by Richard DJJ Bowdery.
According to the late Bill Shankly, Tommy Smith did not possess a birth certificate because he wasn’t born, he was quarried. Obviously a joke but the underlying sentiment was a recognition of Smith as the rock at the heart of Liverpool’s defence. It is also why he was nicknamed ‘Anfield Iron’ by the Kop.
Yet despite his style of play he was sent-off only once. It happened during a match against Manchester City at Maine Road. Allegedly Smith asked the referee, Clive Thomas, to go forth and…well you get the gist.
But to think of Tommy Smith as a one dimensional player would be wide of the mark. He was as comfortable on the ball as he was taking it away from an opposing player. Those skills along with his determination, leadership on the field and never say die attitude, led to him being appointed club captain 1970.
Another great Liverpool manager, Bob Paisley, said of Smith: “His fearless nature not only unsettled the opposition, it inspired his team mates. They drew strength from his example.”
He was a Kopite on the field of play. So much so that if blood was blue instead of red, he would ask the doctors to dye it to match the club’s shirt colour.
During his time at Liverpool he achieved:
• 638 appearances
• 48 goals
• 2 European Cups – 1977 and 1978
• 4 First Division titles – 1965-66, 1972-73, 1975-76, 1976-77
• 2 FA Cups – 1965 and 1974
• 2 UEFA Cups 1973 and 1976
But there is only so much battering a body can take and in August 1978 – after 18 years at Anfield and nearing the end of his career – he bid farewell to his beloved Liverpool Football Club.
He saw out the remainder of his career at Swansea City, a club managed by his old teammate John Toshack; although he did have a brief sojourn in the fledgling North American Soccer League.
Smith’s time with the Swans saw them win promotion from the old Third Division, at the end of the 1978/79 season.
One other significant addition to his trophy cabinet before he hung up his boots was the MBE he received in 1978, for services to football. How the opposition he tormented every Saturday afternoon must have loved that one.
Following his retirement from football in 1979, he had a spell as a youth coach at Liverpool. He also bought a pub in Billinge, Wigan: a purchase many other players of his era made. Called ‘The Smithy’, I doubt the locals gave the new landlord any lip!
But it was as an after-dinner speaker and media pundit that signaled a new direction for the Anfield Iron. Then as now he gives his no-holds barred view on football and Liverpool in particular. And he continues to pen a weekly column for the Liverpool Echo.
The years of laying his body on the line for Liverpool glory has taken its toll. A hip, both knees and an elbow have been replaced and he suffers with arthritis. These medical conditions led him to claim disability benefit. Don’t forget he only earned a fraction of what the Premier League players earn today.
The FA Cup Final 1996. Manchester United versus Liverpool. At half-time Smith took part in a charity event on the pitch with other former players. No studs flying, no sliding tackles. He simply attempted to take a penalty, which sent pain shooting through his body. That was it. Suddenly he was hauled in front of a Social Security Tribunal to explain his actions. His benefits were stopped and for a while he found himself the centre of media attention. In his Echo column, Smith jokingly said he was grassed by an Evertonian. Of course it could have been a Red Devil. But common sense prevailed and his benefits were eventually reinstated.
Then in June 2007 he faced his biggest battle when he suffered a heart attack at his Liverpool home. He described that moment as being as if somebody had grabbed his heart and started to pull it apart. Such was the seriousness of the attack he ended up undergoing complicated heart bypass surgery.
He was inundated with good will messages including one from Michel Platini, president of UEFA. But what meant most to him was his first game back at Anfield after the operation. The whole crowd rose as one to welcome back their hero who had overcome yet another dangerous opponent.
Smith recalled: “It was unbelievable. I was so emotional. I couldn’t think of anything to say.”
In March 2008 Bantam Press published his autobiography ‘Anfield Iron’. As on the field, so in print. In his sights, the money men who run football.
“The money makers and those who are out to make their crock of gold have seized power,” he wrote. “Grossly inflated admission prices have made the sport increasingly elitist. The elderly and those on low incomes could once afford to watch top-division football. Not anymore.”
He also questioned whether the players of today could compete in his era. “Do you think this lot could play in the Sixties and Seventies, with all that mud?” he asks. “They play on a bloody bowling green with a balloon. We had a bloody cannonball.”
It also shed light on something I thought was an urban myth involving the late Alan Ball. Smith writes: “I did warn players [before kick-off]. When Jimmy Greaves came out at Anfield one time I handed him a piece of paper. He said: ‘What’s this?’ I said: ‘Just open it.’ It was the menu from the Liverpool Infirmary.”
Three years ago Smith sold his medals and the memorabilia collected during his outstanding career. The auction at Bonham’s in Chester raised over £130,000. But why sell his past? He explained: “I had a wonderful career but the memories I’ve got are more important to me than the medals and the shirts. I’m getting old and the money is of more use to me now than the medals. This is about me putting my family first.”
Smith lives a relatively quiet life in Crosby with his wife, writes his Echo column, does some after dinner speaking, and gets along to watch his beloved team whenever he can. But though age and health might have slowed him, his passion for football, and Liverpool FC in particular, burns as fiercely as ever.