If you cut the head off Alex Ferguson you’d create a hydra-headed beast of managers, players and coaches; Mark Hughes and Steve Bruce, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs, Mark Wilson and Danny Rose. Who played that pivotal role in the late 60s and 70s? Brian Clough? Bill Shankley? Matt Busby? Er, Denis Smith?
Just One in Seven – The Autobiography of Denis Smith opens with pages and pages of all the great players from the era; including Keegan, Charlton, Hurst and Best, and how he got the better of them all. Or at least smashed them, crunched them, and generally maimed them. He has the grace to describe being outplayed by George Best, but not without mentioning that in the game in question he also scored and Stoke won. At one point, he even lays some claim to Nick Hornby’s literary career.
Welcome to the weird passive/aggressive paranoiac world of Denis Smith. Of course, he was a successful player and manager; sustaining a football career most of us will never touch. But despite his claims that he was tipped to be the England manager, others were better. I suppose, if you’re going to make a career out of the game, you need self-belief and be a self-publicist.
The book is notoriously full of errors, you suspect to spice up the language he used a thesaurus without knowing what the alternative words meant. The typos are somewhere between embarrassing and comical; at one point he describes a player who was 5′ 9″ as “dominating strikers who were 5-6 inches tall” – perhaps he was talking about Sam Deering.
The factual inaccuracies are the most irritating; Phil Gilchrist was never a ‘busy midfielder’ and didn’t leave Oxford for Birmingham. He describes Joey Beauchamp as being homesick for the Cotswolds. And Denis, no you didn’t ‘ironically’ send us down in the penultimate game against Wrexham in 2006.
Errors aside, once Smith settles to the task at hand he offers a decent account of Stoke’s FA Cup semi-finals and League Cup win in 1972, their subsequent mini-boom and collapse. His accounts had me searching YouTube for clips for key games and getting nostalgic for Saturday’s FA Cup semi-finals at Hillsborough. Perhaps it’s because their Glory Years, which I’d not previously been aware of, mirrored ours.
As is true with most stories; the good times are the least interesting bits. He’s an astute analyst of club politics and economics and the impact that can have on manager and players. He makes some interesting observations about the impact of the Taylor Report and the Premier League on otherwise solidly run small-time clubs.
Smith’s initial four years with Oxford, including relegation, promotion, a directorship, a takeover, the sale and return of Joey Beauchamp and, of course, financial collapse, is done and dusted in just 20 pages. It’s a mere skip through a tumultuous period for the club and Smith himself. We do learn the degree of control the bank had over the club’s finances, the invaluable contribution Smith made to raising funds through player sales, and, above all, the remarkable way in which he maintained a functioning team whilst everything fell apart around him. There’s not enough detail, however, about the financial collapse, the ramifications behind the scenes or how Robin Herd, who he still speaks with regularly, got it so spectacularly wrong.
You learn that Smith was the perfect man for the times. He is a results focussed manager; without money to buy flare, he developed squads that did their jobs well, if unspectacularly. This is perhaps best illustrated by the fact when Smith lost Jim Magilton to Southampton, he replaced him with the midfield duo of David Smith and Martin Gray; who were utterly pragmatic, but anchored the promotion squad.
Looking back, I only remember promotion being a thrill; it just shows that if you’re winning, the way you win becomes irrelevant.
His second stint at the club is similarly brief in the book, although to be fair by that point we didn’t have a manager as much as a series of blokes turning up to try some stuff out. The brevity shows the impact Firoz Kassam had on the club. In his 7 years at the club Kassam took £10m off the club’s debt. If you consider that another £6m more was pocketed from the sale of the Manor; you realise just how fierce his austerity measures were.
I always thought that Smith was unfairly treated by Oxford fans at the time. The team he created, in the environment, with the results – not that far away from the Championship play-offs – shows that he deserves to be remembered amongst a small band of managers in the modern era who improved the club, alongside Chris Wilder, Ian Atkins and, above all, Jim Smith (first time).
At no point does he mention that he was supposedly tipped to be England manager, although being at the helm of the national team was his ambition. In keeping with Smith’s oddly ego-centric ways, you suspect the person who tipped him for greatness, was, in fact himself.