Tommy Smith: Mersey's Man of Iron

Tommy Smith is tough. He was a terrifying footballer for Liverpool, at a time when his city had little else left. Now every day is a fight against crippling injuries. But angry fans still urge him to go in hard, on prima donna players and the money men buying up sport
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His eyes narrow. "You see me sitting here relaxed as hell," says Tommy Smith, "but don't get on the wrong side of me. I've got a bad side, know what I mean?"

Oh blimey, yes. They called him the Anfield Iron when he was a hard-as-hammers defender for Liverpool, during the football club's greatest years. "Tommy doesn't tackle opponents," said his manager, Bill Shankly, "so much as break them down for resale as scrap." With thick black Seventies hair and bandito moustache he was like a super-fit heavy out of Life on Mars, terrifying the opposition and "battering" anyone who challenged him in nightclubs (there were quite a few).

But the 'tache has gone. The hair is white. This is a 63-year-old man with osteo- and rheumatoid arthritis, two plastic knees, a replacement hip, a new elbow, a dodgy shoulder and a possible liver problem. Oh, and he had a six-way heart bypass last year. "Yes," says his wife Sue, smiling after telling him off for spilling his cup of tea, "the Iron Man has got a bit rusty."

He has to laugh, of course he does. It is laughable that an image born 40 years ago on the terraces still wraps itself around a poorly man close to pensionable age, living quietly in the seaside suburb of Blundellsands. But mention his name in Liverpool, and people who never saw him play – and some who don't even follow football – still say, "Ooh, hard man. Don't cross him."

He feels crossed. So does half his city this weekend, because Liverpool FC is in a mess. The two American tycoons who bought the club a year ago have fallen out. Tom Hicks and George Gillette have "restructured" the finances to pay for a new stadium, leaving Liverpool £350m in debt with annual interest payments of £30m. Both have been fiercely criticised by fans. Gillette has received death threats, and there were reports of the financial crisis in America putting new pressure on them. A finance company from Dubai is lurking, and some believe a sale may even happen before the end of the season.

So Liverpool will face rivals Everton a week today not knowing what the future holds. If a bank like Bear Stearns can implode, fans worry, so can over-ambitious football clubs.

"We haven't got a clue how much the club is going to be left in the mire if these two Americans don't get it sorted out," says Smith. "I would hate to see Liverpool fold. The supporters aren't afraid to tell these people, 'You're cocking it up.'"

Some fans have already had enough. They have just announced the formation of a new club called AFC Liverpool, following the model of those started in protest at the way Manchester United and MK Dons are run. A spokesman said ordinary fans had been priced out of Anfield. "A whole community is being denied the opportunity to grow up in the match-going culture."

Smith, who was born and raised within a mile of Anfield and joined the ground staff at the age of 15, agrees. "The money makers and those who are out to make their crock of gold have seized power," he says in a new autobiography, Anfield Iron (Bantam), published tomorrow. "Grossly inflated admission prices" have made the sport "increasingly elitist", he says. "The elderly and those on low incomes could once afford to watch top-division football. Not any more."

Is he impressed by AFC Liverpool then? Nope. "They might be shouting down the wrong hole, I'm afraid. The Americans won't give two hoots."

Outside Liverpool, why should any of it matter? Because no other big club has made so much of representing its community. That makes the Anfield crisis feel symbolic of what's happening to football as a whole: a growing estrangement between the fans, with their irrational devotion, traditions and memories of past triumphs, and the new foreign owners looking to turn all that into hard bucks. It goes beyond football, too. "Money more important than people? That's not us," said a caller to a radio phone-in as the car crept through the rain towards Smith's house. "Liverpool is being betrayed!"

It was unclear, for a moment, whether the caller meant the club or the city – but, for some, the two are synonymous. When the docks were closing, jobs were being lost and riots were brewing in the Seventies, the success of the team in red was a distraction and a source of pride, for half the city at least. The closeness endures. Just.

Tommy Smith was the tough guy at the back who made 638 appearances and scored a mighty header when Liverpool won the European Cup for the first time. It's just a game, of course, but in Liverpool along the way it became loaded with sentiment and symbolism. Smith played the first time they ever wore the famous all-red strip. He was there when the continuity announcer first played "You'll Never Walk Alone" – sung before and during every game since. He played with Kevin Keegan and Pele and was voted one of the 100 best British footballers of the 20th century.

The son of a foreman in the docks, Smith understands what Liverpool FC means to working people; but he doesn't think Hicks and Gillette do. "These are just two fellas who are very well off, trying to get more money for themselves."

The most he ever earned as a basic wage was £150 a week. The most he made in a year was £30,000 when Liverpool won the European Cup in 1977 and he was made an MBE. Now he writes for the Liverpool Echo and makes after-dinner speeches. He knows that the main role of a knackered old pro is to have a bash at the young ones. "Do you think this lot could play in the Sixties and Seventies, with all that mud? They play on a bloody bowling green with a balloon. We had a bloody cannonball!"

The rules have changed. "You're not allowed to tackle anybody," he says. "That might have been a problem for me." That's an understatement, from a man who admits to telling opposing strikers, "you go past me and I'll break your effing back". He once handed Tottenham star Jimmy Greaves a piece of paper before a game. It was a menu – from the local hospital. "What would I do with Ronaldo [the current Manchester United idol]? Run at him. Say, 'Why don't you piss off back to Portugal? You won't get kicked there, but you're gonna get kicked today.'"

Referees launched a campaign last week for more respect from petulant prima donna players. Chelsea's Ashley Cole was slated for refusing to turn round when being booked. Smith can hardly join in the condemnation: furious, he once kicked a ref in the leg. Astonishingly, he was booked only twice during his whole career and sent off once.

Some fans didn't realise he was different off the pitch, he says: not a mythical beast but a reasonable man who got married early to a girl he met when he was 16. "I'd go out for a meal with Sue and some fella would challenge me." What would he do? "Go outside and knock the shit out of him." Not just in Liverpool. "It happened in Spain, in the Netherlands ... all over."

Stars of the Seventies were often asked to name their toughest opponent. Frank Worthington of Leicester said: "My ex-wife." (But then his book was called One Hump or Two?) Smith should have said the Department of Health and Social Security.

"When I retired the doctor said, 'You've got the knees of a 75-year-old man'," he says. Half of all professional footballers retire with osteo-arthritis, the cartilage in their knees worn away. Smith claimed disability benefit. But then he took one last penalty.

It was before the 1996 FA Cup Final. "Drugged up to the eyeballs" and in pain, he hobbled across the turf and took the shot. But a benefits inspector was watching. A tribunal slashed his payments. "I couldn't believe they would do that," he says. "I was getting money for charity. I only kicked the ball once."

Some said the inspector was an Evertonian. The DHSS, bizarrely, insisted he preferred rugby league. But in his book, Smith gleefully recounts how a fan approached him two years ago with "good news" about the man: "He died last week."

Now he is back on the top level of benefit (about what Ronaldo earns in a twitch of his hips). There's no doubting him, after what happened in his garden last summer. "It was like somebody'd got their hands on me heart and was pulling it apart."

He takes 10 tablets a day. Bits of him are made of plastic and metal. "You wanna see the bloody things go off when I go through the airport." Maybe he is as tough as they say. "After all that's happened, I do appreciate just being alive. You're not expecting the Iron Man to start complaining, are you? I've got a reputation to live up to. Now then, son, do you want another cup of tea?"