Interview: Henry Smith on grasping lifeline offered by Hearts

Henry Smith, at his home in Kirkliston, enjoyed a 15-year career with Hearts making 645 appearances for the Tynecastle side. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Henry Smith, at his home in Kirkliston, enjoyed a 15-year career with Hearts making 645 appearances for the Tynecastle side. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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It’s often said about the modern footballer, over-indulged as he is, that a reality check is what’s needed. Let him try a real job, the resident terracing grump will suggest, so he can appreciate what life is like at the coalface of ordinary hard work. The truth is most of us have never been down a pit either, but Henry Smith has.

Before minding the goal he mined for coal. The son of a pitman, the Hearts legend didn’t want the gig for himself and his father, knowing the dangers, wasn’t about to recommend it – but when his bricklaying firm went bust, being 19 and broke wasn’t much fun. “Dad used to go on about the respiratory diseases miners would suffer and, although he wouldn’t talk about this, I think he had friends who’d been seriously injured or maybe even killed underground,” explains Smith. “I told him that I didn’t reckon I had any other option but to follow in his footsteps; he was angry and then he said: ‘Go on, then: let’s see if you stick it.’ He didn’t think I could so I was determined to prove him wrong.”

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Smith’s relationship with his father, George, is crucial to his story. This was a man who had to give up playing football when a mining accident cost him a big toe. When he went searching for work after the closure of his Lanarkshire pit, to be reunited with his family in Yorkshire a few months later, his son was astonished to find him “basically ruling the roost” there. Ask Smith to describe the relationship and he’ll say of his dad: “He was a hard man.”

Praise was rarely dished out and yet his father would roar from the touchlines of amateur games to demand greater protection for his boy, at risk of being bundled into the net by thuggish centre-forwards. “Sometimes the ref would threaten to stop the match if George Smith wasn’t removed.” But when the goalkeeper produced the letter confirming he’d been picked for Scotland for a Hampden friendly, the hard man burst into tears. “He never said much but something early on stuck with me: ‘If you keep doing well for your club you might get a chance to play for your country and, son, that’s the greatest thing.’

“Some people used to think I was English. Saint and Greavesie did, and when, after I’d had a good game for Hearts and they said on TV that I couldn’t possibly be Scottish, Dad was raging. He told me to get down to London and put them right. I went on their show the next week and he made me take my passport and my birth certificate.

“I must have sat on the bench for Scotland about 27 or 28 times. Even though there were two great goalkeepers ahead of me in Jim Leighton and Andy Goram, I always turned up. Dad was very ill at the time of that game against Northern Ireland but he was determined to be at it. He died six months later so maybe he’d been hanging on in the hope of seeing me in a Scotland shirt. That was his proudest night and it was mine, too, considering where I’d come from. So you can’t talk to me about Hampden hoodoos.”

I’ve come to Kirkliston, just outside Edinburgh, to discuss precisely that. Smith, now a postman, lost the 1986 Scottish Cup final to Aberdeen and four semi-finals at the national stadium. He lost three times in the competition to the Dons, Hearts’ fourth-round opponents today, so they sound like a bogey team, as do Airdrie, conquerors of Smith’s men in three more ties, including two of those semis. He’s happy to discuss all of this but don’t think he views his long Tynecastle career – 15 years and 645 competitive games before finishing on the bench against Partick Thistle for one last go at the cup – as anything other than a total blast.

He’s 59 and, as he strides into his local for his lager shandy, retains the swagger of a keeper who would often tell the strikers whose shots he’d just grasped: “Is that all you’ve got?” The hair is slicked into place in the modern style, a definite improvement on that ’86 look when the permed-up, posing-pouched, perpetual-motion Jambos seemed unstoppable in their pursuit of a league-and-cup double until Dundee’s Albert Kidd – no stranger to curling tongs himself – dashed the dream. Only the ball, which Smith liked to carry one-handed by his side, is missing today. Cynics and Hibernian fans would quip: “Just as well - he’d probably drop it.” But, besides the odd blunder, Smith produced some outstanding saves which are fondly remembered by the maroon-clad faithful.

