Tommy Smith obituary | Football
That Tommy Smith was one of football’s hard men was beyond dispute. But as a Liverpool player par excellence who made 638 appearances for his club, he was not just a forceful tackler and implacable marker: he was also a shrewd reader of the game and an accurate user of the ball.
Smith, who has died aged 74, was a powerful man with an air of indestructibility; his manager Bill Shankly once said of him that “he wasn’t born, he was quarried”. Weighing in at more than 13 stone despite his 5ft 10in frame, he used his physical attributes to maximum effect, and certainly took no prisoners. But as a centre-back for most of his career he was mainly deployed as a distributor of the ball rather than as a stopper – more in the manner of Bobby Moore than of Jack Charlton.
Marrying skill with terror, from 1962 to 1978 Smith was one of the key men in various fine Liverpool sides under Shankly and then Bob Paisley, winning the First Division championship four times, the FA Cup twice and the Uefa Cup two times before collecting a European Cup winners’ medal in 1977, when he scored the decisive goal in the final against Borussia Mönchengladbach. The only thing that didn’t come Smith’s way was significant international recognition, for he won only one England cap, against Wales in 1971, during the middle of his career.
An only child, born barely a mile from Anfield, Smith joined Liverpool straight from school as a 15-year-old, a year after his father had died from pneumonia. He had captained Liverpool Boys and soon after his league debut at the age of 17 led the England youth team in a 1963 tournament. His First Division debut in the 1962-63 season – as a centre-forward – proved to be his only appearance of that campaign, and he was not picked at all the following season, when Liverpool won the League Championship for the first time in almost two decades. But in the 1964-65 season Smith moved into defence and firmly established himself there with 25 appearances, helping Liverpool to win their first ever FA Cup with a 2-1 defeat of Leeds United at Wembley in the final.
He won his first League Championship medal in 1965-66, when he played in all 42 matches, but had to wait another seven years before getting his second, in the 1972-73 season, by which time he had been club captain for two years. That campaign he also skippered the side to the 1973 Uefa Cup, with a 3-2 aggregate win in the final against Borussia Mönchengladbach. But he lost the leadership role shortly afterwards when he rather recklessly complained to Shankly about being dropped for a big match against Arsenal in November 1973, leaving Anfield in high dudgeon when the teams were announced shortly before kick-off. The manager responded in typically forthright fashion by giving the captaincy to Emlyn Hughes, a move that cooled Smith’s relationship both with Shankly (in the short term at least) and Hughes (more permanently).
Switching to right-back around this time, Smith won a second FA Cup medal when, in 1974, Liverpool beat Newcastle United in the final – Shankly’s last competitive game in charge – and in the 1975-76 season, under Paisley, he won another League Championship medal, this time playing in 24 league games.
Now into his 30s, Smith was making fewer appearances on account of the arrival of two young defenders, Phil Thompson and Phil Neal, and in both legs of the 1976 Uefa Cup final, which Liverpool won 4-3 on aggregate against Club Brugge, he played at left-back. At the beginning of the 1976-77 season he announced that he would retire at the end of the campaign, and well into the season it looked as if he would be going out with a whimper. He had played only three times in the league by March, but then Thompson picked up an injury and Smith subsequently appeared in the final 13 fixtures of the league, which Liverpool again won. Crucially, he was also selected in the starting line up for the 1977 European Cup final in Rome.
His goal in that match at the Olympic Stadium against Borussia was a notable piece of opportunism. Liverpool had taken the lead through Terry McDermott, but Borussia had equalised. Then, 20 minutes into the second half, when Steve Heighway took a corner from the left, two German defenders followed Kevin Keegan, leaving a gap into which Smith enterprisingly ran to head the ball home. Liverpool went on to win 3-1.
That really should have been his swansong, but Smith then decided to stay on for another season. He made 22 league appearances in 1997-78 as Liverpool finished as runners-up in the First Division and would probably have featured in the club’s second European Cup final win, 1-0 against Club Brugge, except that he broke his toe by dropping a large hammer on to his foot while doing some DIY at home shortly before the final.
In the summer of 1978, the year he was made MBE, Smith transferred to Swansea City, where he made more than 30 appearances in the Third Division, helping them to gain promotion. Even at that stage in his career he was more than able to live up to his old nickname, the Anfield Iron, and showed as much when, in a League Cup tie at the Vetch Field, he scythed into little Osvaldo Ardiles, who had recently joined Tottenham Hotspur after helping Argentina win the 1978 World Cup in Buenos Aires. Smith was typically defiant, insisting that he had wanted to acquaint Ardiles with the realities of football in Britain. He also threatened to sue one newspaper that had been critical of his ferocity.
He thus retired in 1979 with his hard-man reputation fully intact and with a fund of stories to tell on the after-dinner circuit. One in particular that he liked to relate involved the Tottenham striker Jimmy Greaves, to whom he once claimed to have handed, in menace, a menu from Liverpool Infirmary as he ran on to the field.
Smith had a brief spell as a youth coach at Liverpool before turning from the football field to the Anfield press box, writing a weekly column for the Liverpool Echo for 35 years and working on local radio.
In 1980 he took over the lease of the famous Cavern Club in Liverpool as a business venture, but sold it a few years later, having made little in the way of profit. In 2007 he suffered a heart attack, and in his later years was painfully afflicted by crippling rheumatoid arthritis. In 2014 he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
His wife, Susanne (nee Gough), whom he married in 1964, predeceased him. He is survived by their daughter, Janette, son, Darren, and four grandchildren, Matthew, William, Jessica and Imogen.
• Tommy Smith, footballer, born 5 April 1945; died 12 April 2019