Player, Derby, 1996-1998
The first time I met Jim Smith was at a Little Chef at the services at South Mimms on the M25.
I was playing for Southend. He had agreed a deal with them but wanted to meet me. You can imagine how nervous I was to meet the manager of Derby when they were challenging for promotion to the Premier League.
He said: “I like the way you play but I wanted to meet you, and I want to know what your plans are.” He wanted to know where I was living, if I had a girlfriend or a wife, and if I was getting married or had kids.
He wanted to know everything about me before I put pen to paper. That was early man-management from him – I’d only previously experienced that with managers I was already playing for.
Now we all hear about long dossiers on players, but that was the first time I’d encountered it. But Jim was great, and he was great company – a real raconteur, really funny and genuine. I really wanted to play for him.
I always smile, and I often laugh, when I talk about him.
The first half of the 1995/96 First Division season was tough. We ended up finishing second, behind Sunderland – which Jim wasn’t happy about – to secure Premier League football in what was to be our last season at the Baseball Ground, but the pressure had been on.
You quickly got to know his style – what he thought of his players, and how he dealt with you, as an individual and as a group.
"Jim was so charismatic, and he would swear like a trooper"
He was a hard taskmaster, and it was sink or swim. If you were able to swim, he was brilliant; if you couldn’t, you were moved on. That’s just how it was.
I used to think I was a good trainer. But at Derby, if you made any little mistake, Jim was on you. He demanded the best, because he knew that that might be the difference.
During my first session I asked Darryl Powell: "Is this what it’s like?" "This is nothing," he said. "You’ve got to get used to it."
But Jim was so charismatic with it – he’d be your enemy and your friend in a matter of 60 seconds, and he’d swear like a trooper. A young Steve McClaren did a lot of the coaching, but Jim would be out there every day.
"He and Paulo Wanchope were fighting and swinging punches"
If there was a mistake, he’d march on to the pitch, have a go at you and march off. He told us the team on the Thursday, but then you had to perform on that Thursday.
There was always an edge because of that, which I think he knew. Then there were the days when you thought: "The gaffer’s not watching training."
Steve (below) would put on a session and everyone would be relaxed, but you’d make a mistake and all of a sudden Jim would come running out of the office – in his shoes, roller neck and blazer – eff and blind at whatever player had made the mistake, and then go off. That was definitely deliberate.
He’d have a go at you, and then almost immediately talk to you as if it hadn’t happened. I’ve always admired that – it’s such a great skill.
"Jim’s skill made you commit to him and want to play for him"
He would almost tear you to bits, but in the next sentence say something about your game, or family, or something else, that would make you smile. It was bizarre – it was like two Jim Smiths, and it made you forget about him having a go at you. "Cheers, gaffer, I feel alright now." I found that so endearing.
Later, when we were in the Premier League and had signed Paulo Wanchope, we lost at Barnsley. I remember walking off the pitch, and could see a commotion at the away team dressing room door. It was Jim and Paulo having a fight, and swinging punches.
By the time I got in the dressing room it was all going crazy. Jim was shouting about how we shouldn’t have lost and hadn’t performed for the fans, and we were all disappointed. Within 20 or 30 seconds, he was sat next to Paulo and they were laughing and joking as if they’d just turned up.
That was Jim’s skill. It made you commit to him, and want to play for him.
"He married the British players with silky foreign players"
We played a really unfashionable system – a 3-4-1-2. He’d bought Igor Stimac, a majestic sweeper, and I was brought in to play left wing-back. I’d never played wing-back in my entire career, but I had to get used to it.
With Dean Sturridge, Lee Carsley and Darryl there were homegrown boys, but there was also a bit of flair with Igor and Aljosa Asanovic – both Croatians – and Dutchmen such as Robin van der Laan and Ron Willems. When that system clicked, we were very good. We made it work.
Jim was clever with marrying British players, who had come through British academies, with some silky foreign players. That was a skill, and it was a brilliant blend.
I remember watching Stefano Eranio play for AC Milan, and then he and Francesco Baiano became my teammates in the East Midlands. Jim tended to buy two players of the same nationality – those were the two Italians after the two Dutchmen and the two Croatians. Wanchope and Mauricio Solís were both Costa Rican. Like bringing in Paul McGrath for eight months, it was very astute.
"The wives and girlfriends joined us in Spain during pre-season"
He did so many things, at different times during the course of a season, to foster a commitment and a spirit between players who actually didn’t have much in common. On a Thursday, at least once a month, all of the players had to go out for dinner. You could have a glass of wine or a beer, and it introduced a camaraderie.
All of a sudden I was getting to know Igor, who was also getting to know Lee, and Gary Rowett. It was simple, and effective.
On most Sunday evenings, it was players and wives or girlfriends out for a meal. He’d have a few drinks – Jim loved his red wine – and it was his way of saying to the wives and girlfriends: "You’re also a part of this." It was brilliant.
