Alan Smith: His Transition From Player To Pundit

It’s fair to say Alan Smith has taken his chances – both on and off the pitch, as he smoothly embarked on a journalism career, transitioning from player to pundit.

Smith, 57, has been sat high up in the gantry tugging at viewer’s eardrums for more than two decades, following on from his retirement from a professional playing career with Arsenal and Leicester City.   

His change in career has been a smooth process, as the former striker regularly constructs his own features for the London Evening Standard. 

But prior to his career as a journalist, Smith made 200 appearances for Leicester City between 1982-1987 before signing for Arsenal that same year, where he scored 86 times in 264 matches.

When the opportunity arose, the idea of writing about the game he loves was too good to turn down.

He said: “I started writing for the Telegraph on a Monday and that expanded to doing 2-3 pieces a week, I was heavily involved with them.

“I’ve covered World Cups and European Championships for them, that came to an end three years back.”

There are clear distinctions between being sat high up in the press box watching over the 11 men either side of the pitch from a bird’s eye view, then there is walking out to 40,000 North London supporters bellowing Smith’s name.

His anticipation and suspense of waiting to stride out onto the pitch was no greater feeling to him, especially the monumental joy of his half-volley nestling in the net at the 1994 European Cup Winners Cup. 

Smith recalled: “Playing is the most difficult thing to do, that’s why I try and cut players slack.

“It’s a very difficult game to get right, when you’re out on that pitch trying to create something, that’s a huge challenge.

He added: “Commentating is a much different skill, its got its pitfalls but when you’re out on the pitch you’re trying to create something.

Despite trying not to come down too hard on a player –  Smith also revealed, the hunger in players isn’t quite the same as what it once was.

“Hunger is a big issue in the game now, most definitely –  maybe it affects the young lads coming through and they might be beginning to earn as much as £10,000 a week before they’ve got near the first team selection.

“It sounds crazy but it’s the case – driving in the latest Mercedes or BMW and they think they’ve made it, when they haven’t.

“Ultimately, that can take the edge off their motivation and ambition, that’s the fact.”

Smith stated, he and his team-mates would be working tirelessly for their next contract, a better contract and in his case – an opportunity to break into the England team.

During his time at Arsenal, Smith got one foot in the door with Sky Sports, as he became the studio guest when he was ruled out with injury.

By his own admission, Smith ‘seized’ every opportunity he had when being given the opportunity to come into Sky.

Just like aspiring youngsters going on work experience, Smith embarked into the studio, building a rapport with the producers.

The feeling of stepping into the limelight on national television is something anybody would naturally find surreal. 

Smith is among various ex professionals who have retried from the game who have stepped into the punditry role – with some of the biggest names working for Sky being Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher. 

Smith recalled: “You’ve already got one foot in the door, it’s just a case of proving yourself once you’ve been given the opportunity.

“Showing them I had a voice of reason, an opinion on matters and the versatility to do whatever job was asked of me.”

Mediums like Sky Sports are renowned for their coverage of live Premier League games throughout the weekend. 

It’s not only current players that the bosses of Sky Sports invite to the studios, as various managers, both past and present are brought in.

Most recently, Former Chelsea and Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho was assigned to join the panel.

Smith revealed: “It’s always within the best interests of the Sky Sports board of directors to invite a variety of voices and characters into Sky.

“Of course for our viewers – where possible, we want to create debate.”

The comraderies between pundits has become more widely recognised between Smith’s hard-hitting opinionists Roy Keane, Graeme Souness and Gary Neville.

Sky Sports has their own television show called “The Debate” often hosted by pitch side reporter Geoff Shreeves – where pundits like Smith are given a platform to debate all things football.

Smith is occasionally featured as a guest on the programme where he can give more analytically opinions on affairs happening both on and off the pitch.

Transitioning back to the microphone, Smith himself believes his calming demeanour doesn’t allow his emotions to get the better of him.

Of course – there have been one or two incidents that have allowed the former England striker to allow him to show emotive frustration.

Smith recalled: “Certain things happen – feigning injury is a bug, but it is a difficult one as you can’t be 100% sure.

“You can’t go down too hard on a player, because you don’t know whether that player has been caught by an opposition player, of if he is in fact feigning that injury.

