“That win was for my dad” Proud legacy of legendary Sheffield Wednesday physio Alan Smith will live on
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Detailing the career of his old man, there’s a quiver of pride throughout. But Paul, pausing once or twice to compose himself in what is an emotional conversation, speaks first and foremost as a son who has lost his dad and best mate.
The death of Smith Snr was announced to the world on Monday May 29 in the hours before his beloved Sheffield Wednesday would take on Barnsley in the League One play-off final. Fittingly the match would of course take place at Wembley, where Alan had so often represented England with such distinction.
He’d died on the evening of Saturday May 27 aged 74. In and out of hospital for a couple of years, Alan had retired from his work at a revered Wickersley practice only within the last year and handed the business over to Paul, who had proudly stepped into his old shoes as head physio at Wednesday between 2009 and 2017, also working at Barnsley, Rotherham, Derby County and Aston Villa.
Alan’s fond reputation within the world of Wednesday is one normally reserved for top goalscorers or trophy-lifting managers, not often physios. But from 1983 to 1994 he presided over the treatment room during the club’s best years and his work leaves a legacy that rolls on today. His work in rehabilitating Roland Nilsson’s knee injury is famed, as is his work with David Hirst and countless others. He famously saved Paul Warhurst’s life in a 1992 UEFA clash with Spora Luxembourg, clearing his airway after a collision that could easily have proved fatal.
No matter the tireless work that goes on at Middlewood Road in the modern day, ‘Thas no Alan Smith’ is a phrase that creeps from the fan base from time to time when discussing the management of injury concerns. Given his legendary status in the industry it’s a cross, you’d suspect, they’re honoured to bear.
Legendary though he may well be, but primarily Alan was a loving husband to Judith, a loving father to Paul and Andy – also in the game as a long-time masseuse at Aston Villa – and a loving grandfather to Jade, Madison and Logan. His true legacy lies not only at Hillsborough or at Wembley, but in his family.
“We’re doing OK,” Paul tells The Star, “He’d not been well for a couple of years but it’s still awful at the end. We’re pulling together like families do.
“The response we’ve had from fans and people in the game has been immense and it’s been heartening. Really heartening.”
That response has come in droves from Wednesday fans and football supporters across the game. Among the many, many names to have made contact with Judith, Paul and Andy are Ron Atkinson, Howard Wilkinson and David Hirst. Wilkinson won’t make the June 16 celebration of Alan’s life but has written what Paul describes as a ‘beautiful’ letter that will be read out on the day.
Alan was born and raised in the seaside town of Saltburn and dreamed of becoming a footballer. It was a dream that for some time looked like he would realise and between the ages of 14 and 17 he was a promising young player on the books at Middlesbrough.
Two leg breaks in a year tragically ended his career and not quite sure of what to do next, the also legendary physio that rehabilitated him – Jimmy Headridge – took him under his wing and put him onto a path that proudly lead to S6 and a 24-year career with the FA, working under the senior team management of Bobby Robson, Terry Venables, Glenn Hoddle, Kevin Keegan and Sven-Göran Eriksson.
Having started out at Darlington before a spell at Rotherham, Smith joined Blackpool in 1977 – working under Alan Ball among others – and in the summer of 1981 was looking forward to facing up against his old mentor Headridge in a pre-season friendly against Manchester United. Headridge had been made Ron Atkinson’s first signing at Old Trafford.
Arriving at the ground, a United staff member poked his head around the door to ask if Smith wouldn’t mind acting as physio for both teams. Happily agreeing but confused as to why, he was told his old friend and mentor Headridge had collapsed and died from a heart attack in training that morning. He was only 42. The blow left Smith devastated and further instilled a desire to become the best physio in the business.
Smith had earlier been approached by Atkinson’s Old Trafford predecessor Dave Sexton to join United – what would have been a dream job – but with clubs arm-wrestling over compensation he did the honourable thing and ended the episode to honour his contract with the Seasiders.
In 1983, when he became Owls boss, Wilkinson repeated Atkinson’s trick of making a physio his first signing; Smith. The pair became great friends as later did he and Atkinson.
A gentle soul though those who were lucky enough to speak to Alan in later years see him to have been, players of the time described Smith as a hard taskmaster but someone who was firm and fair with a great sense of humour. He’d work ridiculous hours to help individuals back to fitness and introduced methods of work that proved to be trailblazing.
With the likes of fitness coach Richard Spry alongside him, Wednesday’s was one of the most highly-regarded backroom teams in the country and in many ways changed the game for those who have followed.
His Wednesday career ended in 1994, though his last England cap came at the 2002 World Cup when a Ronaldinho goal ended their involvement at the quarter-final stage. He was awarded a silver cap for his service by the FA, which will sit proudly in a hearse alongside Wednesday and England shirts when his ashes are driven to Hillsborough after a celebration service on June 16.
The service itself will take place at Hope City Church Bernard Street and will end around 2pm. Soon afterwards the car will travel for a drive beneath the South Stand from the Penistone Road entrance before a celebration in the 1867 Lounge. Supporters are warmly invited to say their goodbyes to Alan at the stadium but such is the expected turnout of the celebration, the 1867 Lounge is invite only.
Work at the award-winning physiotherapy practice that Alan opened over 20 years ago will continue for Paul, who is further driven to continue its roaring success and to “Maintain the same high standards that Dad had.”
Watching the drama of Wembley from his mother’s house with his mum and other family, Paul watched as Des Walker delivered a touching pre-match tribute on Sky Sports. An applause in the 74th minute was joined by both Owls and Tykes supporters and videos of the moment have touched the Smiths.
When Josh Windass headed the winning goal after 123 minutes of vice-tight South Yorkshire derby, those present thought of only one man. Family members not usually concerned with football embraced and tears were shed.
“That goal was for Dad,” Paul said. “I was going crackers. He loved Wednesday, it was where he was the longest, where he made the closest friends and where he had the most success.
“For Wednesday to be in a final two days after he died, for them to win the final in the way they did and for it to be at Wembley, the home of England football? It was incredible.
“No doubt. That win was for my Dad.”