Ian Wood pays tribute to Gordon Smith on the occasion of his death at the age of 80
The Scotsman, 9 August, 2004
GORDON Smith was born in Edinburgh, brought up in Montrose, idolised in Leith and, before he was finished, unreservedly acclaimed in Gorgie and Dundee. This most elegant of footballers arrived at Easter Road in 1941, having been lured away from the attractions of Tynecastle by the wiles of Willie McCartney, the Hibs manager, who never pulled a smarter stroke in his life.
The 16-year-old Smith, who came complete with the looks of a film star and the outrageous talents of a genius, had seemed certain to go to Hearts after he appeared for a Junior XI and rattled in three goals against a Hearts-Hibs Select in a game arranged to hansel Lochee Park’s new ground at Beechwood Park. The Tynecastle club were interested in the Dundee Lochend player and as Smith was, at the time, a keen Hearts supporter, all seemed set fair.
However, the charismatic McCartney moved in, met the youngster in an Arbroath hotel and told him that if he cared to join Hibs, a place in the team waited him immediately – in a game against Hearts, who had wanted him to play a trial before finalising a deal. McCartney’s offer proved irresistible, Smith duly signed for a fee of £10 and scored a hat-trick in Hibs’ 5-3 League win at Tynecastle.
So the curtain rose on a career at Easter Road during which Smith would play more than 700 games for the club and score more than 350 goals. Before he was finished, his career tally would be closer to 400 goals in 900 games.
He was, as the modern pundits would put it: “comfortable on the ball”. In fact, that is to understate the case considerably. He was always in perfect balance and his pace with the ball at his feet was outstanding. He could shoot and pass with either foot and from the right wing, his normal beat, he sent over inswinging corners with his left foot, outswinging with his right.
Even his failures were a bit special. Once, as a schoolboy, he’d run all the way from his own half to the opposition goalmouth controlling the ball on his head and scored. Twice, at senior level, he managed to make similar runs – once against Rangers, when he signed off by heading past, and again, against Third Lanark, when the final header was saved by the goalkeeper. That he didn’t quite manage the trick at senior level always rankled with him, though Third Lanark were due a break, for he’d once put five past them in the course of an 8-0 thrashing.
At Ibrox in 1948, he beat Bobby Brown, the great Rangers and Scotland goalkeeper, twice – once from the tightest of angles and once from 40 yards. Smith’s favourite recollection of that 4-2 Hibs win though, was the goal he set up for Johnny Cuthbertson, mesmerising the defence with a display of flicks and dinks before floating the ball through to the striker. Brown named Smith as the winger he feared most because of the variety of crosses he had at his command.
Smith always relished encounters with the Old Firm and perhaps the 8-1 demolition of Rangers at Easter Road in 1941 had whetted his appetite. Certainly, in his later years, he would often reflect that that result summed up the side’s attitude to Rangers.
“While other clubs feared the Ibrox side,” he said, “we loved to play them – and beat them.” It was a mindset which might have had a lot to do with the three League championship titles which Hibs were to win between 1948 and 1952.
The last two of those titles were won in successive years when Smith found himself operating in the perfect setting – a forward line featuring himself, Bobby Johnstone, Lawrie Reilly, Eddie Turnbull and Willie Ormond. The “Famous Five” assembled in 1949 and were together until Johnstone departed for Manchester City some five years later.
During their reign, their free-ranging, inter-changing style brought a new dimension to Scottish football and Smith revelled in it. His fame spread and Newcastle United offered Hibs a blank cheque for his transfer.
Things were not so comfortable at international level. Smith’s tally of 18 full caps was meagre, even allowing for the fact that there were far fewer international fixtures then. Sadly, in the days before Scotland had an international manager, selections tended to be erratic.
That for long periods there was no place for Smith in a national line-up seems extraordinary now, when not that long ago it took Kenny Dalglish many internationals to knit in with the side and become regarded, rightly, as a key component.
