Monday, 21 March 2016

"The Most Northern Looking Bloke in Football History"

Inspired by a talk from Harry Pearson, here's a piece from the programme for tonight's Jarrow Roofing v Morpeth Town game, which the FA Vase finalists currently lead by a goal to nil.  Northern League programme of the year in its debut season, the Roofer - designed in Serbia and written by volunteers in South Tyneside, York and Japan - was runner-up behind West Allotment Celtic in 2014-15. 

Non-League Day 2015 came and went with defending Northern League champions Marske United between matches and Roofing going down 3-1 at Morpeth Town, a side many still fancy as the next title holders of the world's second oldest football league.

While the Roofers were at Craik Park, I was in Malton, North Yorks, where Harry Pearson, Northern League chronicler and Great Ayton native, was giving a talk at the Ryedale Book Festival on the sporting heroes of the North Riding. Extensively covered elsewhere, Clough and Revie were only briefly touched upon, the main footballing focus the likes of South Bank – three-time Northern League champions before their Normanton Road ground became so blighted by theft and vandalism that someone even stole the guard dog - Wilf Mannion, the irascible golden boy, and Bobby Smith, who Pearson described as “the most Northern looking bloke in football history”.

Born in Lingdale, just a few miles from the modern Northern League heavyweights of Marske United and Guisborough Town, Smith was working as an apprentice blacksmith when Chelsea spotted him playing for a Redcar youth team. The 15-year-old arrived in London in 1948, turned professional two years later, and scored 18 goals in 48 league appearances before Spurs paid out a £16,000 transfer fee in December 1955. Team captain at White Hart Lane from 1958 to March 1959, the miner's son equalled Tottenham's scoring record with 36 strikes during the 1957-58 season and won renown for what was euphemistically described as “a robust style of play”, Jimmy Greaves recalling how his forward partner would scream "You're going to f***ing get it, mate'' at opposition defenders before the start of each game.

Double-winners in 1961 as Smith contributed another 33 goals, the following March Spurs were closing in on what would have been Europe's first ever treble, topping the Football League and through to the semi-finals of both FA and European Cups. Drawn against eventual winners Benfica, the Londoners came within a crossbar's width of taking the tie to extra-time, Smith scoring in both legs of the 4-3 aggregate defeat. Weeks later, he netted the crucial second goal in the 3-1 FA Cup Final victory over a Burnley side which included five more players from the Northern League's hinterland, including Ashington's Jimmy Adamson and John Angus, once of Alnwick Town. Burnley's manager, Harry Potts, hailed from Hetton-le-Hole, while his counterpart, Bill Nicholson, came from Scarborough. In May 1963,  Smith, Nicholson and Malton's Terry Dyson were all present as Tottenham picked up England's first European trophy with a 5-1 Cup Winners' Cup thrashing of Atletico Madrid. In all, Smith scored 208 goals in just 317 games for Spurs and 13 in 15 caps for England before, angered by a series of newspaper articles he'd written, the White Hart Lane board sold him off to fourth division Brighton for a mere £5,000 in 1964.  A year and 19 goals later he was off again, released from his contract after reporting for pre-season training two-stone overweight. 

By 1968, the double winner, now out of football altogether, was working as a taxi driver and painter and decorator, his gambling addiction frequently forcing him into penury. “If he'd been playing today,” thought his biographer Norman Giller, “he would have been revered as a player in the Alan Shearer class, and rewarded with the riches that his ability warranted. But he played in the soccer slave era. His rewards were pain in the limbs and – much of it self-inflicted – poverty in the pocket.”

“A wonderful footballer but also one of the hardest men ever to lace up a pair of boots, a prolific gambler and a bloody good friend,” wrote Jimmy Greaves when Smith, aged 77, died following a lengthy battle with cancer in 2010.

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