Talons out as The Bald Eagle fights for life

Jim Smith is hoping luck smiles on him for a change today as his Oxford United side seek the win against Leyton Orient that will keep them in the Football League
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The Independent Football

Perhaps surprisingly, it has nothing to do with the penchant for a glass of wine that Smith and McClaren share, although two bottles of red adorn the corner of Smith's office at the Kassam Stadium. They are crying out to be consumed, in celebration or sorrow-drowning, after Oxford have confronted promotion-chasing Leyton Orient there in a game where victory guarantees survival but less could mean relegation to the Conference.

No, what Smith craves is what might be termed McClaren's Midas touch. For according to the 65-year-old "Bald Eagle", the Middlesbrough manager has been like a magnet to good fortune during the decade since he plucked him from the obscurity of coaching the reserves and youth team - at Oxford, coincidentally - and appointed him his No 2 at Derby. "Steve's lucky," says Smith, the Sheffield brogue still pronounced. "He's the luckiest guy I've ever worked with!

"We got promotion in our first year at Derby. Then in February '99 he goes to Manchester United and by May they've won the treble. That ain't top coaching. It means you've got golden bollocks. Then you think of Boro coming from three goals down twice to win in the Uefa Cup. That's not tactical genius. It's pure luck. Some guys have it. Some don't. You need that ingredient. We'll certainly need it against Orient."

The one-time colleagues are in constant contact. "I told Steve this week, 'For f***'s sake, take the job - all the calls I get are from people asking about you'. But I also said, 'Can I have one of your golden bollocks? I need one for Saturday'." Breaking in a laugh he adds: "I asked Harry [Redknapp] for the other one, so I've got the pair. I'm pleased for Portsmouth because I love the club. But when you get on a run like theirs, everything you touch turns to gold, like teams missing penalties and fielding reserve sides." Smith has felt like Midas in reverse since one of his Oxfordshire neighbours, Nick Merry, bought control from the unpopular Firoz Kassam in March and lured him back to the club he led to successive promotions in the 1980s under Robert Maxwell's chairmanship. Take the last-minute defeat at Mansfield. "If that ball was over the line," he sighs, "the linesman couldn't have given it in a hundred years from where he was stood.

"We battered them but just couldn't score. Same at Boston, and Wrexham last Saturday. Our best player is Andy Burgess. Great left foot. The ball came to him four yards out and I thought, 'This is it'. Whether it hit a rut, I don't know, but he put it wide. We've had a whole back four out with the runs and a lad ill in the warm-up. We're due a break."

The standards in League Two have come as "a culture shock", even to one who started out as player-manager with Boston 38 years ago. Smith feels it is "pointless" comparing the modern-day Oxford (who, by freakish symmetry, may be passed on their way out of the League by the club they replaced in 1962, Accrington Stanley) with the side he built at the Manor Ground under Maxwell. But the potential they uncovered a quarter of a century ago is what prompted his return.

"I'd just got the sack from Birmingham. Managers earned half-decent money but we had to work to pay the mortgage. So coming to Oxford was an economic decision. It turned out to be the right one."

Maxwell, the millionaire publisher and former MP, interviewed him for five hours before announcing he was off to a dinner party. "I spoke to his personal assistant and chauffeur, who had worked for him for 12 and six years respectively. I thought, "He can't be all bad if these people have stayed with him so long'.''

Nor was he all bad, argues Smith, talking in football terms rather than about, say, the Mirror pensions scandal. "It ended when we fell out over my salary. The dispute was over £5,000. A year, not a week! But I had no problem with him before that. There was a dinner the other night for the 20th anniversary of Oxford beating the team I'd left here for, Queen's Park Rangers, in the Milk Cup final at Wembley. I got up to say the one guy no one had mentioned was Maxwell.

"People here feel he deserted the club for Derby and then came back to nick Dean Saunders. In fact, his money created the first really successful Oxford United. He was very supportive. Everyone I asked for - John Aldridge, Micky Vinter, Billy Hamilton, etc - he bought me."

Life was never dull when Maxwell was around. Smith reflects on the annual dinner held by the directors of Oxford, Reading and Swindon Town. "One year it was at Headington Hall, his stately home. All of a sudden he stands up and says [Smith turns on a plummy voice], 'I'm going upstairs to attend to some business. Carriages will leave at 11'. That's how he was."

Smith was in charge when Maxwell tried to merge Oxford and Reading into Thames Valley Royals. "It wasn't totally mad. It was a bold idea. Neither club was going anywhere. That's all changed now because of one wealthy guy [John Madejski]. Maxwell was ahead of his time on that one, but the fans wouldn't have it. Had he been able to say, 'Here's a top-class new stadium', it might have been different."

Now, like Smith and McClaren, the two clubs are worlds apart. In one village, a third of the 25 miles between Oxford and their now-Premiership neighbours, Smith sees children in Reading replica shirts. "At one time they would have supported us. Next season, whatever league we're in, the floaters will go there for Manchester United, Arsenal and the rest." At Oxford it may be Forest Green and Tamworth unless they can conjure the victory which, with Notts County and Bury facing each other, will keep them up. Smith is an island of good humour in a sea of frayed nerves, but once they kick off today his young team are on their own.

"I found it hard when I first came back. One problem was that Nick couldn't complete the takeover until the day of the transfer deadline. We had no time to get in players. Then I was demanding Premiership-class training performances from them. I've had to dumb down. They work very hard, but the pressure factor is a big thing now. I've seen bad nerves at the highest level, never mind the bottom of the League.

"The beauty is that we're safe if we win. It's shit or bust, whereas if we needed a draw, we might not know whether to stick or twist. But we must take our chances. It's a question of confidence in front of goal."

Smith would rather not be playing the third-placed Leyton Orient, who would seal a League One place by winning. "No one was going to come here and lie down. But mid-table sides often aren't that bothered if it's the last game and things get difficult. I remember when Oxford won the old Second Division, thrashing Barnsley 4-0 and poor old Bobby Collins got sacked as manager afterwards.

"Orient can still go up if they don't win. They're in the play-offs anyway. Knowing their chairman, Barry Hearn, he might prefer that because there's more money in it."

The twinkling eyes suggest Smith does not believe that scenario. It is as if he is talking himself into a positive mentality, something he must do with players who have won only 11 games out of 45. "I'll tell them they're playing for their livelihoods and families. If we go down, it's a totally different ball game, wages-wise. I've got to get across the enormity of the situation. I'll say, 'You've been called everything all year. Now's your chance to go from zeroes to heroes in one afternoon'."

And if the worst happens, how does Smith picture the future? "I've promised Nick we're in this together. I'm also a director. I can see Steve McClaren in the England job, no problem. I just can't see myself as a Conference manager."

Where the eagle has landed

(Manager unless otherwise stated)

1969-1972 Boston United, player-manager.

1972-1975 Colchester United, player-manager.

1975-1978 Blackburn Rovers.

1978-1982 Birmingham City.

1982-1985 Oxford United.

1985-1988 Queen's Park Rangers.

1988-1991 Newcastle United.

1991-1995 Portsmouth.

1995-2001 Derby County.

2002 Coventry City, assistant manager.

2002-2004 Portsmouth, assistant manager.

2004-2005 Southampton, assistant manager.

2006 (March)-present Oxford United, manager/director.