THE Mersey wind sweeps across the school playground, the rain puddles testimony to the darkening evening as another year approaches its end. Huddles of parents and grandparents gather their hats and coats against the wind, waiting expectedly for their young charges to be released from the clutches of the teachers, school finished and “in loco parentis” over for another day.
The young lads rattle the door of their year-six classroom, impatient to be free, free to be out there to the green playing field beyond the grey of the playground. The green grass, their field of dreams, their chance to be themselves, but also to imitate their idols, to be the boys in RED! To be like the boys they love despite their young years, the boys in RED they see on the silver screen or on their iPhones but they know them implicitly, the boys in RED, their idols.
As I wait for my grandson Sam to emerge, coat askew and bags in hand, I recognise one grandparent who’s here most schooldays. A lonely figure in the grey light now, but this figure once shone like a beacon under much brighter floodlights, nearly 60 years ago. A slightly shrunken man now, shuffling in his carpet slippers with elastic bands along the tarmac, his knees only capable of minimal flex, shuffle shuffle shuffle. Shrunken but proud, undiminished, never beaten, a man of IRON, Tommy Smith, the Anfield Iron!
A man for all seasons, a man for all weather, a man who bestrode the green grass, not any old grass but the green grass of Anfield, the grass of every First Division pitch, green fields across the whole of Europe. This man was a colossus, a bastion of defiance, of skill married with tenacity, skills that would elevate him to play once for England but skills to play 638 games for his beloved REDS, his beloved hometown team. This defiance would eventually reduce him to the slippers with the elastic bands, defiance and skill that would not be matched until we saw the likes of Steven Gerrard, Smith was the type of man who defines teams, defines champions, defines life.
The type of man that Shankly needed, no shirking in the face of adversity, no pleading injury, the type of man who would accept Shanks saying: “Son, that’s not your knee that’s sore, battered and swollen……that’s Liverpool’s knee”. “Yes boss,” he’d reply.
The type of man who didn’t look for trouble but would never walk away from trouble. The man, a Liverpool man born within a few miles of Anfield who’d rise from his school football team to captain his city’s team and eventually captain his club. The type of man brought up to respect others until. Until they failed to respect him, respect his team, respect his Liverbird upon his chest, then there would be trouble. Ambulances would be necessary he told his opponents, ambulances to carry away the foolhardy who showed no respect, those who failed to understand the code, this simple message… It’s a game, boys, all equal, play hard yes, but do not cross the line, but do not spit at me, otherwise ambulances are required.
But any dreadnought requires cruisers and destroyers in the fleet, other men with the same skills, other men to help defend, run, harry, chase and score, carry out the boss’s rules. Ron Yeats, Ian Callaghan and Ian St John would be among Tommy’s first compatriots, and especially his hometown friend Chris Lawler. They would come and go but the younger Smith would lead a new revitalised 1970s team as captain, captain of the boys in RED, his boys at last, his Brothers in Arms. Imagine facing a moustachioed Smith, looking like a Mexican bandit with his Liverpudlian hard man Jimmy Case alongside, what a combination in that steely midfield.
Opponents like Norman “bites your legs” Hunter would challenge the Anfield Iron, try to vanquish him but eventually accept parity, both men respectful of each other, gladiatorial with no diving, no spitting, no ambulances required. This was an era before players’ agents, Sky, cheats (except for Franny Lee of Manchester City) MONEY MONEY MONEY, as Abba once sang.
Tommy Smith started in 1960 for £7-a-week for which he was grateful, his father having died when he was 15 and money was tight. He started as an “apprentice”, playing for the junior A, B, or C teams but mainly cleaning up the dressing room after the Saturday match. He may have been destined to become an integral part of Shankly’s team, and later Paisley’s, but painting The Kop during the close season was his first job. He helped dig up the sacred pitch in front of The Kop to help the drainage, or was it to let the blood seep into the ground?
Luckily for Liverpool FC it wasn’t the paintbrush or the spade that picked him out, but his boots, out on the green grass was where his talent shone, able to command himself and others, controlling midfield, ready to prompt in attack and deter in defence. There are two particular film excerpts that feature Tommy’s attributes, the first in the 1974 FA Cup final where he’s the central figure in the seven passes that cut through the Newcastle defence to make it 3-0, with Tommy playing the advanced full-back role 40 years ago. The second is the 1977 European Cup final where he makes the dash into the penalty area to bullet Steve Heighway’s corner into the net and effectively end Borussia’s fightback. Who can forget Barry Davies’s almost unbelieving cry “It’s Tommy Smith!!” His final goal for Liverpool but what a goal, what a man. If ever there was an OMG Man, it was Tommy.
I met Tommy a few years ago at one of the many “an evening with” events, although he himself didn’t hold many, preferring to let his record do his talking. He sat quietly describing his best memories and I had the pleasure to get a signed photo of him which hangs with pride in my Liverpool FC collection.
Bill Shankly said of him: “Tommy was born a man, he was never a boy”. Tommy Smith was born to play for Liverpool, born at the time when he could display his tenacity and skills. Tommy sits at home now, with his artificial kneecaps for company, still watching his LFC: “I was lucky enough to play for Liverpool FC,” he says, “I didn’t want to let them down”. He can be sure he never did!
(Special contributions from Bernard Nevin)