Jim Smith: facing the hairdryer and seeing the human side of the man who gave some of my happiest Portsmouth memories
The copy of Jim Smith: The Autobiography was already well-thumbed but the contents a treasure for the nerve-wracking assignment ahead.
A pre-arranged sit-down with the book’s subject in the plush-but-slightly-intimidating confines of Nigel Mansell’s Woodbury Park in Devon would prove the catalyst for the last-minute cramming for this cub Pompey reporter.
The opportunity to quiz the man who oversaw some of the most exciting days of this teenage fan’s football-supporting life wasn’t one to be taken lightly, and will be forever appreciated. It also just so happened to arrive on the eve of one of the greatest seasons in Portsmouth Football Club’s 121-year history.
To most Blues fans, the man from Sheffield will be the figure who took their young team to within nine minutes of an FA Cup final, as they faced mighty Liverpool in the FA Cup semi-final in 1992.
He then, of course, followed that up with some of the most exciting football Pompey followers have ever witnessed, as they eventually missed out on FA Premier League football by virtue of the fact West Ham scored one more goal than his side, after they both finished on 88 points in May 1993.
Smith, like us all, couldn’t help but harp back to moments like the 5-2 advantage being surrendered with 13 minutes left at Oxford the previous November, as the long - and criminally offside - limb of Ian Ormondroyd denied them in the play-offs against Leicester.
It was after being convinced by his old QPR chairman Jim Gregory to succeed caretaker boss Tony Barton in 1991, that the man known throughout the game as the Bald Eagle took the brave decision to throw in an array of promising youngsters for his maiden campaign at the Fratton helm.
Smith’s Eaglets had a nice ring about it as an impressive 1-1 draw was picked up at big-spending Blackburn on the opening day and the likes of Darren Anderton, Darryl Powell, Kit Symons and Andy Awford went on to be fully blooded.
Still, there was little sign of what was to follow as an FA Cup run started in January and really gathered pace with victory at Middlesbrough, before violently accelerating as Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest were dispatched at Fratton, courtesy of Alan McLoughlin’s goal.
That set up the Highbury date with the top-flight giants in front of the watching eyes of the nation, as Anderton exploded into the English football-watching public’s consciousness. We all know the tale of rebounded free-kick tap-in, replay woodwork and eventual heartbreaking penalty shootout defeat at Villa Park, which denied Pompey a Wembley date against Sunderland they would’ve surely fancied winning.
Yet, you wouldn’t have known the pain coming so close to glory had caused, as Smith welcomed my cumbersome inquisitions on his four-year stewardship in Devon after his return in 2002.
For these eyes which had been in thrall to his work a few years earlier, earning a commendation for comparing the then search for a talismanic signing to the recruitment of Igor Stimac at Derby, as his side won promotion to the Premier League in 1996, set the pulse racing. Paul Merson was to be that man as Fratton Park reverberated to incessant tune of ''Arry and Jim’ and its variants as the Division One title was secured in record-breaking fashion.
It was testament to the five-time managerial promotion winner’s contribution to that never-to-be-forgotten campaign that Harry Redknapp maintains bringing Smith back to the club as his assistant was his best-ever signing.
The same can be said of the Sports Mail recruiting the League Cup finalist as a columnist, which I was proud and honoured to ghostwrite. His anecdotes were always top drawer with a virtually peerless back catalogue curated from over half a century at all levels of football.
For a young sports reporter making his way in the game, picking up the phone to hear Smith’s gruff Yorkshire tones was a weekly highlight and, frankly, a thrill for someone who’d cycled to his local school playing fields in Purbrook on a daily basis a decade earlier, to see a history-writing side pieced together at close quarters in ramshackle surroundings.
Jim would always be available at the appointed time and knew where the questions were headed before I did myself, as he formed his responses. It was always clear when time was up, though, as a blunt ‘correct’ was the answer to your ramblings - seven letters which achieved cult status on the sports desk.
If that was a well-known Smithism so was his sometimes combustible ways, which The News were intermittently on the receiving end of down the years. One such infamous occasion resulted in 2003, after a ‘Dad’s Army’ piece featured in the Sports Mail after Pompey had reached the Premier League.
A graphic with Blues players, Smith and Redknapp super-imposed on the characters of the classic BBC comedy was ostensibly meant to thumb a nose to those who’d questioned opting for experience over youth to prepare for the club’s maiden Premier League campaign. It wasn’t seen that way by the powers that be at Fratton - and particularly Jim.
A phone conversation aimed a smoothing the way over for a pre-season return to Woodbury Park proved little more than an aperitif to a rant of, well, Jim Smith proportions, when myself and former Pompey reporter Steve Bone came face to face with the man himself and residents of the plush resort looked on in bemusement. They don’t like it up ‘em? No, we certainly didn’t.
Smith never suffered fools and that’s exactly what we were to him that summer afternoon, as we faced his very personal take on the hairdryer treatment made universal by Sir Alex Ferguson. But as is the way in all the best relationships between writer and manager, things blew up, blew over and any grievances were carried off in the breeze.
That couldn’t be said for the lines of communication between Pompey’s management team and the club’s owner, as a complete breakdown in relations with Milan Mandaric at the end of the 2003-04 season marked the beginning of the end of their tenure - and Smith’s time at the club. The News’ timing was impeccable as we joined Redknapp for pre-match press duties on the eve of the final game of the season, only to witness a furious Smith storm from Pompey’s Eastleigh base in a row over his own future.
He was to make a final return to the Wellington Sports Ground, however, after crossing the divide a few months later, as he absent-mindedly arrived at the Blues’ training home when he was due to report for his first day as Southampton assistant. Old and fond habits, indeed.
There’s much about that comical tale which is heart-warming and speaks about his deep-rooted affinity with Pompey. That sentiment permeated a managing great’s words whenever contacted to regale us with his memories or give opinions on affairs in the days following his final departure from PO4.
James Michael Smith gave six years of his footballing life to Portsmouth Football Club, service time which was never topped at any of the 15 football outfits he served. He also happened to give this observer some of his happiest days as both a Pompey fan and writer.