IN October it will be 31 years since Alex Smith accepted his first managerial post with Stenhousemuir. The chances are that he began his stint with Dundee United last week at least as enthusiastic, maybe even more so, than he did then.

There are people who love football, people who think they do because they know nothing else, and then there is Alex Smith.

Bearing in mind the appalling way he was treated by St Mirren and Aberdeen, both of whom endured long slumps after he was dismissed, Smith's insistence that ''it is a tremendous privilege'' to be back in the mainstream again is testament to his remarkable devotion to the ball game.

Many people will find it mystifying that a man who has been over the course at the lower and higher levels of management, who enjoyed (and will continue to enjoy) his hassle-free position as manager of Scotland's Under 21s and who is a successful businessman would wish to return to the front of the stage where so many younger men have felt the spotlight too fierce.

Yet Alex finds the suggestion that he should have been happy with his lot puzzling. ''This thing is in your blood, you know. It took me two minutes when Jim McLean phoned for me to say ''yes'' and get up the road to Dundee.

''Of course, it is far from easy and there are pressures, but it is a tremendous privilege to be involved. You have to remember you are doing a job you love and it is also different from most other occupations when you think that you spend all of your time mixing with an age group that runs from 16 to 36 or so. They keep you vibrant.''

That is a word that would be apposite to describe the spirit of the man who was appointed as Stenhousemuir manager on October 4, 1969, and since then has gone on to manage Stirling Albion, St Mirren, Aberdeen and Clyde as well as being assistant at Raith Rovers.

If he is laid down with the blues at any time Smith disguises it astonishingly well.

He has never changed his philosophy, one which might surprise a few people who see him solely as man who wants to discover, nurture and mature young footballers. He does love that part of the business but he takes it further.

''Of course it is great to see 16-year-olds develop and mature into great players. Not all of them can reach the level you are seeking but there is no sin in that. It is through no fault of their won that they can't have careers like Paul Lambert or Alex McLeish, Maurice Malpas or Willie Miller.

''What is more important is that they come out at the other end good people. They come out after working with a club as better people. As long as they take something from it which leads them into other jobs or careers then we have achieved something. I like nothing better than meeting an ex-player of mine who is a managing director of a company or a chief executive of an organisation. I get as much a kick out of that as I do at meeting players with massive successes in the game because those people have also made successes of their life.''

Even so, why volunteer for all the aggravation that goes with a club job, especially in the heat of the Premier League?

''Because you need the daily involvement, you need the Saturday afternoon. Football belongs to Saturday afternoon, despite the times we are made to play these days. If your work all week you need the football on Saturday at the end of it.

''The knowledge of the job does help you cope with the hassle and the pressure. The experience helps you know how to try to get the best out of players. Sometimes you can go along doing everything right and your players still do not play well and in that case it may be a time for a change in the club. Football can be like that.''

Smith and his chairman, Jim McLean, go back a long time, of course, and Alex is quick to make the point that he will have regular chats with the chairman.

''It would be daft not make use of all that experience and all that knowledge of the club. Similarly, I will talk and listen to John Blackley and Maurice Malpas. I know where the buck stops but I also know it is foolish to go into a club and ignore the traditions, the style it has established and how it achieved success in the past.''

Smith has always said, especially in his role as chairman of the Managers and Coaches Association, that new managers must be given a decent space of time, around three or four years, to make their mark, their changes and their influences.

Whether he will get that at Tannadice remains to be seen but his job, while described as ''interim'' is really open-ended. He has signed no contract, believing that it was in the interests of both the club and himself to avoid long-term contracts.

''So really I have come here to get on with the job and I will work here until such times as the club don't want me or that I feel it is time for another man to come in.

''I didn't want the relationship with Jim to become an upstairs-downstairs thing.''

Ironically, Smith had just completed a TV interview when he received the call from McLean last week. ''I had been rattling on about the treatment young managers were getting, the pressures they are being put under, rattling off names of some who had been sacked, and 10 minutes later I was saying 'yes' to go to Tannadice. I spoke to Craig Brown to see if it would affect my role with the Under 21s, but that was okay, so I hurried up the road.

''I am loving every minute of it and the fans gave me as good a reception as I have ever received. They were tremendous.''

Smith will never have a chip on his shoulder about the dismissals at St Mirren and Aberdeen but he will also always believe that he should have been given more time at both clubs. That sense of aggrievance will be one of the motivating factors as he attempts to restoke the Tannadice boiler.

His ambitions? ''First I would like to see this club in the top six in the league and then have a look at maybe getting into Europe.''