After the sad death of Ron Saunders at the weekend, the football world was saddened once again with news much-loved Jim Smith has now passed away.
Known affectionately as ‘the Bald Eagle’ Smith was at Birmingham City when Ron Saunders’ Aston Villa lifted the league title in 1981. It was Saunders who then replaced Smith at St. Andrews a year later after he’d walked out of Villa Park.
Born in Sheffield on 17th October 1940, he was 79 and had managed at seven different clubs. He was also assistant manager at three others.
He took Oxford United through two successive promotions to reach the First Division for the one and only time in their history. Before seeing them kick a ball in the top flight, he left for QPR and masterminded their progress to the League Cup Final. Only to see them beaten by his old team at Wembley. He built an exciting young side at Portsmouth who were within a penalty shootout from beating Liverpool to the FA Cup Final.
His playing career lasted 13 years, and unusually for a Wednesday supporter, began at Sheffield United. He failed to break into the first team and in 1961 he moved to Aldershot in the Fourth Division. Beyond that, he had spells at Halifax Town, Lincoln City before taking on a player-manager position at Boston United. Boston were in the Northern Premier League. Smith got them into the top four in each of his first three seasons. In his fourth season, they reached the FA Cup Third Round and were 40 consecutive league games unbeaten.
He was then offered the position of manager at Colchester United in the Fourth Division. In his first full season, he guided them to promotion. Soon after he moved further up the ladder by taking the job at Blackburn Rovers, newly promoted to the Second Division.
In 1978 Birmingham City were looking for a replacement for Alf Ramsey and opted for Smith. It had taken nine years to move from the Northern Premier League to the First Division, but Smith had done it. However, in his first season, they were relegated.
Smith rebuilt the club and was the manager who accepted a British transfer record, £1m for the club’s star player, Trevor Francis. Ironic when the reason he replaced Alf Ramsey was because England’s World Cup-winning manager resigned as the board wouldn’t sanction a move for Francis.
Birmingham’s stay in the Second Division lasted just 12 months as they bounced straight back, at the expense of Chelsea on goal difference.
In early 1982 Ron Saunders walked out on Aston Villa and within a few weeks the board at St. Andrews decided to dispense with Smith’s services and promptly installed Saunders as their manager.
Smith wasn’t out of work long as he moved to Oxford United. They were a Third Division club at the time, but very ambitious. They were owned by the flamboyant, controversial figure, Robert Maxwell. Smith led them to the Third Division title in 1984, and then a second successive promotion a year later to the First Division for the first time in their history. But before seeing them kick a ball in the top flight, Smith left over a contract dispute.
During his success at the Manor Ground, Smith had to deal with the whole ‘Thames Valley Royals’ debacle. This was an attempt by Maxwell to merge Oxford United and Reading into one club. Smith was to be the manager and his assistant would be the then Reading boss, Maurice Setters.
The idea died a death pretty quickly as few other than Maxwell welcomed the idea. When Smith left Oxford he took up the reigns at Queen’s Park Rangers. In his first season, he led them to the League Cup Final where at Wembley they met the club he’d just left, Oxford. His old charges were too good for his current crop and Oxford won quite easily. On the way to the Final, QPR beat Liverpool in the Semis. A Liverpool side which three months later would be the first club for 15 years to win the double.
He remained at Loftus Road until the end of 1988 when he moved to Newcastle United. He wasn’t able to save them from relegation that season, but they almost bounced straight back a year later. They finished third in the Second Division, just five points from an automatic promotion spot, but lost to Sunderland in the play-offs Semi-Final. Sunderland eventually went up after playoff winners, Swindon Town, were booted out of the First Division through financial irregularities.
Smith lasted at St. James’s Park until March 1991 before he left amid a boardroom struggle. He had a brief spell as Colin Todd’s assistant at Middlesbrough before taking up the manager’s position at Portsmouth. In his four year spell at Fratton Park, he built an exciting young team. In 1992 they took Liverpool to a replay and penalty shootout in the FA Cup Semi-Final.
This team launched the careers of Darren Anderton, John Beresford, Guy Whittingham and Kit Symons.
A year after their FA Cup heroics, they narrowly missed out on automatic promotion to the newly formed Premier League. They were pipped to the post on goal difference by West Ham. But Smith had to suffer the misery of another play-off Semi-Final defeat as his young side lost to Leicester, with once again Swindon being the team which went up. This time they were clean.
Whittingham ended the season top scorer with 42 but he was sold, along with Anderton and the club failed to spend the money wisely. Smith was eventually sacked in January 1995 with the club now at the wrong end of the table.
After spending time as the Chief Executive of the League Managers’ Association, he returned to club management with Derby County.
He guided them to second in Division One in his first season and automatic promotion to the Premier League. He installed Steve McLaren as his assistant and Derby enjoyed top half finishes for the next three years. But gradually the club slid towards the foot of the table, and after relegation was narrowly averted, Smith resigned in October 2001. Under Smith, Derby enjoyed six successive seasons in the top flight. They’ve only spent one back there since.
Since then Smith’s managerial experience has been as assistant. He was Roland Nilsson’s second in command briefly at Coventry and then when Harry Redknapp took over at Portsmouth he invited Smith back for a second time.
Harry and Jim masterminded a demolition of their opponents in the First Division, winning the title with ease. They established the club as a decent Premier League outfit too.
When the two left Portsmouth over the boardroom shenanigans at Fratton Park, Smith briefly followed Redknapp to Southampton. In 2006 he was offered the job as manager back at Oxford United and was given a seat on the board.
He relinquished the manager’s job in November 2007 to concentrate on a director’s role, but was then re-instated a year later, only to step down from all activities within the club in 2009.
Throughout a long and varied career, Smith was liked by almost everyone he came into contact with. Players, managers and journalists all tell stories of their affection for the man. Few people in football manage to go a whole career without treading on someone’s toes, but Smith is often seen as sinned against by boardrooms up and down the country. Fans of clubs he managed still talk about good old days of Smith in charge.
Oxford United released a club statement;
“Oxford United lost a club legend today. Jim had fought illness with his usual bravery for some time. Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this sad time”.
One of his signings at Derby County, Craig Burley tweeted;
“In 1999 I signed for one of the greatest managerial characters that ever graced the English game. Jim “the bald eagle” Smith was a legend. Funny, straight-talking, loved life and football. It was a privilege to play for you. RIP Jim”.
It could be argued he launched the careers of John Aldridge, Ray Houghton (yeah I know Newport and Fulham fans may argue differently), Darren Anderton, Kit Symons, Guy Whittingham, Dean Sturridge and Steve McLaren.
Football is poorer for the passing of a real character and all-round good bloke.