Bald Eagle prepares Rams for top flight

Jim Smith, one of football's elder statesmen, is relishing the challenge of taking Derby County out of the First Division. Phil Shaw met him
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The Independent Online
Few people can claim to have worked closely with both Robert Maxwell and Alberto Tarantini but, as Derby County are discovering, there is more to their new manager than meets the eye.

Jim Smith, one of the profession's senior practitioners at nearly 55, has been the "Bald Eagle" longer than he cares to remember. Four decades which have led from Aldershot to Newcastle and numerous points in between have not refined his Yorkshire brogue. Images can be misleading, however: unswerving in his faith in skill, Smith is the antithesis of dourness.

He may never rank as one of the greats, yet he will leave more than a few footprints in the sand of football history. Since entering management in 1972, as Derby basked in a first-ever Championship under Brian Clough, Smith has won promotion for Oxford (in successive seasons), Birmingham and Colchester. He left Queen's Park Rangers as London's best-placed club.

There have also been a couple of relegations. And sackings; the most recent at Portsmouth this year - the same Pompey he led to within one goal of the Premiership in 1993. Sadly for Smith, neither Blackburn nor the sleeping giants of Birmingham and Newcastle would be woken by rich benefactors until long after he left.

In keeping with his luck, he found the reverse situation at Derby. Following the death of Maxwell, whom Smith served at Oxford, Lionel Pickering bought control at the Baseball Ground. Arthur Cox was allowed to lavish pounds 10m- plus on the personnel to restore the Rams to greener pastures.

Promotion did not materialise, with the result that Cox's successor, Roy McFarland, had to spend sparingly before his demise last spring.

Although Smith inherited 15 out-of-contract players, some on "very big wages", he has been able to steer a course between feast and famine. "My brief was to reduce the wage bill and get some money in," he said. "The board told me I could then have some of the cash to buy players, and they've kept their word. Mr Pickering's excited by the way things are shaping, so maybe he'll make more available."

Having raised pounds 4.5m by selling Craig Short, Mark Pembridge and Paul Williams, Smith bought two Dutchmen, Robin van der Laan and Ron Willems, from Port Vale and Grasshopper Zurich respectively. A Danish international is set to follow. Three other recruits - Gary Rowett, who came from Everton in part-exchange for Short, the pounds 750,000 Darryl Powell from Portsmouth, and Coventry's Sean Flynn, valued at pounds 250,000 in the Williams deal - make a virtue of versatility.

Van der Laan, Derby's new captain, cost pounds 475,000 plus Lee Mills, both men facing their ex-colleagues in tomorrow's opener. "He'd been at Vale four years and talks with a Potteries accent," Smith said. "He has typical Dutch technique, but he's an English sort of midfielder, so there's no risk like when I brought Tarantini to Birmingham from Argentina."

As for Willems, a striker who started with Ajax, Smith is sure he has "a steal" at pounds 280,000. But why would someone forego the European Cup for soggy Saturdays at Southend? "He told me that when they won the Swiss title, no one in the city seemed bothered. He wanted the passion, the atmosphere of English football."

Smith claims Dutch players offer excellent value in a "crazy" transfer market. What he calls the "unreal world" of football economics, its artificiality compounded by the demands of players and agents, make him fear for the game. Nevertheless, he rejects the theory articulated by a counterpart that the likes of Derby may be too small for the Premiership and too big for the First Division.

"There is an elite within the Premier, but if we don't believe we can get up there we may as well pack in now. I don't accept that Derby have fallen behind irrevocably. You wouldn't think Wimbledon could be in the Premier rather than us or Wolves. The fact that they are is due to good management and coaching. Once you're in that division, you reap the financial rewards and go from there."

In their friendlies, Derby beat Spurs, led Hearts 3-0 before drawing, and were one up on Leeds until conceding twice late on. The panache with which they performed won over many fans to whom Smith's appointment appeared uninspiring.

For four months after he left Portsmouth, he worked as chief executive to the League Managers' Association, but missed the day-to-day involvement with players. He was "itching to get back", although only with Sheffield Wednesday - an affair of the heart - or Derby.

Pointing to a portrait on his office wall of Sammy Crooks, a Derby legend between the wars, Smith said: "I've always loved the sense of tradition here. The great teams with the Raich Carters and Peter Dohertys, the sides built by Cloughie and Dave Mackay, the big European nights. That's what attracted me."

Names touted as McFarland's replacement included Ossie Ardiles, Steve Coppell, Barry Fry, Martin O'Neill, Mike Walker and Neil Warnock. In the event, Brian Horton emerged as Smith's main rival once Steve Bruce rejected the player-managership.

Initial reaction to his arrival was, he conceded, mixed. "But the response since has been terrific. People who may have been doubtful like what I've done by getting players out who weren't committed to Derby County. There's a buzz about the place, and I have a genuine feeling we can achieve success this season.

"In the past few years, Derby have been expected to go up. This time the pressure's off and the race is wide open. Any of 10 clubs could do it. Apart from Wolves, who they're all tipping, you've got to look at Palace, Norwich and Leicester. Then there's Tranmere, Reading, possibly Sunderland, and my dark horses, Watford."

Mention of whom stirs distant memories of a certain tycoon's bid to add them to his collection. "Funnily enough, I got on very well with Maxwell," Smith reflected. "He didn't have the Mirror then, which is when he became difficult. But the only similarity between him and my chairman now is their ambitiousness."

While Birmingham's place in Smith's projections is unclear, the thought of Tarantini's sojourn there in 1978/79 makes him smile. "We went down that season, but a year later - after he'd gone home and we'd come back up - I met him at Wembley. `Boss!' he shouts. `We had crap team. Now you good team. Why not me with you'?"

Like another golden oldie, Ron Atkinson, Smith remains a manager for whom people relish playing. "Age has nothing to do with the job and I don't feel old," he said.

"A football team is a young environment anyway, but I've never been staid. I've played the Ajax way, used sweepers. I'm always experimenting. The only thing I won't be moved on at Derby is my commitment to good football."