Sir John Smith : OBITUARIES

Norman Fo
Thursday 02 February 1995 00:02 GMT

In the 17 years from 1973 until 1990 in which Sir John Smith reigned as their dapper businessman chairman, Liverpool Football Club maintained heights unmatched by any other team in Britain. They were four times European champions and 11 times champions of the Football League, but it gave him almost equal pleasure to hear people say that Liverpool was also the best-run club in the land. In tandem with Peter Robinson, now Chief Executive, Smith steered a tight ship and was a stout defender of the "Boot Room" system of promotion from within. Smith's greatest contribution to Liverpool FC was undoubtedly his business sense which had been honed as a brewery sales director and deputy chairman of an electronics firm. He once remarked that he thought he was born to chair meetings. Those of us who travelled Europe with the Liverpool in their most successful years were always made aware that he treated it very much as his club. Journalists generally were certainly not allowed too close although Smith was always politeness itself and would occasionally allow you to join him in the boardroom. His references to the club always began "We . . ."

A man of values which in today's football world of "bung" money and constant controversy would be difficult to maintain, Smith upheld the idea that no manager or player was bigger than the club. He ruled firmly but not without seeking advice. His knowledge of football when he first took his place as a director at Anfield in 1971 was that of a enthusiast, not an expert. He immediately made it clear that whatever contribution he could make to the club had to be as an administrator of its commercial well-being, but he grew to know a good investment on the pitch.

He presided over a difficult period when the revered Bill Shankly knew that his famous team of the Sixties needed rebuilding. Believing in continuity, Smith applied it to his own position by ending the club's policy of changing the chairman every three years. In his time changes on the board were rare and shares in the club never quoted on the Stock Exchange.

Although inevitably there were critics of the way Smith, Robinson and the board kept the running of the club within such a tight network, the system worked so smoothly as to become the envy of most others. In a time of crisis after the Heysel stadium disaster in 1985, Smith ensured that the club acted with proper responsibility towards the victims, and the guilty. At the same time, the suspension of Liverpool from European competition brought financial pressures which he overcame by co-opting experts onto the board.

Much as he knew the value of careful financial housekeeping, Smith was never unrealistic about the price the club had to pay to retain high standards that following his retirement were patently difficult to continue. He believed that a professional footballer's career was generally so short that he should be paid well and looked after when his playing days stopped. The players who were with the club in his time there were all promised high pensions at an early age but stories of players of the past who have fallen on hard times and continue to be "looked after" by the club are legion.

The appointment of Kenny Dalglish as successor to Joe Fagan, who himself had taken over from Bob Paisley, was recommended by the chairman, thus moving away from the line of succession, which would have had Ronnie Moran take over after the Heysel disasterhad broken Fagan's spirit. It was Smith who had signed Dalglish as a player, "the best we have ever had".

After resigning as chairman, Sir John Smith continued as a Liverpool director and retained his interest in lawn tennis, for which he had chaired a government inquiry, which reported in 1980. His wide interest in sport was also reflected in the fact that he was chairman of the Sports Council from 1985 to 1989.

John Wilson Smith, businessman, administrator: born 6 November 1920; Chairman, Liverpool Football Club 1973-90; member, Football Trust 1980-82; Chairman, Committee of Inquiry into Lawn Tennis 1980; member, Football Association 1981-86; Director, FootballLeague 1981-86; CBE 1982; Chairman, Sports Council 1985-89; Deputy Chairman, Merseyside Development Corporation 1985-89; Kt 1990; married 1946 Doris Mabel Parfitt (one son); died Gayton, Merseyside 31 January 1995.

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