Fortunately for Smith, there was to be some belated consolation when, after seven lean years which yielded only two caps, he was recalled for a game against Portugal in 1955 and named in a squad which would tour Eastern Europe. George Young of Rangers, the captain, was injured in the first game of the tour against Yugoslavia and Smith, who had scored his first international goal in Belgrade, took over the captaincy.
For the first time he felt part of the set-up and not as if he was in on sufferance. He responded by scoring in both the remaining games – a 4-1 victory over Austria and a 1-3 defeat by a wonderful Hungarian side inspired by Ferenc Puskas. At last Smith felt he’d done himself justice in a Scotland context.
Smith played in four of Scotland’s World Cup qualifying ties in 1957, but around that time, injury was beginning to take its toll. Inevitably, he attracted more than his share of attention from defenders and had sustained two leg breaks and various ankle injuries, the last of which occurred in 1958, when he was forced to sit out the Scottish Cup final defeat against Clyde. This injury was to have massive repercussions.
For a start, it led to him becoming a Hearts player. The ankle required surgery and, as Hibs refused to finance it, he had it done at his own expense, only to find that the club remained unconvinced he had a future with them and gave him a free transfer at the end of the season. Smith, who had struck up a good partnership with the precocious Joe Baker, was shattered by the news. So were the Hibs fans.
They were even more shattered when, after Kilmarnock and Dundee had expressed an interest in the winger, Hearts made a move and Smith went along with it. Smith was worried about how he’d be received down Gorgie way, but he needn’t have worried. A crowd of 12,000 turned out at Tynecastle when he was given a trial in a reserve game against Dundee. He scored in the 4-2 win and by the time he’d settled into a squad which was to win the 1959-60 League title – not to mention a League Cup – all had been forgiven.
When Hearts, in turn, decided to let Smith go, his next port of call was Bob Shankly’s Dundee, where he linked up with Alan Gilzean to deadly effect. Smith helped the Dens Park club to the League title of 1961-62 – bringing his tally of championship medals to five – and was prominent in their surge to the semi-finals of the European Cup in 1962-63, producing a supreme display of mature wingcraft in the 8-1 demolition of Cologne.
When Dundee fell to AC Milan, the eventual winners, it was Smith’s second appearance in a European Cup semi-final, having played with Hibs in the inaugural tournament in 1955-56, when the Edinburgh side bowed out to Raymond Kopa’s Rheims, who fell to Real Madrid in the final.
Smith always felt that his chance to crash the European scene came just too late for a Hibs side which had shaded slightly since the peak years.
After Dundee, there were short stints with Morton and the Irish club, Drumcondra, before Smith decided it was time to go. He was a month short of his 40th birthday.
He spent his later years at North Berwick, in a house looking out over the golf links to the sea. A keen golfer, he played regularly at Longniddry with old friends such as Lawrie Reilly and Eddie Turnbull and always kept himself fit. Even after he’d given up running his Right Wing pub – not all that far from Easter Road and a popular haunt for Hibs supporters – he’d often head for the beach with a football, the habits and loves of a lifetime simply refusing to go away.
He was a regular spectator at professional golf tournaments, where the centre of his attention tended to be the South African, Bobby Locke, four-times Open champion, whose supreme touch and control appealed to the perfectionist in Smith. The two were introduced and Locke became a frequent visitor to the Smith household. It was a friendship which lasted until Locke’s death in 1987.
Smith’s varied interests included jazz – he was particularly fond of the music of Fats Waller – and cricket, his idea of a good holiday being to head for Lord’s and watch a Test match. In the main, though, he was a private man, content to live quietly at North Berwick with his devoted wife, Joan, whose death some years ago affected Smith very deeply. Gordon and Joan are survived by their son, Anthony.
It is futile to compare the heroes of one era with those of another. It can only be recorded that Gordon Smith was a remarkable athlete who saw many changes in the game and adapted so effectively and apparently effortlessly, that it is difficult to see him failing to make his mark whatever the context.
It is often said he was ahead of his time, and he probably was. However, as far as those privileged to see him in action are concerned, his timing was, as usual, absolutely perfect.