Bustling buccaneer or crude, uncomely battering ram? Both descriptions of the Tottenham Hotspur and England centre-forward Bobby Smith might carry persuasive weight with those who saw the beefy, rampaging spearhead in his early 1960s prime, but arguably the truth was rather more complimentary than either of them. While hardly renowned for his delicacy, and though his on-field demeanour ran a vast gamut between tempestuous aggression and flat-footed indolence, the ebullient Smith could treat a football with unexpected subtlety and his positioning, when he was on his game, was sharply intelligent.
Those underrated attributes apart, he merited vast credit for his sheer bravery, often taking the pitch with severely swollen ankles, the legacy of past conflicts. Smith soaked up constant punishment, but he was willing to dish it out, too, frequently creating physical mayhem on which more artistic colleagues capitalised heavily.
To snooty critics who recognised that the broad-shouldered son of a Yorkshire miner had his uses but wailed about his perceived lack of class, he had the perfect answer. In his first five years at White Hart Lane he became the top goal-scorer in Spurs' history at that time, and it was a fact that Bill Nicholson's beautifully fluent side, the first in the 20th century to win the coveted League and FA Cup double, was never more effective than when Smith was at the vanguard of its attack.
He grew up in the close-knit mining community of Lingdale, and started work in the local pit as an apprentice blacksmith, shoeing the ponies which pulled the wagons of coal, a life of toil to which his bull-like build appeared ideally suited. At that point a career in football, which he played purely for recreation, appeared to be the remotest of possibilities, but the game was to provide an unexpected escape route.
In his early teens Smith was a prodigiously strong but otherwise unremarkable full-back with Redcar Boys. Then one day the team's centre-forward didn't turn up, Smith replaced him and scored twice in a 3-2 victory. Thereafter he never played in defence again, impressing so vividly as leader of the line that he was recruited as an amateur by Chelsea in 1948.
Still, there were obstacles. At first the young Yorkshireman felt homesick and he returned to Lingdale after a month. His father, anxious that the boy should avoid a lifetime of drudgery in the pit, was not unduly sympathetic, hurrying him back to Stamford Bridge with the exhortartion that he should show Chelsea what he was made of.
So he did, turning professional in 1950 and graduating to the Pensioners' First Division line-up as a 17-year-old in September, his seven goals in 16 games helping to preserve the struggling Londoners' top-flight status. However, even after the ambitious Ted Drake replaced Billy Birrell as manager in 1952, Chelsea continued to dice with relegation and, while fitting his football around National Service as a storeman for the medical corps, Smith found it hard to become established.
In the circumstances, his 23 goals in 74 League outings was hardly a risible return and there was one memorable performance which staggered pundits who tended to write him off a blunt instrument. In an FA Cup replay against Leeds United at Villa Park in March 1952 he plundered a magnificent hat-trick, one goal involving a mesmeric dribble past the brilliant John Charles.
By mid-decade, though, with the youthful combination known as Drake's Ducklings having metamorphosed from weedy under-achievers to League champions (in 1955), Smith was languishing in the shadow of the far more stylish Roy Bentley and he didn't play enough games to earn a title medal.
He accepted an £18,000 transfer to Tottenham in December 1955, settling initially into Jimmy Anderson's rather lacklustre team at inside-left and suffering cruel terrace jibes that he was a mere carthorse. Still, he performed creditably in the No 10 shirt, supplying goals which lifted Spurs clear of the relegation zone, but it was when he replaced veteran Len Duquemin at centre-forward that Smith truly blossomed as a free-scoring spearhead.
Over the next five years he ran amok, registering seasonal totals in all senior competitions of 19, 38, 35, 30 and 33, and eclipsing the club record set by George Hunt in the 1930s. In 1956-57, at the business end of a vastly improved attack prompted by the creative midfield duo of Danny Blanchflower and Tommy Harmer, Smith excelled as Tottenham finished as runners-up to Manchester United, and supporters who had ridiculed him previously now took him to their hearts.
