost two decades since Smith&aposs injuries, they still affect his everyday life. “I try my best to play when I coach now, but Im limited. Its difficult being in pain all the time, but I managed to play for another 13 years,” he said.

“I went to Newcastle and I loved my time there and I wouldnt change any of it, even if my injury has me in pain every day because I believe these setbacks test you and Ive met so many good people along the way who looked after me.

“Would I like to be in less pain and be able to play? Absolutely, but it taught me a lot of lessons. I think it humbles you as a person because youre on an upward spiral and all of a sudden you come crashing down.”

Coming back from such a horrific injury was never going to be easy and Smith started for the first time in 14 months in the quarter-finals of the Champions League game against Roma in April 2007, a night which he remembers fondly.

Smith scored against Roma in an emphatic 7-1 win and, whether fueled by adrenaline or not, it was a fitting reward for a player that had encountered such misfortune. “It was a bit of a surreal moment,” Smith said.

“Wed lost the first leg in Rome and it was my first start for over a year. Id played against Crewe in the Carling Cup and I knew I wasnt ready to play but it was a tester to see where I was. Nobody really knew whether I should even bother carrying on.

“It was an emotional night for many reasons. There were a lot of people during the period I was injured that Id become close to, like the physios and the staff, and that night was everybody because it was all of our hard work combined.

“It was probably my best game for Manchester United in terms of how people see it. It was the last good game realistically because when I came back for pre-season in the summer, I knew Id been getting by on adrenaline.

“But it just felt like it was just meant to be that night. The atmosphere was as loud as Ive ever heard Old Trafford during my time there and I think Sir Alex also said it was one of the best nights theyve ever had in Europe.”

Smith was in a reflective mood by the end of the conversation and added: “Leeds are a big club, Man United huge, Newcastle are historically such a great club and a great footballing city and Notts County as well.

“I was fortunate to play for some of the best-supported clubs, which Ill always be proud of. It was an interesting journey and I loved every minute of it. I always tried 100% and if you can walk away knowing that, youve done half your job.