Gordon Smith reveals why his Brighton miss hurts more now, and how he struck up a friendship with one of the Beatles
Wembley was at its cabbage-patch worst when in the last minute of extra time, with the score locked at 2-2, the ball was slipped to Gordon Smith in the Manchester United box. But this precise prancer of a footballer, who team-mates used to tease about never needing a post-match shower when they were all mud-spattered, negotiated the divots easily with a brilliant first touch. He seemed certain to win Brighton and Hove Albion the FA Cup and, for himself, immortality. “Our chairman told me I could have ended up the town’s mayor,” he says with a rueful smile.
“And Smith must score!” shrieked BBC radio commentator Peter Jones on 21 May, 1983, gifting a Seagulls fanzine its title, except Smudger didn’t find the net. Gary Bailey saved and in the replay Man U banged in four. “I got over it,” he says of the miss. “Footballers can do that, move on quickly.” Smith, 64, preaches positivity in Bellshill today – it’s the watchword of his latest business venture – and reckons he has always possessed mental strength.
Those who didn’t know that about him would ask down the years how much the fluffed chance bothered him. He always thought of Alan Davies. “Alan was only playing for Man U because Steve Coppell was injured. He set up their first two goals in the replay and I swapped shirts with him at the end. But that pour soul ended up committing suicide. What happened to me, not scoring a goal, wasn’t so bad.”
But… but… the miss bothers him now. “It niggles me more and I don’t know why. Even though I had a good career in football I say to myself about that day: ‘What were you doing, man?’ It was so stupid.”
Smith’s good career began at Kilmarnock where his grandfather Mattha Smith was a double Scottish Cup winner. Our man matched this feat at Rangers where under Jock Wallace his barrowload of goals from midfield also helped achieve a Treble. After Brighton came Manchester City and adventures on the continent, Austria and Switzerland. Next Saturday, though, he will be back at Wembley for Brighton’s latest bid to lift the FA Cup, the semi-final against City, when as a guest of the south-coasters he will be apologising all over again.
“I do this every time Brighton invite me down. The other day the programme editor told me he was about to speak to Jimmy Melia, our manager in ’83. ‘Say hello to the gaffer,’ I said, ‘and tell him I’m sorry for not turning him into a legend’. Honestly, they’re so nice there. I’ve got a column in the programme, my face on a mural at the new stadium. Imagine if I’d won them the cup? I don’t know about mayor but if I was living there I could still be dining out on that – and by the way I did score in the 2-2 game – because Brighton had never even reached the quarter-finals before.”
Smith has allowed himself to be narked by radio phone-ins regarding the miss – hardly surprising when the callers claim, wrongly, that it was an open-goal opportunity. And he has threatened to sue an airline for saying the same thing in their complimentary mag – “I was hoping to wangle some free flights off them,” he quips. “But I think the reason I suddenly feel so bad about not scoring the goal is because of the fans who’ve continued to be so understanding and so kind. I don’t reckon supporters would have been like that at every club. There are a few clubs with a sense of entitlement where they would probably still be angry with me: ‘You cost us, ya balloon!’ ”
Interesting fellow, Smith. Well, I would say that about someone whose first gig was prog-rock titans Yes at Glasgow’s Apollo. His football guises have been multifarious although these days he is happy watching Xavi play. That’s Xavi Smith, his ten-year-old grandson. He has another, too young to kick a ball yet, called – wait for it – Edson.
Smith emerged from college with a degree in Business Studies and his head for figures would land him in bother with Wallace’s successor at Ibrox, John Greig. When Greig revealed that the win bonus for beating Juventus in 1978 – £200 – was the same as he got as a player at the identical stage of the Cup-Winners’ Cup glory year seven seasons previously, Smith piped up: “There was hyperinflation in 1973, 1974 and 1975. £200 doesn’t have the same value now.”
Rangers duped him into the move to Brighton but ultimately he was grateful for it. No more would he have to knock on house doors to retrieve stray balls from the training field – this actually happened at the mighty Gers – and his new club had waiter service on the team bus. Mind you, England wasn’t all glamour. At Man City during a half-time team-talk there was stern advice from a fellow he hadn’t encountered before. “Who was that?” he asked a team-mate. “Our bus driver.” It is not known if Pep Guardiola has retained his services.
