The first Oxford United manager I remember was Ian Greaves. In 1980 my family moved back to the area which allowed my dad to fulfil his parental duties by taking me to The Manor on a regular basis just as Greaves was orchestrating a dramatic change in the club’s fortunes.
One night, before a game against Reading, we joined an abnormally long queue which stretched down the London Road. The queue rippled with rumour that Greaves had gone to Wolves. I didn’t want to believe it, hoping that he’d be in the dug out as usual when we got into the ground. He wasn’t.
Jim Smith was recruited by Robert Maxwell shortly after, my dad was impressed in that slightly distant way dads are. Smith had a solid track record at Birmingham and, though it appeared a step down for him, it was a coup for us.
He was the archetypal football manager – sheepskin coats, neat spirits and fat cigars. He was a parody, but football in the eighties was a wild and violent place; there was trouble on the terraces and corruption and bankruptcy, both moral and financial, in the boardrooms. To thrive you had to hustle and that’s what Smith was built for.
The eighties for Oxford United is now portrayed as a riot of results and promotions, but it wasn’t immediate. Smith took a year or so to find his feet, but then suddenly we were competing and beating the best in the country.
It was an attack on the senses growing up. What had been a way to distract me on the weekend became an adventure that would shape and define me. It provided me with stories, heroes and memories that would last a lifetime. It took me to places where I learned life skills; how to handle and read big crowds, how to avoid trouble, about the power of a community and a club. We were national news as we swept aside Manchester United, Arsenal, Newcastle, Leeds and achieved back-to-back championships.
The Manor, hidden from view during the day, glowed at night as the games grew in significance; a searing light in a dark Oxford suburb. We swarmed towards it. The club, once a footnote in the vibrant story of the city became a hub and a hive, but not just for the dons and the dandies, but for the factory workers and regular Oxfordshire folk.
Just as it reached its peak, weeks before our first game in the top flight, Smith was gone. Contract negotiations with Robert Maxwell had been delayed by the Heysel Stadium disaster. By the time they resumed, QPR had pounced.
Smith’s team went into its biggest challenge without its biggest influence. Maurice Evans steered a steady course to survival and to Wembley where we came face-to-face with Smith once again. On our greatest day, we needed to beat the great architect of our success. It was poetic.
Smith wasn’t perfect, he was always better with an assistant, at Oxford he had Maurice Evans, at Derby he had Steve McLaren, at Portsmouth, Harry Redknapp. But it was his irrepressible spirit and bonhomie that bound the club together. It’s held ever since.
While Smith and the club headed off in different directions, there was always part of him left behind. But, it couldn’t last and while we battled gamely against the forces against us, there was a slow and inevitable slide.
By 2006 we were emotionally, psychologically and physically beaten; years of oppression and neglect left us damaged. There was one final desperate act of resistance as fans stormed the executive box to remonstrate with Firoz Kassam who seemed to revel in our misery. Days later, out of the blue, it was announced that the club had been sold to a consortium fronted by Nick Merry. At his side was Jim Smith. He’d returned to save us.
Smith took over as manager, the homecoming, against Peterborough, was euphoric. I remember feeling the sense of release as he appeared from the tunnel. But, it only papered over the cracks – Kassam still owned the ground and Smith wasn’t a miracle worker. Rationally, his arrival destabilised us just as we seemed to be digging in to avoid relegation, emotionally, despite the collapse that sent us to the Conference, it was just what we needed.
It didn’t work out; Smith grew frustrated at the limitations of his players, his network of hidden gems and reliable old hands started to crumble, above all, his health seemed to be failing him; his voice slurred and his face became puffy and red. He lost his magic and eventually the club moved him on in the most dignified way it could.
He’d still appear in the executive box, overlooking what he’d created as the club eventually dug its way out of the hole it was in. While we celebrated the promotions, giant killings and derby wins throughout the 2010s Smith quietly left the party. We turned around, and he was gone.
When he didn’t appear for our 125th anniversary game last year, it was obvious that something was wrong. After that, it was just a matter of time before the news eventually came that he’d passed.
Jim Smith’s name is still sung by the home fans, most of whom are too young to remember him in his prime. It’s a testament to his achievements that he remains in the fabric of the club and its people.
And that is ultimately Smith’s legacy; without him we wouldn’t have had the memories of top flight football and The Milk Cup. More importantly, when things got tougher, the spirit that Smith created, the memories, the people who bonded in his name battled on through. He gave us something to fight for. Those who were there, passed that spirit on to those who weren’t, they kept coming to games, keeping the club afloat, giving investors something worthwhile to spend their money on, without him we may just have crumbled to dust, another meaningless backwater club of no discernible purpose. Smith ensured that we were more than just a side-bar conversation.
If Joey Beauchamp is our Dixie Dean, then Jim Smith is our Bill Shankly. He may be gone, but look what he left behind.