ALAN Smith crunches into the elephant in the room in the same way that he would a 50-50 tackle.
Considering a long and illustrious career that has seen him capped for England and signed by three of the north’s great clubs, does he feel an element of frustration at the way his time at Newcastle United played out?
There is a bracing and admirable honesty about his reply. Smith’s legacy at St James’ Park is a mixed one – he was the expensive, blue-chip signing who emerged as the surprising talisman in the rather less salubrious surroundings of the Championship.
He believes his role in that revival was his “proudest moment” in football. But should we have expected more?
“I never have any regrets on anything, but it’s unfortunate. I don’t think anyone ever saw the best of me when I was here,” he admits. “But I could say that ever since my injury (a shocking double leg break while playing for Manchester United at Liverpool in 2006), that’s always been the case.”
“I can sort of understand the criticism that comes my way, but it never bothers me because I’m my own biggest critic.
“You know deep down that to get back to those heights before my injury is going to be impossible.
“You take it as it comes and you make sure you enjoy it. You need to be as committed and enjoy it in other ways as much as you can.
“Even towards the end, when I wasn’t playing and I wasn’t in the (Newcastle) squad I was in with the manager all the time. Because you are part of a team, regardless of what job you’re in.”
Relegation had given Smith a chance to atone for the disastrous slump which occurred while he was sat as a frustrated bystander, injured as the team plumbed the depths.
He played just four games of the demotion, but assumed a central role in renaissance. “The club needed an event like that to shake it out of its complacency. Something had to happen,” he says.
“I’m proud of the role I played in that, in restoring some of the pride to the football club. We had a point to prove.
“I remember going over to Ireland (in the summer of 2009) and that was a fantastic trip. You could tell something special was happening among the players, and that camaraderie was a major part of it.
“As people, as individuals, as a collective we had to prove that what we had done, we wanted to put right. You see the measure of a man in the reaction to disappointment. Good people react well to adversity.”
Life seems good at the moment, though. Smith is sat in the plush offices of Stratstone Jaguar in Fenham, having just agreed to join the likes of Sir Steve Redgrave, Andrew Strauss and Rio Ferdinand as a patron of the luxury car company’s Academy of Sport.
Given the established stars who are part of the admirable project, it is some compliment. Jaguar will pair established stars like Smith with rising stars between the ages of 12 and 24 who are supported by bursaries worth thousands of pounds. As the first representative from the North East, Smith will mentor local athletes.
He also gets an impressive new Jag as part of the sponsorship programme. ‘Footballer accepts luxury car’ isn’t exactly the sort of tale to warm the cockles but there is a twist here, for Smith is resolutely not the materialistic sort.
He kept his previous car for seven years, bought after his controversial move to Manchester United, and his Nokia mobile phone could best be described as vintage. He was offered an iPhone or a Blackberry but wonders what the point is in such vanity possessions. Smith, as the man who donates £10,000 to a charity that one Newcastle employee mentioned in passing, doesn’t exactly tally with the perception of him as a snarling, arrogant midfielder accused of greed after a series of lucrative moves.
They are accusations that have not unduly worried him and he laughs off the vicious reaction of the 6,000 Sheffield United supporters towards him after he scored for MK Dons the previous Saturday.
He knows his media-shy profile means he is partly responsible for allowing those perceptions to build up, but he places more credibility in the opinions of those who know him. He is proud of the fact that no manager – including Alan Pardew – would dream of criticising his workrate or professionalism.
“Some people see you play and have a perception of what you’re like. Then they actually meet you and they’re like, ‘Are you sure you’re the same person?’”
“It is actually quite nice because someone has to be totally different when you go to work. You’re totally different at work from how you are in normal life and football is no different.
“People can think he’s this or that, which happens to a lot of footballers. There’s this clichéd lifestyle and people thinking you only play football because it pays you a good wage. But I started playing football for £42.50 a week, and so did most of the lads. You’re just a normal kid wanting to do well for yourself and there’s no harm in that. I think sometimes when you do meet people, they do surprise you.
“I hope that’s the case with me. But I don’t really want to go around shouting about what I do (off the pitch). When you do keep yourself away from the media or whatever, they just assume you’re the same as the rest or worse.
“It is strange sometimes, but as long as you’re true to what you believe ...”
The arrogance of some of his contemporaries amuses Smith, who would recommend a stint in the lower leagues to anyone. “Some footballers think that because they play football they’re totally different from everyone else. But at the end of the day, they’re not.
“When you come away from that stadium you’re living in the same normal world as everyone else.
“Since I’ve gone to MK (on loan) I’ve realised that even more. The lads playing at that level, football is part of their life, not their whole life. It gives you an insight into what life without football would have been like – mortgages, kids, putting food on the table.
“A lot of people struggle when football finishes and you’re out of the spotlight. They’re used to being so and so who plays for this team, but can you actually speak to someone as a normal man?”
ALAN Smith has been named the North East’s first patron of the Jaguar Academy of Sport.
For more information go to www.jaguaracademyofsport. co.uk