We went away to Spain during pre-season after getting promoted, and we took our wives and girlfriends. You shared a villa with a player and his partner. I’d not heard of that before, and haven’t heard of it since.
"Jim would have the whole squad in the palm of his hand"
We would train three times a day – it wasn’t easy. The rest of us were running around while Igor and Aljosa were jogging – “we’re not horses,” they would say – but we accepted it because we knew what they’d bring to the team.
We would then have breakfast together, train again, rest while our partners were getting to know each other by the pool, train again, and then all eat together in the evening.
Occasionally, during the season, we’d play on a Saturday and, without our partners, jump on a coach to Blackpool, and stay there until Thursday. We wouldn’t train once. It was golf, or using the sauna, or going into town and having a walk around, and then having dinner and a few drinks together in the evening at the hotel.
Sometimes he’d have the whole squad in the palm of his hand, just by telling stories about his playing days, cricket, managing, or going over to South America to watch and sign players. Sometimes he’d sit and smoke a cigar, and give us one too. You just sat there and listened – you didn’t want to go to bed.
"Game day he really came alive"
On the Thursday morning we’d run along the sea front, jump on the coach, go back to Derby, train on the Friday – he’d tell us the team then because we hadn’t trained on the Thursday – and then play on the Saturday. We always won. Always.
It was an astute way of taking the pressure off, and meant taking us out of the town where everyone – everyone – supported Derby. We had great, great times.
When he died, there were four really common descriptions of him. The first two – 'no nonsense' and 'blunt' – immediately make me laugh. He’d certainly tell you how it was.
On game day he really came alive, and there was no softly, softly. He’d tell you why you were in the team or why you weren’t, and what you should do to get into it. There were no grey areas, and most players like that.
"People say he was old-school but he was ahead of his time"
The third and fourth – 'humorous' and 'popular' – were just as accurate, and often applied off the back of him hammering you. Even though there was that barrier, as the manager, he could also step in and be part of the conversation.
He could be cutting and he could be harsh, but you still went back for more. He enjoyed the camaraderie, and he gave you a bit of freedom. If you had a go back, he quite liked that – he felt you had drive and determination.
People talk about him as an old-school manager, but he was ahead of his time. He had good contacts in Europe and South America, and he knew how to manage a group of men.
He understood what made us, and then what made the foreign players and someone like McGrath, tick. Sometimes I think he doesn’t get enough credit for taking a team that was under pressure, and that had previously spent a lot of money, to where he did.
"‘It doesn’t matter – you don’t effing wear white boots!’"
Our last game at the Baseball Ground was at home to Arsenal, on the last day of the 1996/97 season. We were safe, and I’d found out the day before that I was being awarded player of the year. My boot sponsors said: “We’ve got a pair of white boots. Last game, why don’t you wear them?”
Coloured boots are common today, but back then I thought: “I can’t do it.” I said to them: “I’ll wear them for the second half. The gaffer won’t be bothered.”
We were 1-0 up at half-time, and Arsenal were down to 10 men. I thought: "It’s okay. I’ll change."
We lost 3-1, but I’m still thinking it’s alright, and about to go in before coming back out and doing our lap of honour. We go in and Jim comes in. He sits us all down and proceeds to absolutely kill all of us.
He then looks at me and says: “And what the effing hell are you doing? Wearing effing white boots? Who do you think you are?”
"He’s left an indelible mark on Derby that will never be beaten"
“Gaffer, it’s the last game.”
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s the last game or the first game, you don’t effing wear white boots.”
I took them straight off, and never wore them again. I thought I’d got it, but I really didn’t. He was fuming.
We went out in the evening and he was still fuming – it was his will to win, and wanting us to do the right things. There was a time and a place.
When I first heard he had died it took me back to playing for him, and to times like that.
About 10 of us got together shortly afterwards, when Derby played Millwall, and we all started talking and laughing about Jim. It was also nice to hear the applause for him at the stadium. The affection and the stories – some of the things he did, and what he got up to with us – they’re ones you just don’t forget.
Derby needed the money when they sold me to Charlton in 1998. I went kicking and screaming – Charlton proved to be great for me, but I look back on that with some regret, and sometimes wish I’d had longer under Jim. I’m also sure a lot of Derby fans get misty-eyed about those times.
I look back on so many brilliant moments. Playing in the Premier League, and for him, was the making of my career as a player. I wouldn’t change that time for the world.
I went back as assistant manager to Nigel Pearson – Steve and Gary have also managed them – and have been back since then, and you can sense Jim overlooking the place. He’s left an indelible mark on that club that will never, ever be beaten.
He and the chairman Lionel Pickering built it back up again, and took them from the Baseball Ground into Pride Park. Jim was the catalyst for it all.
He was a real football manager – one I had the privilege of playing for and knowing. He was a great, great man.
Author: Tony Hodson