'It's not ballet – injuries will happen,' says Stoke legend

Potters great, who suffered five broken legs, discusses Shawcross tackle and the brutal 1970s
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The Independent Online

"As we got up from a tackle Ossie stamped on my ankle, which swelled up and remained painful for the rest of the game. I gained a small amount of revenge by heading the back of his head in a challenge."

Denis Smith recalling, in his autobiography, marking Chelsea's Peter Osgood during the 1972 Football League Cup final.

Even in the biggest match in Stoke City's history Denis Smith traded bruises, but that was the nature of the game 30 years ago. The veteran manager and City legend has been recalling those days this week, for good and bad reasons.

Last Saturday he saw Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey carried off at the Britannia with a broken leg following a tackle by Ryan Shawcross, one of his successors in the Potters' central defence. Today he will watch City play Chelsea in the FA Cup sixth round, a tie which inevitably stirs recollections of Wembley '72.

Smith was in demand after Ramsey's injury, in particular following Arsène Wenger's angry reaction, because he broke one of his own legs five times and inflicted a fair bit of damage on opponents too. His autobiography lays bare the brutality of football in the Seventies, when even the most talented of players needed to be brave, and usually have an edge themselves to survive. His first encounter with Denis Law began with a pleasant exchange in which Law enquired: "Are you enjoying it, son?" "Yes, thank you, Mr Law," replied the young Smith. Seconds later, having checked the officials were looking elsewhere, Law elbowed him in the face. "He was finding out what I was made of, seeing if he would have an easy day," recalled Smith.

On other occasions Smith struck first. Before one derby with Wolves, Derek Dougan told him: "I'll sort you out early on." Straight from kick-off Smith timed a header so he would butt the back of Dougan's head. "The Doog" was laid out cold and, to Smith's concern, had not come round by half-time. Fortunately he was up and walking, albeit gingerly, by full-time. And there were the occasions he had to act as the team's enforcer, as when he tried to "do" Terry Cooper because the Leeds full-back had gone over the top and injured Smith's team-mate Jackie Marsh. Soon enough Cooper overran the ball, Smith went deliberately high into the tackle, only for his studs to clatter into Cooper's. The defender had worked out what was coming.

"It's a different game now," said Smith. "[Then] there were always things happening off the ball. It was constant. At corners the elbows would start going and toes got stamped on. Remember the Vinnie Jones thing with Gazza? That was forever going on. It gets picked up now because there are cameras everywhere. We could get away with a hell of a lot more, but you got a lot back; look at my scars.

"The game has changed but it's not yet ballet, and injuries are going to happen. No one wants to see a break like Ramsey's, but you are always going to have things like that in football. I know Shawcross. He's a good lad. I've seen it several times and it wasn't a malicious tackle. He's going for the ball and Ramsey's foot is in the wrong place.

"Arsenal say they are being kicked out of the game, and they are unlucky to have three broken legs in three years, but in 1974-75 we had four in one season, that cost us the title."

Stoke finished four points adrift of the champions, Derby County, their depleted team having picked up one point from six in the last three games. Smith was one of the leg-break victims. They would have been popular champions. For all Smith's battles, Tony Waddington's team were more akin to Wenger's Arsenal than today's Stoke, with the likes of Alan Hudson, Jimmy Greenhoff, Terry Conroy and Jimmy Robertson playing a fluid passing game. Smith may have been the enforcer but he could pass the ball too, and came close to an England cap. "Even then you had to be able to play to play First Division football," he said. "You couldn't just go around kicking people. If I was playing now I would have adjusted, as I did when tackling from behind was banned. John Terry's no different to what I was. He knows what he can get away with and what he can't. He pushes the levels. If by being physical that puts forwards off coming into the penalty area that's great, you've done your job."

Terry today stands between Stoke and their most glamorous trip to Wembley since Smith's era, when they narrowly lost successive FA Cup semis to Arsenal either side of that League Cup win. "If they can get a draw and take them back to Stoke it will be extremely good, but Chelsea, even with their problems at the back, are an attacking force that takes some stopping. Still, we're in good form."

Chelsea were narrower favourites back in 1972, but fancied nonetheless. "We were a good side but Chelsea had won the European Cup-Winners' Cup." Conroy put Stoke ahead in a goalmouth scramble after five minutes but Osgood equalised. George Eastham, then 35, a typical Waddington signing, scored Stoke's winner. "It was a great day out, this weekend will bring back some fond memories," said Smith.

After nearly 500 games for Stoke, Smith finished his career at York as player-manager, his voice echoing around Bootham Crescent as he barked out orders to a young team. They achieved more than 100 points in winning the old Fourth Division, and beat Arsenal in the FA Cup. He moved on to lift Sunderland out of the old Third Division and achieved promotions at Oxford and Wrexham. He now works in the media but, at 62, feels he has another crack at management in him.

"I did 25 years, more than 1,000 games, as a manager," he said. "Bosman made a big difference. It made it very hard to keep on to your best players lower down. You start building a team, someone looks good, someone with more money comes in and takes them."

He never managed Stoke, but in the long term that meant he never endangered his cult status at the club. Brought up on a tough estate in Longton, he remains committed to the Six Towns and is delighted Tony Pulis has revived the team. "It has been great for the area. The mines closed in the Eighties, the pottery industry started to go down, we lost steel, all the major industries in the area have gone. We are a warehouse now, ideally situated between Manchester and the south for distribution, but that does not employ enough people. It is great to have the club back. The people deserve it, they are good people."

'Just one of seven: the autobiography of Denis Smith' (Know the Score, £17.99)