My time with Sheffield Wednesday and England ... Former Owls physio Alan Smith on Big Ron, David Hirst, winning at Wembley, fishy smells at Hillsborough, Alan Shearer and what he’s up to now

Alan Smith
Alan Smith
Have your say

David Beckham, Alan Shearer, Michael Owen.

They all have their place at the practice of former Sheffield Wednesday and England physiotherapist Alan Smith.

At his practice in Wickersley, Rotherham

At his practice in Wickersley, Rotherham

The certificates on the wall confirming his array of qualifications are impressive. Pictures of him meeting the Queen on more than one occasion suggest this is a man who has achieved much in his life.

However, it’s the signed shirts that really tell his story. They were given to him by grateful international legends who wouldn’t have been fit for major tournaments without the help of the boy who saw his own playing career ended at 17 yet still grew up to make it to two World Cups.

There isn’t a trace of vanity in the warm, wiry, articulate, softly-spoken 68-year-old emerging from the kitchen of his immaculate medical HQ near his home in Wickersley, Rotherham, and carefully placing hot drinks on coasters in reception.

But, 15 years after he left the professional game, that journey from Middlesbrough FC teenage midfielder with a double leg fracture to France 1998 and Japan 2002 as physio to his national side still makes him proud.

With the Owls in 1984

With the Owls in 1984

Eleven years with the Owls from 1983 paved the way for Smith’s 1994 full-time England call, but he’d been at Hillsborough, as an appointment of new boss Howard Wilkinson, for only a few minutes when he found himself turning his nose up at the job.

“I enjoyed working with Howard,” he recalls, a North-east burr betraying his upbringing in Saltburn by the Sea. “I’d been with him with the England under-21 team and, mainly, the semi-professional team.

“I was shown the gymnasiums, there were two of them, and then I asked to see the treatment room. We went in and there was a terrible smell.

“The secretary, Eric England, was showing me round and he said it was the ice-making machine. He said Jack Charlton, the manager before Howard and a keen angler, had been keeping his fish in there!”

Big Ron wins at Wembley

Big Ron wins at Wembley

The man known as “Smudge” laughs at the memory, unhurriedly, lightly at first but then with growing volume. He does this a lot. It’s really engaging, lighting up an already-friendly face, sealing quickly-formed bonds.

He is a lovely man.

Soon after came Ron Atkinson. Big Ron. Big time. Big cigar. Big friend. There’s an extra spark about Smith, who also had spells at Darlington, Rotherham United and Blackpool, as he dispels the Atkinson myth and reflects on his happiest time in club football.

“His champagne reputation is nonsense,” he says, his blue tracksuit bottoms as crisp as the room we’re sitting it, his polo shirt whiter than the flashes of hair on either side of his head.

“I’m not saying he wouldn’t have a glass, but he’s a cup of tea man. Deadly serious. Ultra professional. Brilliant manager. But you could enjoy a laugh with him.

“The club really took off under Ron’s management. We were relegated (from the top flight) the first year he came and then won promotion immediately and won the League Cup in the same season when we beat Manchester United.

“He was a great person, a really nice man. He was very knowledgable about football. He knew when to put an arm round a player, he knew when to kick him up the backside.”

As well as the framed jerseys of Beckham and co, there are others from Steve McManaman and Emil Heskey, plus countless photographs of Smith hard at work with stars of yesteryear. David Seaman’s haircut is terrible, Paul Gascoigne’s tracksuit even worse.

But it’s a character few people have heard of who continually crops up in Smith’s conversation. Jimmy Headridge was the physio who treated the Boro youngster in his 1966 hour of need, guided him towards his new career and made him what he is today.

“I worked hard - I still do, in my private practice,” Smith says. “I was dedicated, loyal, very loyal. And honest. I’m an honest person. I think they are good characteristics.

Big Ron signs Roland Nilsson

Big Ron signs Roland Nilsson

“When I take youngsters on work experience, students from 16 to 18 years old and also some from university, they are the words I give them. I tell them all about Jimmy Headridge, how he looked after me and how he taught me the principles of life.”

The shirt of Heskey, always slightly down the pecking order of great England strikers, is less prominent than the others, hanging in a corner, partially hidden by the door as you walk into one of the treatment rooms. It makes me smile. I’m sure it’s just coincidence.

