Given his own mentoring duties in recent times, it’s strange to think of Alex Smith once occupying a place at the knee of others, soaking up knowledge which has stood him in such good stead since taking his first steps as manager, more than 40 years ago.
As he puts it, Jim McLean, Alex Ferguson and he all “started school on the same day”. Then there is Craig Brown, another contemporary whose retirement is the talk of the Scottish football steamie on the afternoon Smith has agreed to meet.
Once, it was in all their interests to listen and learn, and they did, from the likes of Bob Shankly and Jock Stein. Smith graduated from programme selling at Stirling Albion to a player there, before being recruited as manager by Shankly, who became a director at the Anfield club after successful spells with Falkirk, Hibernian and Dundee. It was, Smith says, a priceless education. Even then, he had thought he knew it all. He had guided Stenhousemuir, who he took over in 1969, to a win over Rangers at Ibrox in a League Cup clash and although they were knocked out on aggregate, it was a memorable victory for the club.
“When I came to Stirling, I was a wee Jack the lad,” recalls Smith. “I was thinking, I can go anywhere and be manager. I have just beaten Rangers at Ibrox. I was cocky, confident, and went to work alongside Bob.
“He was not like his brother, Bill, who was an extrovert and flamboyant. Bob was an introvert, but he was one of Jock Stein’s best friends. He mentored Jock as well as his little brother at Liverpool. When I was a young lad at Stirling, Jock used to phone Bob and say ‘let’s go up to Dundee to watch a game’.
“It might have been either Dundee United or Dundee. Bob would ask: ‘is it OK if young Alex comes?’ ‘Aye, OK.’ And I would be sitting in the back seat of the car, with them two in front, chatting away. You could not doze off. They would be talking about something and then suddenly ask your opinion.
“It was football, football, football. They were obsessives.”
It takes one to know one. Smith is one of the precious links between the likes of Shankly and Stein to now, and it wouldn’t do to ignore what he has to say. Indeed, it feels significant that Brown has announced that he has come to the end of the line just days after Smith has returned to the front line, albeit on an interim basis, with Falkirk. Not long after this was confirmed, following Steven Pressley’s departure for Coventry City, Brown contacted Smith, his fellow septuagenarian, and told him: “Thank God, you have taken the heat off me”.
From being the oldest man in the Scottish game by a year, Smith is now, suddenly, the most senior by some distance. He doesn’t look it, however. He barely looks any different to the photographs dating from his early managerial posts. The hair is slightly greyer, but not much. One can’t help note the different hand that life dealt his fellow footballer and best friend, Billy Bremner, who died from a heart attack in 1997, at the age of just 54.
Here, by contrast, is Smith, as much a feature of the Stirling carse land as the various historical monuments dotted around the landscape. He still deeply misses Bremner, for whom he once performed the duty of best man. Smith appears committed, as if in tribute, to making the most of every day. It is one reason why he is happy to remain working, while others, Brown and Ferguson excluded, are long since retired.
He is still a bit miffed at the Daily Record having added a year onto his age earlier this week. “They said I was 74,” he says. Though he never actually says so himself, Smith turned 73 last Christmas Day. He is two years, almost to the day, older than Sir Alex Ferguson, who he still keeps in regular contact with. Surprisingly, he is slightly coy when it comes to revealing his age.
One doesn’t like to pry, but the question has to be asked. He replies in a rat-a-tat fashion: “25-12-39”. It is of course his birth date. God help you if you can’t jot the figures down quickly enough.
“I got asked my age once in a board meeting at Ross County,” he adds, with reference to the club he helped become established in the Scottish senior game. “Roy MacGregor said to me before I left: ‘By the way, Mr Manager. One or two of the directors are intrigued by your age, they would like to know what your age is’. I replied: ‘you are not going to get it from me. But I will give you a hint. I was nine before I ate my first banana’.”
The next day, Smith explained. “There was a war on when I was born, and at the end of the war there was four or five years of rationing.” MacGregor probably remains baffled to this day.
Fortunately, Smith is more forthcoming, as well as less oblique, about his time in football. As a member of a gang that also included McLean and Ferguson, I wondered whether he ever felt slightly put out when both men seemed to push on with more dynamism in their respective managerial careers.
The former was in his mid-thirties when he took over at Dundee United, leading them to their first Scottish Cup final in 1974. Ferguson, meanwhile, elbowed his way into Smith’s territory when taking over at East Stirlingshire, while he was in charge at nearby Stenhousemuir. Within months, Ferguson was on the way to St Mirren. Although Smith moved on to Stirling Albion, a team with better prospects then than now, Ferguson and McLean could soon boast Premier League titles, while Smith, by contrast, was left to celebrate multi-goal wins over Selkirk in the Scottish Cup. Eventually, he would get close to a Premier League title himself, having again followed in the footsteps of Ferguson, at Aberdeen.