Let’s get Dens Park out of the way – 30 years on, how often does he think about that fateful day? “Every time Dens features on TV! It was the Dundee derby last week, so I was wondering: ‘Is that clock still there, the one by the right-hand corner?’ It took ages to count down that afternoon. I think about our game when I’m watching other matches and there’s a good penalty claim – we should have got one for a foul on Sandy Clark – or when a corner sails across like that which led to Dundee’s first goal. And whenever a wee guy with socks round his ankles comes off the bench late on I think: ‘Is he going to be the hero?’ So, no, in answer to your question: I’ve erased Dens from my mind!”

It was a day which began with Smith “playing the puggies as usual” in the team hotel, chatting to fans who were drunk on destiny. He was nice and relaxed and only got nervous an hour before kick-off, which always happened. The day ended with his wife, Lynn, suggesting, for the sake of his mental health, that maybe he skip the evening’s player-of-the-year function in South Queensferry. But “Big H”, as he was known in the dressing-room, honoured his commitments and “got bladdered”. Five years before, pitching up at Tynecastle, he’d never even heard of Hearts.

Smith was born in Lanarkshire village of Douglas Water, his father’s team being Douglas Water Primrose, positioned just behind Glenbuck Cherrypickers in the league of romantic football names. He was nine when, with his brother, three sisters and mum Isobel, he followed his father down to Hemsworth, near Barnsley. “Our estate was known as Scotch Corner because there were so many there from up the road. We got a nice welcome: some Yorkshire kids sang the theme to The Addams Family as we were unloading our stuff.”

In a decade of strikes, power cuts and three-day weeks, his father was prominent in the National Union of Mineworkers and Smith remembers a mildly terrifying day when the police burst into one of the “soup houses” used by striking pitmen’s families. “They had batons and shields and they carted Dad off, believing him to have organised some of the picketing. These things stay with you.”

Smith’s own stint underground at the Bamburgh colliery near Doncaster lasted only 18 months but still produced alarming drama of its own. “Twice I had to be carried out. The first time I was working behind this big digger when it swung round and trapped me by the legs. I needed morphine. Then there was a fall, a load of coal came down and I was spluttering like hell.”

Playing in Yorkshire’s local leagues his team-mates included Charles Green whose ill-starred takeover of Rangers ended in arrest last year, but Smith reckons he must have been an extremely modest player as he can’t really remember him. His own career progressed slowly and a pronounced grumpiness didn’t help. “A scout told me he’d watched me for four years but couldn’t recommend me to clubs because I used to sulk something 
terrible when I lost goals.”

Then Brian Clough’s replacement at Leeds United, Jimmy Adamson, took a chance on him and he walked into a dressing-room full of superstars and was immediately overawed, never really recovering during a three-year spell when the lad from the pit had to compete with two Scottish internationals for the No 1 jersey in the Davids, Harvey and Stewart, and then two future England ones, John Lukic and David Seaman. It looked like the colliery for him again.

“When I heard Hearts were interested I honestly said to my dad: ‘Who the hell are they?’ Before he’d offered me a deal I told [chairman] Wallace Mercer that this was my last chance, otherwise I was going back down the pit, and he said: ‘Come and have some fun.’

“Tynecastle was quite a culture-shock after Elland Road. The dressing-room was tiny and you had to wash your own training kit. There was this ramshackle shed and the old stand that’s still there today. I looked at the defence in front of me for my first game – Colin More, Peter Shields, Roddy MacDonald and Stewart MacLaren – and wondered: ‘Who are the internationals among this lot?’ I wasn’t sure what I was doing at Hearts, although maybe I thought by making a name for myself I could quickly get a move somewhere else.”

These guys could respond: “We hadn’t heard of you either.” But Smith soon realised, as Alex MacDonald and Sandy Jardine began shaping a dynamic team, that Gorgie was where he should stay. He developed a good relationship with the home support, and a frisky one with away fans. His cockiness brought complaints to the police after games against Bologna (for over-celebrating a goal), Hibs (for throwing back a pie launched at him) and, most laughably, he thought, when St Mirren visited Tynecastle. “I was back at the Haymarket cop-shop. The police said I’d been reported for behaviour likely to incite a riot. I asked if there was a minimum number required for a riot as Saints only had about five fans at the game. ‘This isn’t a laughing matter,’ I was told.”