Smith left Wednesday for the full-time England job - invited to take the post, he points out; it’s not a role anyone applies for - and two years later was caught up in the fervour of 1996 when a nation united as Football Was Coming Home.

“We got beat 6-5 on penalties in the semi-final by Germany,” he says. “The atmosphere throughout the country was amazing. I went to two World Cups with England, but Euro 96 was my biggest and best experience with them.”

Shearer won the Golden Boot award, having spent seven days a week working with Smith to recover from hernia surgery. So many students kept bunking off to watch the duo working out on the sprawling sports pitches at Wickersley Comprehensive that the school eventually gave them official permission to leave their lessons.

The striker scored in the first game of Euro 96, against Switzerland, and waited in the dressing room afterwards to hand Smith his shirt. It’s the one now hanging in the practice at 135a Bawtry Road.

It might have been a different player banging in the goals at that tournament. Smith had encountered David Hirst at Wednesday. Hirst and Shearer played together in the England under-21 set-up that Smith was part of before injuries took a heavy toll on the Owls man.

“David was a great player,” Smith says. “In those days, strikers had more injuries because of the tackling from behind. The stuff that went on in those days wouldn’t be allowed today. There’d be red and yellow cards left, right and centre.

“It was very physical then. He was a target because he was a good player. The centre-halves would leather him.

“He had Shearer’s kind of potential in my eyes. At under-21 level, I would say they were on a par. Alan got 63 caps, David, I think, got three.

“Alan had his injuries too. He was very dedicated, very determined, a good athlete. He was strong physically and mentally. They are factors that come into being top class.

“Alan was forever grateful to me. That’s the kind of relationship you build up with players. They don’t forget when you get them fit for a major tournament. Hence the shirts. That’s their way of saying thank you.”

Smith, like the Master of Science (University of Teeside) he is, loves his stats. Career highs and lows, personal landmarks, key incidents and dates are all trotted out with a medical man’s devotion to detail.

That’s why I can tell you he was involved in 257 England matches in total, most with the semi-professional, B and under-21 sides on a part-time basis from 1979 and 98 in a full-time, eight-year association with the senior side between 2004 and 2012.

His final match in professional football was England’s 2-1 World Cup quarter-final defeat against Brazil in Japan.

“I decided that was it,” he says. “It was because of all the travel and being away. I had grandchildren I wanted to see and I didn’t want to miss out on family things anymore.”

That means Jade, Maddison and Logan, 16, 12 and five respectively, have grown up with their grandad on hand and he and wife Judith have been able to spend long weekends at their apartment in Saltburn by the Sea.

“We were childhood sweethearts,” he says. “We got together at school. Judith’s a year younger. She’s been the rock in my life. Married 47 years. Engaged at 18 and 19. Wed at 20 and 21. Young eh?”

He doesn’t receive signed shirts anymore, but the feelings he generates in people remain the same. There are so many ‘thank you’ cards in reception that they spill on to a second table. Dozens of them. Reward for living the Jimmy Headridge way.

Life is good. There’s the nice house in one of Rotherham’s best locations, the BMW with the personalised AGS number plate (George, in case you’re wondering) and five visits a week to a nearby health club. He has less fat on him than many of the footballers he used to treat.

I ask him to pick his best friend in football. “Ooh, there are so many,” he protests. Eventually, he chooses sons, Paul, head physio at Bury FC, and Andy, first-team masseur at Aston Villa, and I like him even more.

He scoffs at the idea of retirement. “I love the job,” he says. “I want to go on for as long as I possibly can. I’m still helping people. That’s in my nature. When I start treating the wrong leg, I’ll call it a day!”

Then he laughs that laugh again.

“If someone had told me at 17 when I had a broken leg that I would go to two World Cups, I’d have said it’s impossible,” he continues.

“Looking back, I was clinically depressed at 17. I had to fight and work and be dedicated to getting out of it. Jimmy Headridge was the man who helped me.”

Honesty, preached Headridge. Loyalty.

It was loyalty which saw Smith refuse to break his contract and leave Blackpool for Manchester United, loyalty which saw him turn down Wilkinson’s bid to lure him to Leeds United to stay with Wednesday.

He’s president of the Wise Old Owls, the supporters’ group for Wednesday over-50s. Wednesday remain in his heart. And in his portfolio. He watches them whenever he isn’t at games involving his sons and bought shares in the club after he had left.

