Jim Smith - great Portsmouth manager, great character, but not always a man of many words
Journalist and North stand stalwart Steve Bone writes a touching tribute to the late Jim Smith...
I have two abiding memories from the numerous times I had contact with Jim Smith. One involved him having virtually nothing to say – the other was an occasion when he had plenty to say.
The first was the day after Pompey had become the first team ever to lose an FA Cup semi-final on penalties, going down 3-1 in the Villa Park shoot-out after matching their illustrious opponents for 210 minutes over two games and going so close to beating them.
I was a writer on the Pompey programme in those days and occasionally got the job of phoning Jim for his programme notes. It just so happened to fall to me to do it this particular week.
We had a programme to put together for the following week’s home game against Bristol City and were obviously keen to get Jim’s thoughts, painful though they might be, on the Villa Park experience.
After numerous attempts by me, he answered and I explained I needed to put together about 400 or 500 words for the programme. ‘Just tell em,’ he said, ‘I’m so proud of the players and the fans’. And that was it. End of interview, end of phone call.
You couldn't blame him for not wanting to go over it all in great detail. It was only a little over 12 hours since the game had ended in such heart-wrenching fashion for the Bald Eagle and his troops.
I can't recall how we got round his reluctance to chat. Perhaps someone still in possession of that Pompey-Bristol City programme from April 20,1992, can tell me if it contains a piece from Jim. If it does, then well done to the person who must have phoned a day or so later and had more luck.
Just over a decade later, Jim had been back at Fratton for a season alongside Harry Redknapp and they had overseen a spectacular season of goals and attacking football that had ended in the Division One title and promotion to the Premier League.
By this time I was on the sports desk at The News and young Jordan Cross and I had been sent to cover the Blues’ pre-season stay at Woodbury Park in Devon in July 2003. Just before we followed them down there, there'd been a piece in the Sports Mail mocking up a photo of the Dad's Army cast with Pompey players' heads superimposed.
It was supposed to be a bit of gentle fun making the point that Harry and Jim (who were both also in the photo) were relying on some old, experienced heads for Pompey's first term in the Premier League, but some at Fratton took umbrage.
It was quite startling in the car park at Woodbury Park to hear the unmistakable tones of an irate Jim telling us both what he thought of us and our newspaper. One or two swear words may have been included in his tirade.
Somehow he forgave us and, by and large, during his second spell at Fratton, The News had a good relationship with him. I know I did quite a few pieces with him at the training ground and he was always good value.
I am honoured to have had the chance to interview the Bald Eagle a few times. He was great character – a bit old school as a manager, I suppose you'd regard him as today – and above all, a great manager.
As No1 and later No2, he oversaw two of the best Pompey teams to have graced the Fratton turf in recent times: the Cup semi-finalists and unlucky play-off losers of the early 1990s and the all-conquering Division One champions of 02-03.
It’s a job to know what was his biggest achievement first time around – getting little old Pompey within minutes of the FA Cup final in 1992 or so close to promotion a year later.
He began with a team of youngsters, former bricklayers and players others thought well past their best in 1991-92. That 4-2 replay win at Ayresome Park, the quarter-final win over Cloughie's Nottingham Forest and thesemi and replay v Liverpool have to be up there among the highlights of their Pompey lives for anyone who saw any of them.
I was lucky enough to see all four and will never forget the extremes of emotion experienced in that run. The shootout loss was made all the more worse by the thought Pompey may never get that close to the Cup final again – not quite correct, as it turned out.
The following season started slowly but gathered momentum to end in a brush with promotion to this new-fangled Premier League – a brush as close as the one a year earlier with the Cup final.
We looked on in awe as Paul Walsh, Guy Whittingham, Alan McLoughlin and Mark Chamberlain tore other teams to shreds, while Warren Neill, Ray Daniel, Kit Symons, Andy Awford and Knightsie held them at bay at the other end.
I still say the first half of the home game versus Tranmere that season (November 21, final score 4-0) was one of the best halves of football I've ever seen at Fratton. It was breath-taking.
Jim, though, was not a lucky manager and, well, let's not talk too much about Leicester, Roger Milford and Ian Ormondroyd here. Jim's first Pompey spell never hit the same heights after that play-off defeat, although when he was sacked just after halfway through the 94-95 season, despite the fact form was very poor in the last couple of months of his reign, it still seemed like a shabby way to dispense with someone who'd given us the best of Pompey times.
When he returned, rather surprisingly, as Harry’s No2 in the summer of 2002, fans were delighted to see him back, and soon realised this was a duo capable of doing something special. Rarely can an assistant manager have had his name sung as often as Jim’s was mentioned that season in the Fratton crowd’s ‘We're going up, with Harry and Jim’ and ‘Harry and Jim, Premier League’ songs.
Mr Redknapp is not known for playing down his own role in successful sides, so when you hear him speak of Jim being his best-ever signing, as he has since the Bald Eagle's sad passing was announced, you realise the influence the right-hand man had on that team.
Jim stayed at Pompey with Harry until that fateful day in November 2004 when, shortly after Milan Mandaric misguidedly brought in Velimir Zajec, both moved on. Jim didn’t do his rating among Blues fans much good in following Harry ‘up the road’ a couple of weeks later, but he saw sense and didn't stay long. And time heals and the outpouring of grief from the blue end of the M27 following Jim's death is for a man rightly admired as a Pompey legend.
If he’s up there now and anyone is able to pass on a message – well, no need for all the hundreds of words I’ve just written about. Just tell him, the players and fans are so proud of him.
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