Remembering Alan Smith’s stunning own goal for Leeds v Wolves, 2003
Nothing unites football supporters quite like a hilarious own goal.
Chris Brass. Djimi Traore. Jamie Pollock. Names that would otherwise have been forgotten are immortalised through the act of sticking the ball in their own net in a creative and entertaining way.
The career of Alan Smith cannot quite be reduced to clip show fodder. After all, this was a man who played for three of England’s biggest clubs – Leeds United, Manchester United and Newcastle United – while appearing 19 times for his country.
And yet Smith once scored one of the most spectacular own goals in Premier League history during a relegation six-pointer against Wolves in December 2003.
With Leeds beginning to re-establish themselves as a top-flight fixture under Marcelo Bielsa, enchanting neutrals with their beguiling all-out-attack mentality, their supporters can probably now look back and see the funny side of Smith’s misfortune.
First, it’s worth considering the context. At the turn of the century, reviled owner Peter Risdale said Leeds fans were “living the dream”. By the time they took to the field at Molineux in December 2003, that dream had not only died but been cremated and the ashes scattered at sea.
After the failure to qualify for the Champions League in May 2002, Leeds had run up significant debts that only player sales could hope to clear. In time-honoured fashion, the team that had almost touched the sun was broken up by their vulture-like rivals.
Rio Ferdinand, Robbie Keane, Lee Bowyer, Jonathan Woodgate, Robbie Fowler, Olivier Dacourt, Danny Mills, Nigel Martyn and Harry Kewell all departed Elland Road between the sacking of David O’Leary and the game at Molineux.
Unsurprisingly, the club slipped into a relegation battle. After ensuring survival the previous year, Peter Reid was sacked after a horrendous start to the 2003-04 season, culminating in a 6-1 defeat at newly-promoted Portsmouth.
His successor Eddie Gray was left with a team of wet behind the ear youngsters, journeymen, fading cult heroes and the odd gem like Mark Viduka.
But Smith remained. His Eminem buzzcut had been replaced with something that would embarrass a sheepdog, but the anger associated with Marshall Mathers still manifested itself in Smith’s game. He always seemed angry about something, although you suspected even he couldn’t pinpoint what at.
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Yet the forward put his heart and soul into the fight against the drop. With so many stars having departed, supporters latched onto him as the embodiment of Leeds United, giving him hero status at the club.
As Gray’s squad travelled to the Black Country on a dank winter’s day, plenty believed that Smith would kickstart their push for safety against the only team below them in the table. This belief strengthened when Michael Duberry gave Leeds the advantage after only three minutes.
But what happened next confirmed that the gods, destiny and fate were all conspired to send Leeds down that season.
Wolves won a corner 15 minutes later, which Henri Camara shaped to take. Camara had been a star of Senegal’s 2002 World Cup squad, but his form at Molineux rendered many to believe his exploits were the work of a doppelganger. True to form, his corner trickled along the ground to the near post.
Smith foresaw the danger and shaped to clear the ball. Unfortunately, the execution was closer to a golfer attempting to get out of the rough.
The wild hack spun alarmingly backwards and over Paul Robinson’s head. Stationed on the line, Ian Harte made a token effort to head away, but the die had already been cast.
The ball twanged the post before nestling inside the Leeds net, adding to the comedic effect. Behind the goal, Wolves fans began taunting their Leeds counterparts while Smith marched away muttering profanities under his breath.
The own goal changed the course of the game. Having previously dominated, Leeds collapsed to a 3-1 defeat and continued their brisk walk towards relegation thereafter.
Smith was forgiven. Temporarily. His tireless running made him untouchable in the eyes of the fans, who at the end of the final home game against Charlton wanted nothing but to touch him and say goodbye.
Seemingly forgetting his own status at Elland Road, Gray commented afterwards: “There has not been a bigger hero here than Alan Smith.”
A week later, Smith was off to Old Trafford. When Leeds fans sang, “You sign for Scum, you don’t come back” after defeat at Chelsea in the final match of the campaign, Smith’s reply was a one-finger salute.
But his spectacular own goal against Wolves was his more accidental salute to a doomed Leeds campaign.
By Michael Lee