Gordon Smith

Outstanding Scottish player in a golden generation of footballers
Click to follow

Gordon Smith, footballer: born Edinburgh 25 May 1924; played for Edinburgh Hibernian 1941-59, Heart of Midlothian 1959-61; Dundee 1961-63; capped 18 times for Scotland 1947-57; married (one son); died North Berwick, East Lothian 7 August 2004.

George Best did not stay long enough at Easter Road, the home of Hibernian Football Club, to learn about the man whose role he briefly inherited. Had he done so, the celebrated Northern Ireland player might have been offered a chance to reflect on the squandering of talent.

Gordon Smith ran a pub near Hibernian's ground, appropriately called the Right Wing, when Best arrived to make his cameo role in 1979-80. The former Manchester United star was in his early thirties, but his puffy body showing the signs of too much drink, whereas Smith, though two decades his senior, was still lean. He may have owned the pub, but he never touched drink.

Smith had so many similarities to Best, yet was also the antithesis. Both were remarkably handsome men, despite the brutal attention of the full-backs who marked them, yet shy in company. Yet while Best's top-class career was over - self-inflicted - before he was 30, Smith was the model of longevity who played for 23 years and became the most outstanding Scottish player in what was a golden generation. A winger who scored almost 400 goals in 900 games, he won three Scottish League championships with separate clubs, even though he never played for either Celtic or Rangers, the Glasgow duopoly who overshadow everyone else. That achievement, with Hibernian, Heart of Midlothian and Dundee is never likely to be equalled.

However, it is with Hibernian that Smith is indelibly linked. He was part of the club's most successful side, which won three Scottish titles between 1948 and 1952 and contained a forward line which was dubbed the Famous Five. Though Bobby Johnstone, Lawrie Reilly, Eddie Turnbull and Willie Ormond were partners in the quintet - who have a stand named in their honour at Easter Road - all acknowledged that Smith was first among equals.

His talent was visible from the outset. Smith, who was born in Edinburgh in 1924 and grew up in Montrose on the north-east coast, was playing for a junior side in Dundee when Willie McCartney, the Hibernian manager, spotted him in 1941 when he scored three goals in a friendly game against a Hearts-Hibs select team. Hearts, whom Smith supported, also wanted the youngster but they were beaten to his signature by McCartney's offering a £10 signing-on fee. It was to be a costly error. A few weeks later, Smith made his début for Hibernian in the Edinburgh derby against Hearts, at the age of 16. He scored a hat-trick, one of 17 he would net in a green and white shirt, and his hero status was assured.

Smith would go on to play 700 games for Hibernian, scoring 364 goals, 170 of which were only deemed to be competitive because the Second World War fixtures do not count in Scottish statistical records. The young Smith worked in Leith Shipyards during the war and, if hostilities cut across the early part of his career, he would more than make up for it in his thirties.

Hibernian were simply overwhelming in those days. On one occasion, they routed Rangers 8-1, on another they beat Third Lanark 8-0 with Smith scoring five. However, he was also a supplier of goals. His golden epoch was to come after the 1948 title success when Hibernian saw the teenage Reilly emerge as a prolific striker. Allied to the talents of Ormond, Turnbull and Johnstone, it was inevitable that the Famous Five would accrue more success: the back-to-back Scottish League championships of 1951 and 1952 saw England's glamour club of the day, Newcastle United, have a record offer for Smith turned down.

His reward was a testimonial, which saw 76,000 people turn out at Easter Road to pay homage to Smith as Hibernian defeated Manchester United 7-3. The irony was that the group of selectors who chose the Scotland national side seemed myopic. Smith made only 18 appearances. His début came in 1947, in a 1-1 draw against England at Wembley, but he came into his own in 1955 when he was made captain at the age of 31, with the highlight coming when he eclipsed the famous Ferenc Puskas in a 3-1 defeat of Hungary.

Smith and Hibernian then became pioneers as the first British side to enter the European Cup, with the Edinburgh side falling at the semi-final to Rheims of France. However, Smith then suffered two broken legs, the legacy of which would prompt his move across the city to Hearts. The Hibernian board refused to finance an ankle operation in 1959 and shortsightedly gave him a free transfer at the age of 35.

Smith was worried about how he would be received by the Hearts supporters but he received his answer when 10,000 came out simply to see him in a reserve game. Hearts claimed the league title in 1959-60 and the Scottish League Cup the following season. At Dundee, his next destination, he played pivotal roles in the 1961-62 title success and the club's run to the European Cup semi-finals in 1963 where they lost to AC Milan.

After Dundee, he had short spells with Morton and Drumcondra in Ireland before retiring in 1964. Though he ran his pub, Smith preferred the fresh air of the links, where his love of golf saw him buy a house at North Berwick, just a short distance from the championship course.

Phil Gordon

Comments