Tommy Smith – The Anfield Iron – was an unflinching, unyielding, granite-hewn Liverpool legend. With unfortunately some very regrettable, unyielding views that cannot be ignored even in his passing.Embed from Getty Images
And could he play
Growing up in the 90s with a dad and uncle as match-going Liverpool fans means that you always got inundated with stories. The 1965 Cup Final, the Dalglish Double, Grobelaar’s jelly legs. There were legendary moments, legendary games and most importantly, legendary players.
We’ve been lucky enough with this club of ours to have been blessed with enough outstanding players to fill an entire division’s worth of first XIs. But one of the names that was always first on the lips of my old man and my uncle – a hard-bitten, tough-tackling amateur centre-back – was Tommy Smith.
Tommy Smith was a hard, hard player. Bill Shankly said, “he wasn’t born, he was quarried”. His tackling was ferocious, his bravery unquestionable, his dedication to the red shirt utterly undeniable.
But there was more to this player than merely being another one of the legendary “nickname era” of player. He was more than “Bite Yer Legs” Hunter – Tommy Smith could bloody play.
Plucked pretty much straight from the old schoolboy level with the club into the “A” team in 1961 after Shankly saw something in the local boy. Within ten years he was the club captain.
Throughout the 1960s Smith would play in a variety of positions with old-fashioned names like “right half” and “inside left” while establishing himself as a warrior. Despite his preferred position being centre-back, his tenacity and reading of the game would serve as a proto-Souness – and his passing range was very impressive.
Like any good centre-back in today’s game, Smith would also chip in with his share of goals. None more important, or more memorable, than the one he notched in the European Cup Final of 1977.Embed from Getty Images
Stick it in, thank you and good night
To take home our first ever European Cup, Borussia Monchengladbach would have to be overcome. And fittingly, in the twilight of his Liverpool playing days, it would be Tommy Smith who would provide the breakthrough goal to send the Reds on their way.
With the game poised at 1-1, Liverpool got a corner which Steve Heighway prepared to swing in. He floated a delightful cross into the eighteen-yard box as Tommy Smith raced in to meet it.
Towering above his marker, as he had once done as a youth player to the mighty Ron Yeats, his bullet header was absolutely sublime. It was thunderous. A cannonball of an effort that was beautifully slammed into the back of the net, just underneath the crossbar.
Away Smith raced, fists raised and clenched, just as sure as they would be around a winner’s medal at the end of the game. With that 3-1 victory, Smith had ensured that he had won everything he could have won as a Liverpool player. His legendary headed goal was his playing career in a nutshell. A combination of hardness and surprising deftness, accuracy and intelligence.
There are many more stories about Smith as a player. His crunching tackles and uncompromising style … Newcastle legend Malcolm MacDonald once remarked that he crunched into the Liverpool keeper Ray Clemence only to find himself waking up shortly afterwards with a snarling, wound-up Smith stood over him. McDonald was no shrinking violet either. Those were different times.
Speaking of different times, no piece about Smith should miss out the less palatable, frankly shocking views on race and racism.
Howard Gayle – the first ever black player to don the red shirt – wrote in his autobiography of the treatment meted out to him by Smith. He did not take kindly to being crunched in a training ground tackle, responding with “black this, and black that”, as Gayle wrote.Embed from Getty Images
The two squared up. Gayle never flinched and nor should he have done. Smith was completely in the wrong. Sadly this was likely not an isolated incident at Liverpool or any other club at that time. Gayle was a true pioneer who had to overcome prejudice at every turn.
What made this unpleasant treatment of Gayle even worse was that by 1988 (over a decade since it happened, and during a time when John Barnes was having bananas thrown at him on a weekly basis) Smith recorded some racist viewpoints with the author Dave Hill, betraying deep-rooted prejudice.
Like many many people of his time, Smith was a product of the era. He was doubtless not alone in his views. However, that does not excuse the things he said, or the views that he had.
It would be tasteless and morally bankrupt to not acknowledge this, even in an obituary piece. Flashforward to today, when racism has once again reared its head in the modern game. It’s good that there are fewer and fewer people who carry the same antiquated, bigoted views as some of Smith’s generation.
‘Every ounce of breath from me’
As a player, there have been few who have led this illustrious football club with more passion, more tenacity and more genuine love for the shirt. Tommy Smith, the Anfield Iron, was one of our own. A local lad who won it all.
Jack Charlton once remarked that running into Smith on the pitch “took every ounce of breath from me”. A neat summary of his presence on the pitch.Embed from Getty Images
He scored goals, made tackles, lifted trophies. He was not perfect, certainly he was a flawed character. May we take from him those wonderful club memories whilst helping our future generations to understand how wrong some of his and his generation’s views were.
Tommy Smith died on the 12th April 2019, aged 74. He won four league titles, two FA Cups, two UEFA Cups, two Super Cups and the 1977 European Cup as a Liverpool player.
Rest in Peace, the Anfield Iron.