Why football never gave Jim Smith the credit he deserved - Ex-Portsmouth and Derby physio Neil Sillett

Their working association totalled a decade, the friendship approaching half a century.

Wednesday, 11th December 2019, 5:00 pm
Updated Wednesday, 11th December 2019, 7:17 pm
Former Pompey physio Neil Sillett spent 10 years working with Jim Smith, firstly at Fratton Park and then Derby
Former Pompey physio Neil Sillett spent 10 years working with Jim Smith, firstly at Fratton Park and then Derby

Neil Sillett observed from close-quarters the managerial talents of Jim Smith, initially at Pompey and then Derby County.

He remains convinced the achievements of the Sheffield-born boss are underestimated in football.

While the world bid farewell to the 79-year-old on Tuesday, Sillett had already said his goodbyes at the Oxford hospital the previous week.

Jim Smith attended Oxford United's match against Pompey in August 2017, with the U's running out 3-0 winners. Picture: Joe Pepler

Late in life, Smith had suffered two strokes and was affected by dementia, with Pompey’s head of Academy recruitment continuing to visit his friend.

And he is convinced Smith’s ability as a football manager never received the credit it deserved.

Sillett said: ‘I would think over the years I’d be one of his closest friends – all my boring stories are about Jim!

‘He was such a character, but people don’t give him the credit football-wise.

‘I’ve read one or two articles recently about England playing three at the back. Well, Jim was one of the first to bring it over here while at QPR in the mid-1980s.

‘It’s used quite a lot now. When he was at Pompey after that, he played three at the back with Andy Awford in between Kit Symons and Guy Butters. I wouldn’t have thought it had been played much at Fratton Park before that.

‘His attention to detail was far better than people give him credit for really. My role at Derby was to collect opposition stuff and he would drive you crazy!

‘He was great to work with, so professional. He loved to live life, but everything had to be spot on, little details in the dressing room.

‘Although I remember Derby playing at West Ham, I had just written the team sheet after a late change through injury and we were in Harry Redknapp’s office.

‘It was 2.20pm and Harry asked us if we fancied a glass of this Lebanese red win he had. Well, it was beautiful, we ended up having two bottles between the three of us while watching the racing.

‘Then we realised it was two minutes to three and the teams had gone out!’

Initially Smith’s head physio at Pompey before the manager’s February 1995 dismissal, Sillett then followed him to Derby.

During their time at Pride Park, Smith won promotion to the Premier League and secured two top-10 finishes, until his resignation in October 2001.

Sillett added: ‘At Pompey, the owner Jim Gregory fell ill and wasn’t really in charge. Jim always said: “If he had signed the one player I wanted we would have got promotion that year (1992-93)”.

‘Jim would go on about the 5-5 draw against Oxford – at the time he predicted that would haunt us – and would also mention Guy Whittingham taking the penalty at Peterborough instead of Warren Aspinall and then missing.

‘As for Knightsie, he blamed him for not saving John Barnes’ free-kick! Jim had a picture behind his office desk and, at the point of the photo being taken, Knightsie’s hand was past the post.

‘It was probably a fraction of a second after he touched the ball, but Jim would frequently bring it up on a Friday – “Look at that picture, how can he not have saved it?”.

‘When he was asked to come back to be Harry's assistant, Harry initially contacted me to convince him, as he knew how close we were.

‘Jim took a lot of persuading, he had just left Coventry, he was disillusioned and wanted a break – but he eventually agreed.

‘He didn’t want to go to Southampton with Harry, but struggled with Milan Mandaric, Jim spoke his mind, the boardroom didn’t like that.

‘But that was Jim, such a terrific character.’