A dazzling highlight the following season was a hat-trick against the Busby Babes at Old Trafford, shortly before that wondrous young team was devastated by the Munich air disaster, and his form survived the dip in the club's fortunes which saw them sink to 18th place in the League in 1958-59.
With the new manager Bill Nicholson having commenced his inspirational rebuilding of the side, Spurs rose to third place in 1959-60 – Smith was hard on himself in declaring that his brief spring scoring drought cost his side the title – but in 1960-61, everything gelled as Tottenham became the first club in the 20th century to complete the League and FA Cup double.
The clever schemers Blanchflower and John White, dynamic wing-half Dave Mackay and Cliff Jones, one of the world's most penetrative wingers, attracted most of the plaudits, but Smith's bountiful input deserved every bit as much recognition. The team flowed exquisitely, but without the doughty warhead at the end of their sumptuous moves all those intricate skills would have been wasted.
Occasionally, too, he supplied moments of enchanting footwork, such as the deft flick and volley which undermined challengers Sheffield Wednesday during the title run-in. His strike in the FA Cup final over Leicester City was an underrated gem, too – a wily dummy to gull a marker, a sure touch to control the ball and a coolly dispatched shot. There was a similar goal as Spurs retained the trophy against Burnley a year later, but arguably his sweetest finish was a delectable chip for England against Spain in October 1960, an effort which made a mockery of his so-called clumsiness.
Smith's international career had started a month earlier with a goal against Northern Ireland, and he scored in his first five games for his country, part of Walter Winterbottom's exhilarating 1960-61 combination. He led a fabulous forward line – Bryan Douglas and Bobby Charlton on the flanks and inside-forwards Jimmy Greaves and Johnny Haynes – but they peaked between World Cups.
Indeed, Smith had little luck with the World Cup, not playing a game after travelling to the 1958 tournament in Sweden and narrowly missing selection for Chile four years later, though his 13 goals in 15 England games suggests he was treated harshly.
Back at club level, having been joined by the even more prolific Greaves during 1961-62, and with Les Allen still on the scene, Smith found his place was not always inviolate. However, the canny Nicholson tended to use him for the big games, for which he had an instinct. Thus he remained a major figure as Spurs became the first British winners of a major European trophy, thrashing Atletico Madrid 5-1 in Rotterdam to lift the Cup-Winners' Cup in 1963. But in May 1964 he was replaced by the young Frank Saul and transferred to Fourth Division Brighton for £5,000.
Always a relaxed character – he had been judged too easy-going to captain Tottenham following a trial in the job – Smith was a frequenter of racecourses and dog-tracks who had not provided for his retirement. As a poignant result, he departed White Hart Lane aggrieved by his lack of funds, and when reminded of his glittering achievements declared bitterly that memories would never pay his bills.
There was one more footballing hurrah. When Brighton announced his arrival season ticket sales soared and more than 20,000 fans packed the Goldstone Ground for the season's opener against Barrow. Smith responded with two goals in a 3-1 win, then struck another 17 as the Seagulls became the 1964-65 Fourth Division champions.
A productive Indian summer seemed possible, but Smith, a bulky individual, reported for pre-season training weighing 15st and was suspended for two weeks while he lost a stone. Once the confrontational tone had been set the situation deteriorated rapidly and he was sacked for breaking club rules by contributing articles to a newspaper.
He moved into non-League circles, serving first Hastings United and then Banbury United, but his weight ballooned and, away from football, he hit hard times. Working as a painter and decorator he fell down a manhole and suffered a serious foot injury, and he was troubled by old football wounds. Labouring and driving jobs followed and periodic financial hardship was exacerbated by betting unwisely.
As Smith put it, he spent too many post-football days ducking, diving and gambling, and though he offered a cheerful front at dinners and other functions, much of his retirement was spent regretting his profligacy during his pomp with Spurs and England.
Robert Alfred Smith, footballer; born Skelton, Yorkshire 22 February 1933; played for Chelsea 1950-55, Tottenham Hotspur 1955-64, Brighton and Hove Albion 1964-65; capped 15 times by England 1960-63; married; died 18 September 2010.Reuse content