“They’ve come close twice in the last two seasons to securing promotion from the Championship. That’s a very high standard to maintain,” he says. “This season, my prediction is automatic promotion. The contribution to the club of Mr Chansiri (chairman Dejphon) is enormous and has to be praised.”

The Football Association marked Smith’ contribution to his country by presenting him with a solid silver international cap. In 2015, the Football Medical Association honoured him further with a Lifetime Achievement Award, presented to him by none other than Big Ron.

“They have to vote for you,” he says. “Doctors, physiotherapists, masseurs, all the medical people.” Again, no conceit, just a gentle swell of pride.

He remembers Atkinson’s finest Owls moment, in the build-up to the 1991 League One Cup Final when Manchester United were vanquished at Wembley by a goal from John Sheridan.

Despite comedian Stan Boardman’s wisecracking presence on the team coach on the journey from Oakley Court Hotel, there was tension in the Wednesday camp.

Smith takes up the tale: “John Harkes in the dressing room, he was emotional. He had his head down. Other players were feeling it as well. Ron twigged what was happening and ordered everyone on to the pitch to acknowledge our fans. It was a relief to see our fans. They were chanting players’ names and it was sea of blue and white.

“When they came back in, they were a different group of lads. They were laughing, joking and relaxed again. Johnny was his normal bright personality again. It was a masterstroke of man-management.”

Smudge - by now we’ve been talking for nearly two hours and I think I can call him that - treated a famous metatarsal when a certain player’s place in the 2002 World Cup was under threat.

He takes me into a room and shows me a photograph of the pair that Smith didn’t even know had been taken until the captain of England presented it to him.

“To Alan. Thank you for all your help,” is written across it. “Love, David Beckham.”

Those words mean a great deal.

But not as much as the ones of Jimmy Headridge.


Best player I saw for England: Paul Gascoigne.

Best England team (4-4-2): David Seaman; Viv Anderson, Tony Adams, Terry Butcher, Stuart Pearce; David Beckham, Paul Gascoigne, Bryan Robson, Chris Waddle; Alan Shearer, Gary Lineker. “It was close between Seaman and Peter Shilton for the goalkeeper’s spot.”

Best player from my time at Sheffield Wednesday: Roland Nilsson. “Definitely. He was selected for the world 11 one year by a major football magazine. It was Roland’s dedication, professionalism, outstanding ability, athleticism and workrate. He could defend, he could attack. He brought discipline and a professionalism into the dressing room in a way nobody else had done. He was easy to manage.”

Best Wednesday team from my time there (4-4-2): Chris Turner; Roland Nilsson, Mick Lyons, Mark Smith, Nigel Worthington; John Harkes, Carlton Palmer, John Sheridan, Chris Waddle; David Hirst, Lee Chapman. “Mick Lyons was a wonderful footballer and an unbelievable captain. I can’t believe he never got an England cap.”

Best player in an opposing side: The Brazilian Ronaldo, followed by Ronaldinho. “There’s not a lot in it.”

Best player to have on my side: Tony Adams. “For his performances in Euro 96.”

Best patient: Roland Nilsson. “He ruptured his anterior cruciate knee ligaments at Millwall in October 1990. He was carried off on a stretcher and needed surgery. He was fit before the end of the season. He played in the 1991 League Cup Final against Manchester United and had a great game. Their up-and-coming star player was Lee Sharpe. Roland completely kept him out of the game.”

Worst patient: Laughs and snorts. “I can’t do that!” Laughs again. “There have been a few.”

Best moment in football: At club level, beating Manchester United with Wednesday in the 1991 League Cup Final. No doubt. In international football, the day I was appointed England physio.”

Worst moment: “Breaking my leg at 17. I was, potentially, a promising player, although you can never say for definite you would have made the grade. But then Jimmy Headridge, the physio who looked after me, opened the door to everything else that followed for me as a physio.”

Best manager I worked with: “At club level, Howard Wilkinson and Ron Atkinson at Sheffield Wednesday. At international level, Sir Bobby Robson and Terry Venables.”

Alan and wife Judith

Alan and wife Judith

Alan Shearer scores against Switzerland

Alan Shearer scores against Switzerland

David Beckham

David Beckham