Like any manager of a lower league side, Barry Smith has to put his shoulder to the wheel at East Fife. But his responsibilities don’t also stretch to writing match reports on the club website.
However, if this task does one day fall to him, it’s something he’s eminently qualified to do. Taking up the reins at Bayview stadium meant putting down his pen as a football journalist after fewer than four months.
Smith hasn’t necessarily applied the full stop at the end of this fledgling career – if there’s an occupation to rival the uncertainty of journalism right now, it’s football manager. But he can’t deny he feels more comfortable in the dugout. “It’s like coming home,” he says. What also can’t be denied is that he’s pretty good at the football management lark. Four wins in his four matches means that, now back on the other side of the fence, he isn’t fielding the hard questions it was his job to ask not so long ago. Not yet, at least.
Footballers graduating to the inky trade was once a lot more common than it is now. Back in the day, it was hard to create elbowroom in the cramped, wooden press boxes without prodding a former player in the ribs, often esteemed ones.
There was Doug Baillie, the former Rangers centre-half, at the Sunday Post and, from a slightly earlier era, Tommy Gallacher, a fine Dundee defender, of The Courier, among others.
But it’s rare now to see a footballer become a jobbing sports journalist. They are mostly drawn to the world of punditry, attracted more by the thought of relaying their own opinions than the sometimes onerous chore of reporting the goings on at football clubs. So confirmation Smith had been appointed a football correspondent at the Dundee Evening Telegraph in September, after a spell as manager at Aldershot Town, felt like a newsworthy event in itself. More so since his principal responsibility was reporting what was happening at Dundee, the club where he became a legendary figure as a player for 11 years before managing to enhance this reputation when leading the team to First Division safety despite a 25-point deduction, in 2010-11.
But he was sacked when a combination of events, chief of which was Rangers’ demotion, saw a severely under-cooked Dundee side catapulted into the top tier. When results proved as poor as were to be expected in such circumstances, Smith paid the price. So there was intrigue last autumn when he was required to return to the ground with a dictaphone in his pocket.
“When I walked in through the door again, the only thing that was in my mind was the need to interview the manager and players, and get some good quotes from them,” says Smith, who had intended to study physics at university before deciding playing full-time for Celtic, his first club, sounded more fun.
Smith, whose three Highers did not include English, enjoyed watching games from a different perspective: “I guess sitting in the press box, it does not matter who wins or loses,” he says. “At least, it doesn’t matter who wins in terms of your livelihood. When you are in the dugout, you are so focused – the intensity in the dugout is massive. It’s quite a strange thing to say but you might notice something a manager doesn’t because they have been so focused on what they’ve worked on during the week. It’s refreshing to see it from a different angle.”
On the day of matches, Smith, veteran of over 400 appearances for Dundee, and later manager, was still obliged to sign-in on the sheet of paper for journalists, scrawling his signature next to the Evening Telegraph’s name, the way he once did when delighting young fans queueing for autographs outside the Dens Park front door. “I had to write my name to get my ticket for a free pie and Bovril, just like everyone else,” he says.
Making it doubly awkward as well as challenging for Smith was Dundee’s poor form at the time. After a sixth successive Dundee defeat, he responded with an insightful piece headlined: “I know exactly how Paul Hartley is feeling”. And he did. But he didn’t shirk from asking tough questions.
“It was awkward because I knew Paul had been going through a tough time, and I knew how he was feeling,” he says now. “They lost quite a few games and were in a bad situation but I understood where he was at, and I knew the angle I would have liked a journalist to come at it from. All credit to Paul, he has got them – not because of me, or what I wrote – in a good position at the moment.”
Did Hartley welcome someone who clearly knew the stresses of the job, or was he suspicious? “Well, you need to ask him that!” replies Smith. “I knew him from playing against him, but not that well. Paul has his own way of dealing with the press. That’s his prerogative, who am I to say if it was right or wrong? Whether he picked up the phone to me or someone from another paper, he is entitled to do what he wants. That’s the way it works.”
Smith answered the phone yesterday en route from scouting players at a Celtic v Queen of the South Under 20s game. He is enjoying being back in harness and who can blame him? East Fife’s recent good run means they are eyeing promotion as well as a Scottish Cup run, with a fourth round clash against League 1 rivals Livingston to come next weekend. But first it’s Airdrieonians on Saturday, and the chance to make it five wins in a row under Smith, seven in total. Would that be some sort of record? “I have no idea, that’s your job, not mine now!” he replies.
For the record, East Fife won 15 successive games in the 1947-48 season, including Supplementary Cup victories. As the hack inside him knows, Smith’s side are not making any headlines quite yet.