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Football News: Underrated Players 1: Tommy Smith

Underrated Players 1: Tommy Smith
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Underrated Players: Number 1 The Anfield Iron Tommy Smith


This series is to give credit to those players who are often dismissed as 'just a ....' and never really given the credit they deserve for having ability. It is not my judgement of their rating I am using, but picking them due to the articles you tend to read about them, which never seem to quite give them the credit they deserve or comments from people online. It is not about the person, but the player, so I will also not be getting into controversies, such as Tommy Smith's racism (ironic considering his namesake was one of the Olympic Athletes in Mexico in 1968 that gained worldwide fame for giving a 'Black Power' salute).

Smith was always dismissed as merely an enforcer, someone to frighten opponents into submission, a reputation he worked to build for himself by his actions on the pitch. While he occasionally lamented how his reputation would overshadow his ability, Smith also knew that it gave him "an edge", something Bill Shankly wanted from his players. So it was that he would use tricks such as handing Jimmy Greaves a menu from Liverpool Infirmary (hospital) ahead of kick off to instil fear and create himself a legend as "The Anfield Iron".

"Tommy Smith wasn't born, he was quarried." - Bill Shankly

It was the 5th April 1945 when Smith was born, leading Steve Kindon, a fellow pro, to say: "I'm not saying Tommy Smith was hard, but he was born in April 1945 and the Germans surrendered a month later." An only child, Tommy's father died of pneumonia in 1959 and it led to the end of his Catholic upbringing as he stopped attending church afterwards. Not because of some epiphany caused by the loss of his father, instead it was his disgust after seeing the local priest stagger out of his family home drunk when he had visited to offer condolences.

A year later he became a schoolboy associate at Liverpool, joining the groundstaff as was the custom in those days. In those days he was a centre-forward who manager Bill Shankly quickly took under his wing, becoming a father figure to him. It did not start so well though for him: "I was only 15 and playing in a five-a-side game at Melwood," Smith recalled later. "I nutmegged Gerry Byrne and scored and I was on top of the world. A couple of minutes later a ball dropped between us. I went to head it and Gerry headed me and I went down with a gashed eye. As I lay on the ground covered in blood, Bill Shankly strolled across, looked down at me and said, 'Lesson number one, never nutmeg Gerry Byrne son and think you can get away with it.'"

That lesson stayed with Smith throughout his career, he became known for 'letting people know he was around' early in games. It was his way of getting an advantage, a frightened opponent is not going to perform to his best, especially when the man inspiring the fear is ready to cut him in half the moment he gets the ball. Shankly was impressed by what he saw and Smith went straight into the A team, jumping straight past two reserve teams. Smith continued to make a big impression playing as a forward, in pre-season ahead of the 1961-62 season he beat Shankly's 'colossus' Ron Yeats to a header to score in training in front of the watching Shanks. The following summer he turned professional on £18 a week.

"I remember once at St James Park, Newcastle, Malcolm McDonald had scored a hat-trick against us. He was making his home debut, I'd missed a penalty and Kevin Keegan had given one away. Towards the end of the game McDonald went up for a high ball with Ray Clemence and Clem clattered him. He had to be carried off and as he lay on the stretcher I walked over to him and said 'Right, that's yer lot, you'll never score another fucking goal against Liverpool while I'm on the same pitch', and I meant it, and what's more, he never did. At the end of that season we played them in the cup final and once again words were exchanged in the tunnel before the game. Then we went out and slaughtered them 3-0 and it could have been 6." - Tommy Smith

Smith made his Liverpool debut in May 1963, replacing an injured Jimmy Melia in a 5-1 win over Birmingham City, but did not play again for the rest of the season or the next one. Smith did enough to impress England and went with the England youth team that won the 1963 Junior World Cup. He finally made his second appearance for LFC in August 1964, where he scored his first goal playing inside-left in a 3-2 defeat against Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park. That was enough to keep his place, scoring against Leeds and then making two more appearances before being dropped back to the reserves once more.

It was 1964 that he finally earnt his place in Liverpool's team. It was LFC's first ever European foray and he was brought into the team as a defender against the then-mighty Anderlecht. Shankly picked Smith as a number 10 but told him to play in defence, that confused Anderlecht so much that he was man marked by their number 4 for the first 20 minutes! Tommy was desperate to make a good impression: "They had a lad who could really play a bit, Van Himst his name was. I slammed into him early on and as he got up, he pointed to his head, and said 'Loco' to me. I was determined to show Shanks I was up for the task."

Liverpool won 3-0 and Smith was excellent, prompting Shankly to say: "The game marked out Tommy Smith as a fine player. The boy has arrived." Tommy played every game of the FA Cup run that season as Liverpool picked up their first FA Cup with a 2-1 win over Leeds United in the final. While he managed to lock down a place in the Liverpool side, at international level it was a different matter, though he did make Alf Ramsey's initial 40-man squad list for the 1966 World Cup. However he was one of the ones removed when it was pared down to the final squad of 28 to go to Lilleshall, Smith was put on standby to replace any injury drop-outs.

"Tommy doesn't tackle opponents so much as break them down for resale as scrap." - Bob Paisley

In the end he made just one England appearance, in 1971, the season that he was made Liverpool captain and was also runner-up in the Footballer of the Year voting. Smith was a hard man, as no less a man than Jack Charlton said: "Tommy Smith was easily the hardest player I faced. I ran into him once and he knocked every ounce of breath out of me. I tried to get up and look like he hadn't hurt me, but he had." He was more than that though, Smith was more akin to a Bobby Moore-style of defender, with excellent reading of the game and the ability to pick a pass. Very few people remember that though because, in his own words, "I make no bones about it, that's what I was good at. Some players were good dribblers, others good headers, I was a hard tackler and I used it to gain that 'edge' that Shanks was always looking for."

Even when, towards the end of his career, he went over to the USA to play for the Tampa Bay Rowdies he was given the nickname of 'The Tank'. A European Cup final goal aside, Smith will not be remembered for good play on the pitch, he will be remembered for frightening opponents, for his feud with Emlyn Hughes and for stunts like handing Jimmy Greaves the menu for the local infirmary before kick-off. If he had played 20 years later, it could well have been him presenting the 'Soccer Hard Men' video and grabbing Paul Gascoigne by the balls.

While it may have given him 'an edge', it has made sure that he is not remembered for being good enough for Matt Busby to attempt to sign him for his 'Busby Babes'. As being good enough to play left-back, right-back and centre-back in some great Liverpool sides. Instead he is remembered as being the photograph that mothers in Merseyside would put on the mantelpiece to keep the kids away from the fire and the one that nearly cut Ossie Ardiles in half with a 'tackle' to remind the Argentinian that "this was a man's league".

Written by Tris Burke September 04 2020 08:38:34


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