Alan Smith exclusive: If you saw me in the morning you'd think I was 52 not 32
06:43 GMT, 25 September 2012
It isn't only the hair. Many things have changed in the world of Alan Smith. He is playing his football at MK Dons, for a start, in the third tier of English football and basking in the climes of the south after nearly 32 years up north.
The fire and aggression that earned him 19 England caps and a Barclays Premier League title with Manchester United have not completely vanished – a red card at Bournemouth last month was the 12th of his career.
But, by his own admission, Smith has different priorities these days. He is discovering how to help his team without playing every game, he empathises with the manager's dilemmas and accompanies Dons coach Mick Harford on scouting missions.
Barnet away: Alan Smith is relishing life in the lower leagues with MK Dons
My Anfield injury: The truth
In the spirit of truth and justice that has enveloped Liverpool and Manchester United in recent days, Alan Smith insists no-one rocked his ambulance at Anfield as it tried to take him to hospital in 2006.
'Everyone at Liverpool did as much for me as any club possibly could,' said Smith. 'I was disappointed the story blew up about rocking an ambulance. That was never the case. Liverpool and Man United did everything to get me to the hospital and everything in their power to make sure I was OK.
'I thank them for that. Sometimes it's nice to say that because people have read that they were rocking my ambulance and throwing stuff at it, which is so untrue.'
'I remember going to play Anderlecht in the Champions League with Leeds and we were playing Manchester United at home on the Saturday,' said Smith.
'I went there thinking if I score tonight, the manager (David O'Leary) can't leave me out. I scored twice, we won 4-1 and come Saturday morning against Man United, at Elland Road, he left me out.
'I swear it was like someone had ripped my heart out. Brian Kidd had to take me to one side and calm me down. At that age, I'd have been booting the door down. You just don't understand the things a manager has to go through. Now I totally understand,' Smith added.
Smith can pinpoint the start of this transition. It was February 18, 2006, at Anfield, when he launched himself in front of a John Arne Riise free-kick and snapped an ankle as it twisted beneath his own body weight.
Injury: Smith snapped his ankle in February 2006 but was back in the United side just seven months later
He was back in the Manchester United team seven months later but would never be the same and suffered a stress fracture in the same ankle playing for Newcastle. Now, each day, he wakes in pain.
'If you saw me in the morning, you'd think I was 52 next month, not 32,' said Smith. 'But most people who dedicate their lives to sport go through this. Lots of players play with injuries. It makes you appreciate everything about this sport.
'My career was virtually ruined by my injury at Anfield and it was probably the biggest achievement in my career to play again, not only at the highest level, but at any level.
'When I look back, the injury made me a better person. Not a better footballer. There are deficiencies in my left ankle. It's probably 70 per cent different to my right. But, as a person, growing up, understanding what I'd achieved previously and making sure I tried to prolong my career, it really made me appreciate things.'
All smiles: Smith joined MK Dons on loan in January before penning a permanent deal
Smith joined MK Dons on loan in January, struck up a good rapport with manager Karl Robinson and rejected far more lucrative offers to sign permanently when he left Newcastle in the summer.
'People might think I should have gone somewhere other than MK Dons but I had five months here last season and it relit my love for football,' he said.
'The decisions I've made have not always been the most popular but, when I look back, I want to know I've played for good football teams. An old friend from Leeds told me, “When you retire from football, no-one will say you were a nice person or a bad person, they'll just forget about you”.
'You've got to make sure every decision you make is right for you as a person. If you think you can go to a better club than the one you're at, then, regardless of what anyone says, you should go.'
New start: Smith rejected far more lucrative offers when he left Newcastle to join the League One outfit
Smith was an unused substitute at Bury on Saturday but is likely to be back when Sunderland visit Milton Keynes in the Capital One Cup tonight.
Robinson's team have a reputation as one of the best footballing sides in the lower leagues but, having fallen in the play-offs three times in four years, are desperate for promotion.
'The main focus is to get out of this division,' said Smith. 'Everyone here feels it's the start of something pretty special and that was part of the appeal for me.
'The transition to League One isn't too much. I was at Leeds when we trained on Fullerton Park – it's now a car park – and we had two small Portakabins where the lads would change and then get in a minibus and go to a training ground. This is similar.
'We're a young club and haven't had long to evolve but there aren't many better stadiums in the country. There are bigger ones but the attention to detail is second to none.'
Smith has signed for two years at MK Dons and, despite his changing outlook, suspects he may not be managerial material when his playing days end.
'I might be too emotional to be a manager,' he said. 'You love your players, don't you And I'm not sure I could leave them out. I know how it feels.
'Hopefully I can finish my career here, play for another two or three years and get to more than 500 appearances. That would be good. I'm on 440-something now.
'And we want to get up this season, stay in the Championship and go from there. There's no reason why you can't go back to back, like Norwich. But you can't look too far ahead, can you I've done that previously.'