“This season, VAR, has been particularly frustrating, partly because of the amount of time the officials have taken to come to a decision.

“A lot of decisions can be decided upon a lot quicker than they have been – hopefully that’ll change.”

Smith was quick to analyse the fact that VAR has often taken away some of that excitement when the ball nestles into the goal.

The technology has been used in this seasons Premier League campaign, as many professionals and pundits are coming to terms with the key differences in the game.

Smith, 57, a former Leicester and Arsenal striker also believes there are always people watching and listening to every remark he speaks down the microphone.

Avoiding being biased is something Smith doesn’t have any problem with.

He said: “I’ve always gone into every game trying to tread a path down the middle, you’re representing both sets of fans who’ve tuned in to support their teams.

“Even though I used to play for both Arsenal and Leicester, I’ve never had to check myself.

“Fans will always accuse you of being biased, no matter what you say, you’ve just got to try and be fair in your own mind to both sides.

Smith hasn’t always had the easiest of transitions – as he has occasionally been dealt with a backlash from his close colleagues and his former employers, one which particularly stands out.

He recalled: “I had a run in with Arsenal many years ago, with the fight at Old Trafford when Ruud Van Nistelrooy missed a penalty and Martin Keown jumped up and landed on him.

“I rushed down to the press box and wrote a piece straight afterwards for the Telegraph being critical, that created a gap between me and club.

“I stopped writing for the Arsenal magazine where I had been going to interview a player every month – it created a bit of journalistic distance but gave me some integrity.”

Subsequently, Arsenal were punished after the game for their actions, but of course, fundamentally, the club reversed their decision and allowed their former striker to write for the magazine.

Despite the negativity caused from this story, Smith admitted his journalism career is something he only dreamt of pursuing in his playing career.

Once players start considering retirement, the PFA subsidise costs of some courses for professionals, whether it may be in print or broadcast journalism.

However, at the start of his commentary career, by his own words, Smith was almost thrown in the deep.

He explained: “At first one of the match directors asked if I wanted to give commentary a go, I was a bit reluctant to begin with.

“Some former players have a go and after 10 games, you don’t hear of them anymore, but thankfully I learnt on my feet and I’m still doing it.

“For most of us, it’s a case of sink or swim – I managed to keep the old feet going under the water and stay afloat.”

Smith explained their training in broadcast isn’t anything like students studying at university level.

“I was given a whole training programme on how to write features, but it’s not like that in commentary and broadcast.”

And while on the same subject, behind the scenes of co-commentary, Smith arrives at his fixture three hours prior to kick-off to finish off his research.

Whether its scrolling through the internet, gathering facts and backstories from local news articles, preparation is key.

Despite needing to be in touch with the local stories, Smith detailed that the main commentator has the overriding job of gathering research, such as statistics and data to provide to the viewers/listeners.

He stated: “At the end of the day, my number one job is to describe what is happening on the pitch, without stating the obvious. 

“If the player has hit the ball past the left-hand post, don’t say he has hit it past the left-hand post. 

“It is my job to tell the viewer why he attempted that effort – by trying to read what was going through the players’ mind at the time.”

As Premier League football becomes so complex, it is impossible for reporters to analyse a top-flight game in just a couple of minutes – with the exception of on-the-whistle reporters, whose job is to have their match report sent to the news editor as soon after the conclusion of the game as possible.

In the world of commentating, Smith explained he has to be versatile throughout the day to keep up with other changes in reporting: “There have been lots of changes since I first started the job.

“Before most games, we’ll do a Facebook live – building up the tension to a match with either some pre-match statistics or even with the comments of both sets of managers.

“More and more, it is our job to build the drama – especially on derby day between Arsenal and Tottenham, for example.

The transition from player to pundit is no walk in the park, but the 57-year-old doesn’t take anything for granted in his position with Sky and London Evening Standard.

He explained: “I would love to do this for as long as possible, it’s a wonderful job, it’s hardly work.

“The one major doubt it, will Sky continue to win the TV rights, with Amazon getting involved – which direction will this go.

“When you get the opportunity to do this – you have to work extremely hard at it, to stay in the job and not rest on your laurels.”

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