Football: Tommy Smith - The Iron Man who became the bionic man

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The Independent Online
THOSE OF us who weren't there will never forget it, that sultry evening in Rome when a stocky figure steamed into the Borussia Monchengladbach penalty area and headed Liverpool into a 2-1 lead in the European Cup final, and Barry Davies shrieked: "It's Tommy Smith!"

And here we are, a generation later, in a hospitality suite at Smith's beloved Anfield. He hasn't changed much since that memorable night in 1977, not unless you are counting the two new knees, the new elbow, the new hip and the other joints riddled with rheumatoid arthritis. In essence, he is the same as ever - honest, uncompromising and earthy. The complexion is still like a relief map of the Lake District. And you still wouldn't want to mess with him, even though he'd never catch you.

Smithy - who played for Liverpool 630-odd times between 1963 and 1978 - was formally declared disabled in 1990. But three years ago there was a well-publicised barney with the Department of Social Security. A DSS inspector (an Evertonian, as it happens) watched him take a penalty against his old mate Alex Stepney in an exhibition shoot-out before the 1996 FA Cup final, and ruled that as he was clearly able-bodied, he was not entitled to further disability benefit.

Smith protested that he had been drugged up with painkillers, and that Stepney, while helping him on with his boots, had offered him a medal if the ball even reached the net (in fact, it flew into the top right- hand corner, and was followed by a cheerful wave to the goalie more reminiscent of Harvey than Tommy Smith). Smith also pointed out that if he had wanted to hoodwink the DSS, he would hardly have done so in front of an 80,000 Wembley crowd, with zillions more watching on telly. Fair enough. Yet the row rumbles on, with the Professional Footballers' Association energetically fighting Smith's corner. In the meantime, he continues to take nine tablets a day, one to settle his stomach after all the other tablets. And he is waiting for a new shoulder. "But I'm putting that one off, because they are perfecting the operation a little bit more each day."

All this agony is a direct legacy of Smith's notorious, er, robustness, on the field. The Kop used to call him the Iron Man. But he bridles at the suggestion that he was a one-dimensional footballer. "Me and Norman Hunter and Nobby Stiles, we could play the game as well, you know. We weren't just cloggers. But I was taught early on to tackle with my whole body, not just the feet."

He insists, however, that he could adapt to the stricter rules and quicker pace of today's game. "I concede that modern players are fitter, eating spaghetti and all that. But actually I wouldn't say the game is faster now. I'm often asked how the teams of the 1960s would get on today. Well, if they played by the rules of the '60s, those teams would batter this lot. These days, they play on a bowling green and they play with a balloon. Imagine Denis Law playing now? Ian St John, Roger Hunt, Alex Young, George Best? They'd be magnificent."

Yesteryear 1, poofy modern stuff 0. Engagingly, Smith makes no apology for this assessment. So what chance of him backing Franck Leboeuf's recent claim that English football is unpleasantly thuggish? "Rubbish. It's a bit of a nancy game now. And if Leboeuf is not too happy, he should go home. Anyway, spitting is the vilest thing in the world, and the Vieira lad and some of the other foreigners have brought that with them."

So Smithy was never spat at, in those far-off days before foreigners flooded the transfer market with phlegm? "Only once. Against Notts Forest." He names the guilty party, a well-known Scotland international. "I wasn't about to get sent off, but afterwards I was going to rip his ******* head off. Only I couldn't get at him, the lads pulled me off." Even now, Smith looks regretful. Incidentally, just to save on asterisks, remember that this is a man who could work the F-word into the Lord's Prayer.

He joined the Liverpool ground staff in 1959, as a 15-year-old inside- left skilful enough to make a fool of a first-team regular, Gerry Byrne, in a practice match. "Ten minutes later I go up to head the ball and Gerry goes up to head me. He cut my eye open, there was blood all over the place, and suddenly I was a schoolkid again, looking for a bit of sympathy. So Shanks comes across, looks down at me, and says, `That'll teach you to nutmeg Gerry Byrne'."

In all conversations with Liverpool players of that generation, the great Bill Shankly looms large. By 1964, Smith was hovering on the edge of the first team. "I remember Shanks reading out the team before a game against Anderlecht. He got past No 4 and No 6, and I thought I hadn't made it, and then he said, `No 10, Tommy Smith. But I want you to drop back and be Ron Yeats' right leg, because he hasn't got one.' He thought it would create confusion if I had the No 10 jersey on, and he was right. The Anderlecht right-half was out of position for 20 minutes before he realised he'd been had.

