Cup Winners’ hero Dave Smith on Rangers demise and lower league future
TO those who had the bad luck never to see Dave Smith play, there’s a useful early clue that we’re talking about a different kind of footballer, a different kind of Ranger, as soon as he opens the door to his home near Markinch, Fife.
Everything in the sitting-room is black, white or grey, same in the kitchen-cum-dining room – and, feeling self-conscious in my red kagoul, I contemplate nipping back over the Forth Bridge to change into something more in keeping with such sleek surroundings. This looks like the home of an arty type, rather than a footballer, but then Smith was an arty footballer. He thanks me when I compliment him on his good taste and eye for a piece of daring design, then laughs and admits it’s all down to his wife, Sheila.
She’s upstairs and he shouts, jokingly: “Just you carry on with the ironing.” I’m visualising a pile of clothes that’s black, white and grey when about ten minutes into our chat he decides I should meet her – “So you don’t think I’ve buried her under the patio.” Sheila makes the tea, handing me a black coaster for my grey mug, then leads the Bichon Frise – Millie and Ollie, both white – into the garden so we can continue the story of a football life played out in anything but dull monochrome.
In a televisual sense, of course, it was that. If you weren’t squashed into those big Ibrox crowds of yore, 75,000 and more, then you watched the classy left-half on cathode-ray black-and-white, usually with George Davidson commentating: “McKinnon to Greig to Smith ... what a fine pass to wee Willie Henderson.” He just missed Archie Macpherson at the Great Ginger Owl’s most flowery when left feet were invariably “educated” and Smith’s was certainly that, with first-class honours. Fitba on the box was still black-and-white for his and Rangers’ finest hour-and-a-half: the 1972 European Cup Winners’ Cup triumph in Barcelona. I’m interested in compare and contrast: 40 years ago, precisely now, Smith and his team-mates surely couldn’t wait for the new season to begin, continental success being the most persuasive evidence that at last they might be able to wrest the old First Division flag from Jock Stein’s mighty Celtic. Today for Rangers, though, there’s no Europe, no top-flight football, no justification for the thunderous cry “We are the people” – only the likes of Annan, Elgin Montrose and Brechin, starting one week tomorrow.
“Truthfully, I don’t remember us thinking any differently that summer – that we were suddenly in a much better position to win the league,” he says. “We always thought we could win it. We went into every game thinking we would win. Celtic had a great team but we weren’t bad either and the championships were usually quite close. Our record in the Old Firm fixture was good; it was against the smaller teams that we’d trip up.” Thinking they would win – spoken like a true Ranger. Now, of course, the Light Blues’ entire world is wall-to-wall small. “I don’t think any of us who played for Rangers back then would ever have believed there would come a day when the club wouldn’t be able to pay its bills,” he adds. “I still go to most games and have said for some time that they’ve been paying players a whole lot more than they’re worth. Every club has done this – that guy [Paul] Bernard cost Aberdeen £1 million. The argument goes they’re simply being paid the going rate. Well, I don’t agree with it.”
Smith speaks like a footballer of his vintage – he’s 68 – and one who was flabbergasted by the sighting of Nacho Novo’s Bentley in the club car park, replaced for the next game by a Porsche with the same “NOV” plate. His views, though, are still worth hearing. They’re issued in a pronounced north-east brogue, the Aberdeen-born great quipping that Sheila thinks his accent is “getting worse”. “I told my pals up in Fraserburgh that I didna think Rangers would go into administration and I was wrong. Then I said I didna think they’d be liquidated and I was wrong again.” Though maybe not dyed-in-the-wool like Alex MacDonald – “Doddie has taken it all really bad” – he’s still a Ranger. “Once you play for them, that’s it.” Is he better-placed, though, to understand the special non-relationship other clubs had with the old Rangers, the team they all loved to hate?
“Well, jealousy’s an awful thing. Other clubs have been envious of Rangers over the years and this is the backlash,” he says of the decision to blast the newco version into the Third Division. “I think that in life you have to find contentment and for the other teams the only way they can compete is to rear their own players.” Surely, though, the talented ones always end up being cherry-picked by Old Firm as long at they’re not prohibited from signing players. Does he acknowledge the time-honoured grumbles from beyond Glasgow of the dice always being loaded in favour of Celtic and the former Rangers, of penalty kicks hotly claimed but rarely given? He smiles. “I honestly don’t think we were favoured by refs in my day.” Really? “Ach well maybe when confronted by 75,000 at Ibrox or Parkhead one or two might have thought: ‘Anything for a quiet life.’ That’s human nature.”
Smith accepts the punishment for financial incompetence and wrong-doing simply had to be the Third Division. “Rather than wait for the sentence to be passed, I’d have said: ‘This is where we’ll play.’ Football-wise, it’s for the best.”
He wants the bickering to stop. “Fans of the smaller teams have got their way, but there’s no point in Rangers supporters saying they can’t wait for the top flight to collapse without them because if clubs were to fold we would have nowhere to go.” And he wants the tears to stop, too. “I understand the fans were absolutely devastated. I feel sorry for the boys in my supporters’ club, the Dave Smith Fraserburgh Loyal, because they have bigger dreams invested in the club than me, who was lucky enough to pull on the jersey. But what do we do: mourn, mourn and mourn some more? No, we accept what’s happened and move on. We stop feeling sorry for ourselves and we dinna feel too proud to be playing in the Third.” Smith quit Rangers for Arbroath because Jock Wallace wanted him to kick the opposition and that was never his style; later he managed Berwick Rangers when they were officially Britain’s worst. “It’ll still be 11 against 11 down there and it’ll still be a game of football.”