Smith was chief executive of the SFA during a trying time and not only because of Boozegate. Even more chastening was his stint as Rangers’ director of football, prior to financial implosion. “That was a mistake, I regret it. I went there for the right reasons, to try to help Ally [McCoist, manager], but ended up being tainted by the Craig Whyte regime, even though I was no more part of it than any of the players. When the rumours started that we were headed for administration he brushed them off. He just wasn’t a football man.” I mention McCoist’s recent admission of wanting to “flatten” Whyte. “Ally and I both do boxer training and I know how he feels.”
But all those post-football roles, including players’ agent and pundit, are poor substitutes for being out there with a ball at his feet and the wind in his hair. Okay, even a howling Somerset Park gale couldn’t disturb Smudger’s tremendous bouffant but you know what I mean. We’ll come to Rangers and Scotland – and that hair – shortly, but let’s get back to ’83 and the road to Wembley…
Or flight path. Relegation didn’t deter Brighton from chartering a helicopter – previous user: Pope John Paul II – for the journey to the Twin Towers. Naturally the team recorded a cup final song, at Elton’s John’s studio in London, although only a handful featured on the single, the rest being too hungover.
“Brighton were a big drinking club, a really heavy culture, which was a shock to someone like me, a confirmed lemonade man. That’s all I drank at Rangers and I only pretended to sip champagne from the trophies we won. There wasn’t such a social scene at Ibrox because the guys didn’t live close to each other but it was quite incestuous at Brighton. Early on Steve Foster [the headbanded skipper] invited me round to his house. It was a Friday night and we had a game the next day. He sunk three cans of beer before the meal his wife had cooked, then a whole bottle of wine to himself because I kept refusing to drink. As he was opening the second bottle of wine I said: ‘Fozzie, remember we’re playing tomorrow’. He said: ‘That’s why I’m taking it easy, Smudger’.
“Because I didn’t drink – or gamble or play golf – the Brighton guys used to say: ‘Are you sure you’re Scottish?’ I didn’t want to be the weirdo who missed the nights out and there were plenty of them. I was still a weirdo initially because my team-mates would say: ‘We don’t buy lemonade – you’ll have to get your own. So then, at almost 27, I succumbed to peer pressure and had my first taste of alcohol – a lager shandy. At that recording session I was able to hold a tune. The goalkeeper Graham Moseley wasn’t and he wandered off and found a lift which only served Elton’s flat above the studios. He got stuck in it and threw up – all over the luxurious carpet and suede-covered walls. The rest of us learned this when our cup bonuses were handed out. There had to be a sizable deduction to pay for fumigating and redecoration!”
The team were invited on to Top of the Pops although, in almost a portent of the Gary Bailey save, a producer announced at the last minute that they wouldn’t be allowed to sing because only national sales qualified on the show, theirs having been “regional”. Still, Smith got to meet Bananarama in his groovy tank-top and he shows me a clip on his phone.
The Seagulls recorded another song, this one bathing in the afterglow of the hoped-for triumph, which was obviously never released. “I can’t remember how it went but I was the lead vocalist. So I guess missing that chance put paid to my singing career as well.” But if you think pop dreams were thwarted for Smith you’d be wrong.
Many years after that Yes concert he found himself in the same room as Rick Wakeman and, still the fanboy, went to shake his hand. Before he could introduce himself, the keyboard maestro said: “Gordon Smith – you were my favourite player at Man City!” He can top that tale, too. Also at the Apollo, when he was playing for Rangers, he got to meet Paul McCartney, but this was no quick hello-thanks-for-the-show for a Stage Door Johnnie. They chatted for a long time in the star’s dressing room and got on famously, Smith’s wife Marlene likewise with Linda. “Eventually I thought I’d better go. I said: ‘There will be other folk wanting to meet you – I passed Billy Connolly on the way in.’ Paul said: ‘Where have you got to be? Just stay’.” And when McCartney found out Smith’s brother, another Billy, had been shivering in the Glasgow night all this time he was immediately whisked upstairs.
When Smith moved to Brighton he invited McCartney, an East Sussex resident, to a game. The ex-Beatle replied: “Come to Linda’s next photographic exhibition.” Macca impressed Smith by asking “How’s your brother Billy, then?” though this would have impressed Billy even more. “Come and visit us – we’re at home every Sunday,” Smith and Marlene were told. Was the great man serious?