"Shanks was always looking for an edge. Before the 1965 FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea he came into the dressing room at Villa Park and threw a mock-up Cup final programme on the table, with Chelsea's name on it. That fired us up and we won 2-0. At Anfield, half an hour before the game, he used to knock on the away team's dressing-room door and say, `Just coming to wish you all the best, boys.' He'd have his head round the door for 30 seconds, then he'd come back and say, `Right, the left- half has got his elbow strapped up, so it wouldn't be out of the way just to give him a tap there, the right-back's got his left ankle strapped...'"

Shankly encouraged psychological warfare, too. "He used to say to me, `Smithy, if you can win the game in the corridor, win it in the corridor'." And Smith soon learnt which opposing players he could intimidate. "Denis Law, Besty, they didn't give a shit. But there were one or two... Leighton James, you could scare the living daylights out of him. I used to say in the corridor, `What are you doing here, this is no place for you?' In fact the joke was that I used to hand them a hospital menu before we went out on the park. Me and Jimmy Case had some laughs. Remember that little winger at Man United, Gordon Hill? He was terrified. I used to shout to Jimmy, `Send him down the line and I'll kick him over the stand.' But Jimmy is deaf in his right ear. So he'd cock his left ear and shout, `What was that?' and I'd have to repeat it. And Jimmy would shout, `No, no, I'm going to kick him over the stand meself.' You could see the fear in their eyes, and it put them right off their game."

By the early 1970s, with Shankly as inspirational manager, and Smith as fearless captain, Liverpool were well on the way to becoming English football's dominant force. But manager and captain had their fallings- out. "The problem with him, as with a lot of managers at that time, was that if you were injured he didn't want to know you," says Smith, describing a bizarre encounter in the treatment room when Shankly refused even to address him, directing all his questions through an ill-at-ease Joe Fagan. "I wanted my leg strapped, but Shanks hated bandages. Eventually I said, `It's not your leg, it's my leg!' And he said, `It's not your leg, and it's not my leg, it's Liverpool Football Club's leg!'"

In 1973, when Smith was abruptly dropped and demanded a transfer, this angry exchange was turned on its head. Smith had signed for a month's loan with Stoke City, but when Chris Lawler picked up an injury, Shankly recalled him. "He said, `Would you like to play for me at right-back?' And I said, `I'll play nowhere for you, you little Scotch sod! But I'll play right-back for Liverpool Football Club!'"

Soon afterwards, Shankly made way for his assistant, Bob Paisley, and Smith for his great mate Emlyn Hughes. Forgive me, Smithy, I couldn't resist the irony. The truth is that he loathes the former England captain with a vengeance; indeed, I am legally prevented from quoting the 10- minute rant that follows the words Emlyn Hughes.

"I went to see the boss in the late 1960s and said, `I don't like him and I don't think he's good for the club.' Shanks asked me a simple question. `Can he play, Smithy?' I said, `Oh yeah, he's a good player.' And Shanks said, `Then that's good enough for me.' But most of us felt the same way about Emlyn. Look at a tape of the 1974 Cup final. When we won, the players shoved me to the front, even though he was team captain." Did Hughes not have his own muckers, then? "He used to try to befriend the lads who joined, like Terry McDermott and John Toshack. But I joined Swansea City in 1978, with Ian Callaghan, on the proviso that Tosh [then Swansea's player-manager] wouldn't sign Emlyn."

Smith heaves a great sigh. So much for teams past. What of the present lot, a subject he addresses in his trenchant columns for the Liverpool Echo? He sighs again. Monday's 3-1 defeat of Bradford City does not disguise the club's decline. "I do think we need to give Gerard Houllier to the end of this season," he says. "Some of his buys have been excellent. I like the Camara lad. But some have been a load of crap. I'm not too certain about the Smicer lad, though I've probably got a downer on him because people were comparing him to Ian Callaghan. I used to room with Cally, and I'll tell you that Smicer isn't even in the same street.

"I don't think Houllier's picking the right team. Playing Carragher, a good midfield player, at centre-back? And we still don't know Matteo's true position. Against Everton [in which two Liverpool players were sent off in the 1-0 home defeat] we more or less started with nine players, because Hamann and Fowler weren't fit. I also worry about the coaching, to be honest. If the ball is coming down our right, the left-back should be in charge of the back four. That will never change but they don't seem to know it. Maybe it's hard with all the foreigners in the team. It's certainly hard to tell a millionaire that he has to run up and down the line, although I think team spirit is better than it was last year, when there was a lot of petty jealousy going on."

The rot set in, Smith believes, under Graeme Souness. "He bought tripe, players who five years earlier wouldn't have got a game with the reserves." Tough words, as you would expect. The Anfield Iron Man might be seriously rusty, but he's not yet ready for the scrapyard.