“I never felt as though my nose was out of joint,” he says, when asked whether he had felt he was being left behind. “Jim became manager in 1971 at United, when we felt like our managerial careers were forming. Jim went straight in there from Dundee.
“Alex [Ferguson] was doing it in stages like me,” he adds. “We used to play each other’s teams in friendly games. Never, though, did I think, at any time, that I should be where they were.”
It was only a matter of time, in any case. Smith took over St Mirren and at the end of his first full season in charge, he led them to the Scottish Cup – against McLean’s Dundee United. It remains the Paisley club’s last major trophy, something they will be trying to address tomorrow, when St Mirren face Hearts in the League Cup final. In what is a mark of the man, Smith admits the win in 1987 – St Mirren’s previous trophy success had been in 1959, in the same competition – was soured slightly by knowledge that his old friend McLean had fallen at the final hurdle for the fourth time.
“It did take a certain shine off it,” he says. “I did have mixed emotions. I remember making a comment at the end of the game, in which I said I was so pleased for St Mirren and the fans, but that I had great sympathy for the man sitting in the dressing-room next door.”
“They [United] were in the throes of a European run,” he adds. “They were unfortunate to lose in the first leg of the Uefa Cup final, and they still had another game to play. And this, I am afraid, gave them a wee dunt.”
For St Mirren, however, it was a day of days. “The St Mirren fan-base was made up of many hard-working men,” he recalls. “They worked in engineering places, and in mills, which were closing then. It was a hard, hard life, and this was a great occasion for them.” The win was achieved with three 20-year-olds and a 17 -year-old Paul Lambert,
Although Smith’s compassion at the time must have been appreciated, he was less sensitive to the feelings of those United stalwarts he ended up working with, on taking over at the Tannadice club in 2000. Wrapped around his left wrist to this day is an individually engraved watch gifted to the players and management by St Mirren, to commemorate the cup win.
“I’ve been at the wind-up ever since,” he sniggers. “When I managed Dundee United, Maurice Malpas [a coach, and survivor of many of United’s cup traumas] would be there, and we would be chatting away. Slowly, I would take the watch off, and leave it sitting there on the table, with the inscription facing up: Scottish Cup winners. Everyone used to tell me; ‘you bastard’, Maurice in particular.”
Wearing his Managers and Coaches Association chairman hat, Smith expresses some distaste at the comments made by Ivan Golac a few weeks ago, with the former United manager – who broke United’s Scottish Cup duck in 1994 – having criticised McLean for serial under-achievement. “To me, it was an achievement getting to six finals; there were a lot of managers who were not in those finals. To be criticised like that by another manager is poor. There is a word in football, and without it we are nothing: respect.”
This is something else he learned from Shankly, while a commitment to youth was something else that the mentor also installed in Smith. He, in turn, passed it on to Pressley. “You have to trust your young players,” Smith told him, and at Falkirk, if there is an ethos that defines the club in its current guise, it is trust in young players. As we talk, you can hear the always pleasant-sounding thud of boot on football, as a gaggle of youngsters work long into the afternoon with coaches Robbie Neilson and Stevie Crawford. It is a heartening scene. Smith, however, despairs at the stasis that has enveloped Scottish football, with no-one quite sure what next season will bring.
“I am not sure what exactly Bob [Shankly] and Jock [Stein] would think of what is going on at the moment, but it would not be very complimentary,” he says. “The game is just drifting along, there is nothing getting done. They would speak out about the unwillingness to get it sorted, and the selfishness of some people in the game.
“They were visionaries.”
As Celtic manager Neil Lennon has long stressed, it’s people such as Smith who should be being consulted at every step of the way. The veteran manager accepts that the proposal on the table at the moment “might be what clubs need at the moment”. Rather than fewer clubs, he thinks the league system could go with six more. “Three leagues of 16, play each other twice, perfect.”
Smith is in the mood to make further history. While Craig Brown is preparing to clock off, he has his eyes set on Hampden, and another Scottish Cup final. He remains the only manager to have won the Scottish Cup with two different, non-Old Firm clubs. Can he entertain the thought of winning another one with Falkirk, 100 years after the club lifted the trophy for a first time? They play Hibernian in the semi-final in just under a month’s time, and you can sense Smith’s desire to carry on until then, at least. “It depends on how fast they sift through the applicants,” he says. “There is no rush, I suppose. We have time to look at the situation.
“Maybe it is pushing it a wee bit, but it might help the players, knowing that you have been there and done it.” When it comes to Smith, that is something few could dispute, and the real triumph is that he still has the zest to keep doing it.