Memories of a quiet man who conquered all

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The story of Gordon Smith’s football career is extraordinary enough, far surpassing that of Roy of the Rovers, the fictional character whose exploits captivated those of a certain generation.

A fifth of Hibs’ Famous Five – alongside Bobby Johnstone, Lawrie Reilly, Eddie Turnbull and Willie Ormond – which powered the Easter Road side to three League Championship flags, scorer of 364 goals in a career in a green and white shirt which encompassed 18 years wasn’t enough. Discarded by Hibs as finished at the age of 35 by an ankle injury, Smith paid for a third operation himself before joining Capital rivals Hearts, the team the Morningside-born star had supported as a boy, and he guided the Tynecastle club to another title and a League Cup in his first season.

A year later he defied Father Time yet again, helping the Dens Park outfit of 1962 to League glory.

Like Hearts, the Dens Park outfit had failed to capture Smith at the age of 16, Hibs succeeding with a signing on fee of just £10!

Don’t forget he played in the then European Cup for all three clubs, reaching the semi-finals with both Hibs and Dundee, and Smith’s place in the history of Scottish football is there for all to see apart, perhaps, from the amount of Scotland caps he accumulated. International selectors overlooked him several times, the upshot of it being he was granted a paltry 18 full caps, a total which Reilly argues to this day should have been more like 118.

Smith, however, was an enigmatic character, idolised then and now by tens of thousands, those who saw him play – and many too young to have done so – regarding him as one of the greatest-ever Scottish players, someone who outshone contemporaries south of the border such as Sir Stanley Matthews and Sir Tom Finney.

Away from the public glare of the football pitch, though, Smith was a jealously private individual, shunning the attention he inevitably attracted, a complex figure who was described by one of his schoolteachers as “very deep,” while predicting that one day he’ll “possess his own motor car.”

Smith most certainly did, as his son Tony reveals in the biography of his father which will be officially launched at Easter Road tonight, his love of fast cars, black American blues music and holidays in the then exotic French Riviera, part of a life which would be the envy of many of today’s superstars.

An early dark red MG – which led to him being teased by McFarlane and his team-mates as being too close to Hearts’ maroon – led to a love of Porsches, which saw him fly to Stuttgart in 1955 to buy his first one. While driving it home, however, he went via France to watch the ‘24 Hour of Le Mans’ race, and ended up witnessing the terrible tragedy in which driver Pierre Levegh and 83 spectators were killed, an incident of which Smith rarely spoke.

There were, of course, much happier times, a famous dinner date, along with wife Joan, with sex symbol Brigitte Bardot, who was filming near his cottage on the outskirts of North Berwick; a long friendship with golfer Bobby Locke, one so deep he felt obliged to offer the South African some detailed tips on how to correct his grip ahead of a proposed match at Duddingston and another with Second World War flying ace Douglas Bader. Golf and music, outside of football, were Smith’s great passions, New Orleans saxophonist Sidney Bechet becoming another firm friend, the pair often hanging out together during holidays in Cannes despite an age difference of 27 years.

Unlikely relationships, perhaps, but revealing a little of what lay behind the veneer of Gordon Smith was why Tony, born just months before his father finally hung up his boots in 1964, felt compelled to write the biography.

Two years in the research – trawling through some 50 boxes of memorabilia – and two more spent writing, checking and rechecking dates, facts, team lines, scores and the like proved stimulating and challenging in equal measure, particularly Tony’s recollection of how his father’s final years were gripped by Alzheimer’s. He reveals that the slow but inevitable demise of “the Gay Gordon” still causes him to “well up” as he re-reads the words he’s written himself.

However, as he admits himself, it is the story of a life which one fellow author described as enjoying the twists and turns of a John Buchan novel, one which Tony admits to being “gobsmacked” that no-one has attempted to tell before. As he walked along the beach beside that self-same cottage on the banks of the Firth of Forth, he said: “Unfortunately, I never saw my Dad play, I was still a little baby then but it’s clear he lived a quite extraordinary life.

“I think everyone knows the story of his football career – although it struck me as rather ironic that, had Harry Swan not decided he was finished at Hibs, he’d probably not have the place he has in the game in Scotland.

“I think the era he was part of was quite romantic. Frank McLintock described him as the first ‘metrosexual’, the clothes, the cars things that came quite naturally to him at a time of post-war austerity.

“It was quite surreal when you think about it, team-mates like Eddie Turnbull and Lawrie Reilly would come down for a game of golf, sometimes they’d get a lift in his car, other times they had to get the bus.

“Away from football a lot of people perceived him as very quiet and unassuming which he was. Out on the pitch he was happy, no matter the size of the crowd but put him in a room with a couple of dozen people and he was shy. He’d be invited onto the likes of Scotsport and Sportscene over the years but always declined, he’d rather come home and play golf.

“On countless occasions he’d walk away from restaurants because he was being ‘hassled’ and so my Mum and I had to follow him, with her often shouting ‘Gordon, I was really enjoying that meal.’”

Smith’s talents, naturally, led to offers from England, a £40,000 bid from Manchester United – a massive sum in !946 – which would have seen his wages and bonuses increase five-fold was rejected despite his friendship with Red Devils boss Matt Busby, while further approaches throughout his career, from Newcastle United (repeatedly), Arsenal, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers and others as well as a “name your price” bid from two Brazilian clubs following a tour of the South American country all came to nothing as he wrote his place in Easter Road folklore and beyond. Young Tony, however, was oblivious to just who his father was until he accompanied Hibs on a foreign trip. He said: “If I hadn’t known better I’d have said he was a golfer. But on the plane to Lisbon, the time of Turnbull’s Tornadoes when the likes of Pat Stanton and Jimmy O’Rourke were my heroes, they were in awe of my Dad.”

Smith jnr himself trained with Hibs, recalling how Turnbull would “on occasion oversee proceedings like a boorish, malevolent and vociferous Mafia don, screaming abuse whenever he deemed it necessary to do so – which happened to be incessantly”, while also heaping praise on the teenager from time to time.

However, he ended up playing semi-pro in San Francisco and is now a professional musician, and today admits living in the shadow of the legend of his father would probably have proved unbearable. “He was so good I’d have been considered mediocre compared to him regardless,” he admitted.

A proud, elegant man to the end of his days, Smith was sadly gripped by Alzheimer’s, Tony recalling the day that, while at the age of 67, but still lithe, extremely fit and running every morning in all weathers, his father disclosed to him he was suffering from memory lapses and was “petrified.”

Sadly it was the start of a long, slow demise but one which Tony, after much heart-searching, felt he had to tell, the story both tearjerking but, as in the tale of an afternoon with two bemused Mormom visitors, not without some humour.

He said: “It was almost a relief to write about it but even when I read what I have written I well up. I thought long and hard about it, the last four or five years were really bad, but decided I couldn’t shy away from it.”

The memory of Gordon Smith, Scotland’s first footballing football star will, however, continue to live on.

Gordon Smith: Prince of Wingers by Tony Smith is published by Black and White Publishing and is priced £17.99 in hardback.