“Most Sundays I’d mention what Paul said. Marelene would go: ‘We can’t just turn up out of the blue’. Then I decided we were going to do it. Marlene was still reluctant but thought she should make a cheesecake. We drove down lots of country lanes, got lost, but eventually found the house, which for one of the world’s biggest stars, was tiny. Linda was very welcoming, as was Paul, even when our three-year-old, Grant, climbed all over the grand piano.”
Sunday at the McCartneys happened just before Brighton were due to play Liverpool at Anfield on their march to the cup final. Macca gave Smith no chance against his hometown team although he was impressed that the footballer knew how to play Blackbird off the White Album, the guitar tunings – “The song’s in F, the chords are played in G” – having baffled many. “We also talked about John Lennon [murdered two years before]. Paul explained he’d been making his peace with John but there were still a lot of things left unsaid. I was surprised he didn’t have any bodyguards, even more when he said that for his latest album he was travelling into London on his own by train and Tube.” Then a few days after this thrilling afternoon a package arrived for the Smiths. Not only does the superstar remember brothers’ names, he returns cake dishes.
Smith’s Macca stories amount to The Long and Winding Road but The End is in sight. Last December before McCartney’s show at Glasgow’s Hydro, they met again. “It was a few days before my 64th birthday – look,” Smith says, producing his phone once more to reveal him warbling When I’m 64 to its composer’s chuckling approval. But seeing as we’ve indulged Smudger’s musical passions today, this seems a good moment to mention hair and, pertinently, hair colour.
On the phone Smith’s copper tones – he’s 64, don’t forget – are in sharp contrast to Macca, who’s showing his grey after many years’ enslavement to the dye bottle. If anything Smith is even more coppery today. “That’s because I had some colouring done yesterday,” he says but adds, in answer to the odd jibe, that it’s all his own hair. He’s not yet ready to go grey and considering how those admin gigs at Rangers and Scotland must have prematurely aged him, maybe he should be permitted this indulgence.
Smith’s SFA tenure packed the ill-starred Craig Levein reign, the ill-starred George Burley reign, humiliating defeats by Norway and Wales, Chris Iwelumo’s horror miss – a proper open goal, this one – player “retirals” at the age of 25 and – phew! – Barry Ferguson’s Loch Lomond speakeasy into three mad years.
Frustrated and stifled, he was glad to be out of the job when he quit and just as happy to be dodging the flak now. Much of it, he says, is unwarranted. “I’ve worked in four countries and am afraid to say Scotland is by far the most negative. There was negativity when Alex McLeish was appointed and his critics have been waiting for this moment to jump on him. This is a new era with a new team. To claim the campaign is over because we lost in Kazakhstan is out of order. These were inexperienced players with hardly any more caps combined than Alex himself. We’ve lost experience – only Stuart Armstrong was in the team from the 2-2 draw against England – and some guys didn’t want to play, which was regrettable. But look at Northern Ireland. They have experience, attitude, belief, players giving their all and, yes, maybe brilliant coaching as well. You can’t tell me, though, they’ve got better footballers than us.”
Our chat has gone from Mattha to Macca and the Seagulls to Blackbird and now it must end. But there’s just time, with Celtic and Rangers clashing tomorrow, for some Old Firm reminiscences. Smith played in the 4-2 league decider won by ten-man Celts (“We were going for another Treble but were crap – Kazakhstan crap”) and the riot-torn 1980 Scottish Cup final. I’m thinking his favourite memory might be his Old Firm debut – two-nil down to Celtic at Ibrox at half-time, he sparked the fightback and scored the winner – or his diving header in the 1978 League Cup final, but he chooses this:
“It’s me and Johnny Doyle, and he’d just kicked me. I was thinking to myself: ‘What’s going on? You’re my neighbour, always round my house, always offered a cup of tea, always offered a seat too which you always refuse and just stand there, sometimes for a whole hour, funny bloke that you are.’ I jabbed my finger and said: ‘That’s you and me finished. And the tea’s finished, too.’ And Johnny, rest in peace, jabbed back: ‘Aye well nae loss. Your brew’s rubbish!’ ”