17 October 1940 – 10 December 2019
Former Pompey manager and assitant manager dies aged 79.
There was a good reason why Sir Alex Ferguson once said that Jim Smith, who has died at 79, was ‘legendary’ and that to be in his company was ‘one of the pleasures of my job’.
The South Yorkshireman’s glories were relatively sparse — promotions to the First Division with Oxford United and Birmingham City and to the Premier League with Derby County — but an hour or so in his company was precious to all who knew him.
‘The Bald Eagle’, as Smith was known, will be remembered for the humour, charm and humility he brought to a managerial career which took him to nine clubs and made him a part of the fabric of Oxford United, where he was eventually a director.
Smith brought an expansive brand of football, too. His own playing style, at Lincoln City and Colchester United, had been dour and he seemed to want to compensate for that, bringing Archie Gemmill and Frank Worthington to Birmingham City.
He loved Trevor Francis, selling him to Nottingham Forest for £1million while at St Andrew’s but buying him back at QPR.
And when things did not go to plan, he revealed that comedian’s timing which characterised some managers of that era.
‘Trevor told me he had a system for taking penalties,’ he said after Francis had missed one at Loftus Road. ‘I don’t know what it is but it’s obviously bloody useless…’
There was the same deadpan delivery when he was describing the challenging fit between functional English players and stylish continentals which he oversaw in those changing times — such as Italian midfielder Stefano Eranio at Derby.
‘He could stop the ball dead with his toe,’ Smith once said of Eranio.
‘One game, at half time, he said to our big, ugly centre half Spencer Prior, “Spencer, why you always put ball in stand? No players in stand”.’
At Derby, Smith unearthed Igor Stimac, Aljosa Asanovic and Paulo Wanchope for modest sums.
But Newcastle was his best shot at the big time. He arrived in 1988, declaring that ‘the day will come’ when he could call up Ferguson and ask for his best players. Newcastle fans are still waiting for it.
Money was flooding into the game and lining the pockets of agents in a way which made Smith, like so many of his managerial generation, deeply suspicious. ‘It’s turning into a spivs’ market place,’ he once said.
The man with deep pockets with whom he aligned himself was the millionaire publisher and former MP Robert Maxwell at Oxford, who he led from the Third Division to the First Division between 1982 and 1985. Maxwell wasn’t all bad, Smith always said, talking in football terms rather than about the Mirror pensions scandal.
It was when Maxwell refused him a pay rise that Smith moved on to QPR, only to suffer the indignity of being thumped 3-0 by his old club in the 1986 League Cup final.
He returned to Oxford in the twilight of his career, fighting a losing battle to keep them in the Football League. He handled that with style, just as always. Even the very worst of officialdom brought out his class.
‘I understand Walter Smith has described the referee as diabolical,’ he once said after a punishing afternoon at Everton. ‘I didn’t think he was as good as that.’