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The life & times of Gordon Smith

By, Sergio Burns

He sits to my right. Remembered as a skilful, thrilling midfielder who used to ghost past nervous defenders, won the treble in Scotland and scored in an English FA Cup final against Manchester United. A man who graced the top football leagues in Scotland, England, Austria and Switzerland, but, astonishingly, never won a full cap for Scotland.

He sits to my right. Remembered as a skilful, thrilling midfielder who used to ghost past nervous defenders, won the treble in Scotland and scored in an English FA Cup final against Manchester United. A man who graced the top football leagues in Scotland, England, Austria and Switzerland, but, astonishingly, never won a full cap for Scotland.

“I was at a function one night,” Ayrshire-born, former football player Gordon Smith told Ayrshire Magazine. “I was walking past a table and a man shouted me : ‘Gordon!’. I turned round it was Ron Greenwood, the manager of England. He said to me, ‘How you doing Gordon? I just want to say to you I can’t believe you are not getting picked for Scotland. If you were English, you would be in my squad, no you wouldn’t, you would be in my team.’ I was really chuffed with that…it made up for the fact that I didn’t get in the Scottish squad at all.”

We are sitting in the cafe at the Prolife Fitness Centre, Paisley. Smith looks remarkably fresh for someone who has just gone nine rounds with former boxer Ian McLeod. No, he wasn’t actually fighting McLeod, who fought Affif Djelti for the world super-featherweight title in 2000, he was working the pads with the man who is now his trainer.

Not playing for Scotland wasn’t the only disappointment Smith had in football.

“When I am doing after dinner speaking I tell this story,” Smith chuckles. “I was still living in Stevenston in a council house. I won the treble (with Rangers), scored 27 goals and the Stevenston Rangers Supporters Club player of the year was – (he pauses) – Derek Johnstone!

Smith delivers it deadpan, and we laugh.

His eyes twinkle with a certain irony, he shakes his head, and we move on to talking about his Ayrshire upbringing.

“Ayrshire was a hard place to be brought up,” Smith tells me unequivocally. “You had to be strong and you had to be aggressive if you were out on the streets, because it was a very rough place. I am still proud of being from Ayrshire. I went along and got my grandpa’s award, my grandpa’s in the hall of fame at Kilmarnock, Matha Smith, and that was a great thrill for me. Hopefully I’ll get there…the hall of fame at Kilmarnock. That was maybe part of my motivation to do well. My mum still lives there… my brother and my sister are still in Ayrshire.
I go down there regularly to see them.”

He tells the story of Davie Patterson, the two becoming great friends as they played their way through the various football age groups. Gordon speaks highly of his friend as a player with great potential, but while Patterson was already drinking by the age of 15, Smith’s dedication to the game (he was teetotal until the age of 26) had begun to pay dividends.

“I was training with the first team right away at 14,” He told of signing for Kilmarnock. “They never gave me different training from the rest of the players, I did the same training session at 14 as the rest of the players. They were full time in those days and I did the same training session, and it built up my fitness levels. At 16 I was called up and into the reserve team and at
17 I was in the first team. I was a regular from 17 onwards.”

Gordon Smith played regularly for Kilmarnock, appearing in over 160 league games between 1972 and 1977. Inevitably, however, he was attracting the attention of bigger clubs.

“I was working at the time in a job,” Smith recalled. “When
I finished my degree I got a job as a marketing manager for a company in Glasgow, Edward McNeil Limited. I was in the job 10 days when my phone rang. It was Willie Fernie the Kilmarnock manager and he said ‘where are you?’ I said ‘I am at my work’, he says, ‘Are you in Glasgow?’ and I said ‘Yeah’. ‘Far from Ibrox?’ I said ‘No, why?’ ‘You are going to meet Rangers, see you there in half an hour.’ That’s how I got told. So I had to go to my bosses and say, ‘I’ve got something I’ve got to deal with just now, can I nip out, is that okay?’ I went to Ibrox, signed, deal was done. But what amazed me was this, Jock Wallace shook my hand and said ‘Welcome to the club Gordon, that’s taken me a while’. I said ‘what do you mean?’ ‘He said ‘I’ve been trying to sign you for the last four years. did you not know?’

He shakes his head, his eyes widen and a fleeting smile crosses his face.

“The classic was about ten years ago at a dinner in Glasgow in the Hilton,” He remembered. “Tommy Docherty was the speaker. During his speech he suddenly went, ‘See Gordon Smith there, nice to see Gordon, I tried to sign Gordon as Manchester United manager.’ I went up afterwards and I said ‘Tommy what were you saying’, and he said ‘You didn’t know?’ I said ‘No’, and he goes, ‘I offered £100,000 for you’. Kilmarnock accepted it on a Friday, said, ‘Can we do the deal Monday, and Gordon can play for us tomorrow?’ Tommy went ‘okay’. He said, ‘You must have played well’, and I went ‘Why?’ ‘When we went back on Monday they wanted more money’, and he said, ‘In principle I am saying to you I offered 100 and you accepted it on Friday, that’s the deal’. Kilmarnock kept trying to negotiate and Tommy put the phone down, and there was me like 50 years old finding out Man U offered 100 grand for me. You know these things are amazing I could have been playing for Man U.”

A few years later Smith played for Brighton in the 1982/3 FA Cup final against Manchester United, scoring the first goal of a match which would end in a 2-2 draw.

“Rangers got the biggest ever transfer fee, they got… £440,000,” He said of moving south. “I was forced to go, I didn’t want to go but I was forced to go in the end, though I thank John Greig to this day because I did have a nice time there. Everybody mentions my cup final miss, but the people down there treated me totally differently because they still make a big issue of the fact that I scored that day and put us one nil up. The fact that I could score in a cup final, and missed at the very end they’ve never held that against me. I’ve always been amazed of that because I apologise every time I am down there. I don’t mind talking about it.”

He relaxes back into his seat.

“He saved it, yeah, it wasn’t like a miss or a sitter I put past the post, he saved it, but, I still regret to this day, and I still feel I should have scored. I don’t ever make any excuses for that, I should have scored. To have scored a winner in an FA Cup final would have been fantastic!”

Smith seems momentarily lost, I am convinced he can hear the crowd urging him once again to score the winning goal at Wembley. But it always ends with Gary Bailey smothering the ball and the game finishes 2-2, and Gordon Smith is left with what might have been.

It is a measure of the man that he does apologise, seeks no excuses.

Today Gordon Smith is busy with media and consultancy work, looks slender and fit and still looks after himself, is a grandfather, mentions that his son was a month old when he was transferred to Brighton, and his daughter was born there.

“I was never nervous,” He smiles as he recalls his time as a player. “Because that is what I wanted to do, and where I wanted to be. I loved it, and the bigger the crowds I played in front of the more excited I got. I found it brilliant, I loved it. I was dedicated as well, I trained hard, I looked after myself made sure that I was at my best every game regardless of what the score was. I was only satisfied if I played well, and I did my best: that was my motivation.”

Some 40 years later we remember him still gliding menacingly into the penalty box…still scoring the winning goal in a League Cup final for Rangers against Celtic, opening the scoring at Wembley for Brighton against Manchester United…