These Jambos had a simple but effective style and were relentless right up until the Dens denouement and, ultimately, disaster. Smith remembers coming off at half-time and being told by a journalist that Celtic, chasing down a superior goal difference, were already 4-0 up in their match. Did he wish Hearts had changed their style and strangled the game for the draw that would have sufficed? “No, because we hadn’t been conceding goals. We had defenders with pace and a man in Sandy who could read the play better than anyone. So we did our usual thing, bombing forward. Unfortunately that day we let in goals.”

The post-match gloom was broken by MacDonald: “Right, let’s get the f*** out of here.” Hearts still had the cup final. “I didn’t think there was a hangover from losing the league, although it turned out there was.” Alex Ferguson’s Dons hadn’t beaten Hearts all season but John Hewitt put them ahead in the first half. “Everyone backed off him and maybe I should have done better with his shot.” Peter Weir’s deliveries from the left finished off Smith’s team.

Aberdeen’s other cup victories came in quarter-finals (’85 and ’90), the second by 4-1. Once again, late goals did for the Jambos, and it was the same story in the ’87 semi against St Mirren and the following year at that stage against Celtic. “We were leading and I’d been catching high balls all day. I came for one too many, thought I was invincible, couldn’t hold onto it and Mark McGhee equalised.” He reckons he could have been fouled for the cross which resulted in Andy Walker’s winner but the reports the next day were all about “Henry’s howlers”. He wanted to give up, at the very least miss the next game. Unimpressed, Jardine quickly disabused him of the notion.

Smith loved that management, that side and their nearly-nearly grabs for glory, and he loved the Edinburgh derby with Hearts usually dominant, although they enjoyed some good fortune. Once, he prevented defeat by saving a Brian Hamilton penalty, revealing afterwards that the Hibs programme editor had helpfully included a graphic of the player’s preferred placing in that day’s issue.

Unfortunately for him there wasn’t much love when the next bosses rolled up at Tynie. Tommy McLean was in charge for what would be Smith’s last semi, against Airdrie in 1995. “I didn’t have any time for the man and the feeling was mutual. He once raged at me: ‘You’ve cost this club millions.’”

Before that there was Joe Jordan. “We got off to a bad start because, first day, he said he wanted a keeper who could play 40 yards from the goalline – a sweeper-keeper, if you like. I said that was mad, that I’d need to be able to pick up the ball, but he wasn’t meaning me and brought in Nicky Walker.” The new man, though, got injured so Smith held onto the shirt, only to lose it after a cup defeat at Broomfield. Then Smith grabbed it back, producing some of the best form of his career and returning to the Scotland squad, but their relationship was always fractious.

Jordan called Smith a “donkey”. He threatened our man with being dropped again unless he achieved a clean sheet in the Edinburgh derby (he did). In that other semi against the doughty Diamonds in 1992, Smith conceded the free-kick from which ex-Jambo Kenny Black scored and Jordan dubbed him “unprofessional”. Then there was a bizarre afternoon when Smith didn’t fancy a trip to Pittodrie just to sit on the bench, only for Walker to get injured in the warm-up. “With no other keeper [striker], Ian Baird had to go in goal. Afterwards Bairdy said to me: ‘I’ll never slag off goalies again. I’ve never felt so exposed in my life.’” Two games later Jordan was gone.

Maybe surprisingly, manager and goalie never came to blows, but in standing up to Jordan, and perhaps resembling his union-firebrand dad, Smith still caused his more compliant team-mates to wince.

These days in Kirkliston he lives a much quieter life and enjoys being a grandad and coaching young goalies, often with his daughter Hannah who used to play between the sticks herself.

He rejects the notion that all keepers, by their nature, must be crazy. “Like I always used to say: ‘I’m the normal one.’” He’s certainly not shy, so what was Big H’s best-ever save? He mentions the Tommy Coyne one, the Mark Hateley one, the Eamonn Bannon one and not forgetting the John Clark one, all of which get quoted by the fans.

But maybe it would be the final piledriver from St Mirren’s Istvan Kozma in their personal duel on a “horrible, wet, muddy” night. So did he collect the ball one-handed and ask: “Is that all you’ve got?”

“Course I did!”