Smith knows all about mourning in his football career; it’s how he became a Ranger. The son of an Aberdeen stevedore, he was the youngest of four boys. Doug would play 628 games for Dundee United, his only club, and Hughie became an accountant but the eldest brother Jimmy, Co-op grocer and Rangers fanatic, died of a heart condition in 1963, aged just 28. “It was the weekend President Kennedy was killed. I was playing for Aberdeen, we were down at Queen of the South and had gone to the pictures afterwards; it was flashed up on the screen that he’d been shot. I got back home at about 2am and Jimmy was still up, sitting by the fire.
“He said he was going into hospital the next day to ‘get better’ but I never saw him again. He should have had a transplant but they didn’t do them in those days. I’d always promised that I would play for Rangers one day, for him.” In 1966 Scott Symon signed him for £50,000 and a few months later would come the Scottish Cup shock at Berwick, for a long time the club’s biggest calamity.
It’s 50 years since father-of-three Smith made his competitive debut for Aberdeen and when he departed a Pittodrie team that had featured Charlie Cooke, Ernie Winchester and left-back Jimmy Hogg – “who Willie Henderson will tell you aye got the better of him” – Eddie Turnbull was paying him £28 a week, £2 more than team-mates. The move more than doubled his wage to £60. Was he daunted by the marble staircase, the mighty Ibrox traditions? “Not at all. I was never the type to get flustered although when I arrived I was shy and would only speak when I was spoken to. At Aberdeen if I wanted the ball I got it. There were lots of big personalities at Rangers and it took me a while to find my voice. I think I got my first pass after about two years!”
But there was no reticence in Smith regarding absolute football purity. “I always liked to play the game within the rectangle and even now am amazed when a full-back gets applause for a hoof out the park. Whenever I saw Willie Mathieson draw back his leg I’d offer to take the ball off him. Without being big-headed, I knew what to do with it. I thought I was as good as anybody I came up against.” Even Franz Beckenbauer? He chuckles. This was the ’72 Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final second leg against Bayern Munich – revenge for defeat in the final five years before. There were 80,000 at Ibrox that night and Smith, deputising as captain for the injured John Greig, was imperious at sweeper. “I’ve got a photo of the Kaiser and myself exchanging pennants which he’s signed ‘to my friend Dave Smith’. He was a better player than me, no question, but that time I maybe had the edge.”
Such majestic performances would win Smith the Player of the Year prize from Scotland’s football journos, one of whom, John Fairgrieve, had come to Rangers’ rescue earlier against Sporting Lisbon, pointing out the Scots were already through on away goals and rendering the penalty shootout won by the Portugese inconsequential.
That tie was the first of the competition for Smith, a substitute for Ron McKinnon who broke a leg, a fate Smith had suffered twice the previous year. He would have another terrific game in the final against Dynamo Moscow, again at sweeper, although he remains modest about his contribution to Rangers’ greatest achievement. Yes, he made two of the goals in the 3-2 win, but this was also a match notable for Smith removing the ball from the rectangle. “I headed it behind for a corner. I’d prefer not to have done that.” The Fraserburgh crew frequently tease him about his modesty. “One of them will go, ‘So what was the ’72 final like?’, and another will reply, pretending to be me: ‘Ach, it was just another game.’ That’s what I always say!”
Was Smith Scotland’s first-ever sweeper? It’s a good pub debate. Willie Waddell was hot on tactics but didn’t instruct him in the art of sweeping. “How did I learn? Just instinct I suppose.” But he only won two Scottish caps – how come? “Well, there were plenty of good players around. My brother Doug was better than me and he was never capped. Maybe I didn’t pomote myself. Guys back then would tell the press how good they were but that wasn’t me.”
Smith was never booked in his career – neither was Doug – although that would have changed if he’d been prepared to carry out the orders of Jock Wallace when the latter became king of the hill at Ibrox, after apparently studying Ian Bannen’s performance as the sadistic sand dune-torture sergeant in the war movie The Hill. “I got on OK with Jock, man to man, and you can’t argue that he made the team fitter or that he won Rangers the treble. But football-wise we jarred. When he asked me to start kicking folk I told him not to pick me again.” For his move to Arbroath, Smith’s brother Jimmy continued to have an influence over his career, Jimmy’s best pal being the brother of Gayfield manager Albert Henderson. Our quiet hero would eventually hang up his boots in the quietest of surroundings, Highland League Huntly, at the age of 41, although in the wind-down to the end there was fun to be had with George Best’s Los Angeles Aztecs. “I remember the flight home from America and Bestie’s wife Angie turning round to Sheila and I and saying: ‘Guess what George is doing?’ For a moment we dreaded to think, but in fact he had a kids’ jumbo colouring-in book and was hard at work with the felt pens.”
It’s time for me to leave and Smith offers me a lift to the station in his VW Beetle, the car he’s always driven. I ask him if Rangers can rise again. “This season’ll be strange, for sure, although hopefully the fans will enjoy visiting places they’ve never been before. But the club will be back, dinna worry about that.” We pass Markinch’s memorial to the Ibrox Disaster and the five rowan trees, one for each of the five local boys among the 66 who died. “I remember the team having to leave the physio’s room because it was needed for the injured. There was an old fella crying. ‘They were working on my laddie,’ the man said, ‘but he’s gone.’ All of a sudden the boy jumped up looking like he wanted to fight someone. At night on the TV the toll just kept going up and up. Next home game we played Dundee United, me against Doug, and I scored the winner. Funnily enough we were in opposition the day our mum passed away as well and we’ve always thought she would have loved that.”
You mourn – for nothing less than a respectful period – and then you don’t mourn. Whether Moscow Dynamo or Annan Athletic, there’s another game to be played.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 8 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: West