NORMAN GILLER pays tribute to former Tottenham striker Bobby Smith, who died last weekend
It’s the ghosted book that I will never publish – Bobby Smith: Secrets of a Soccer Slave.
Everything was planned and I had collected and collated much of the material, which would have shocked the life out of today’s pampered footballing millionaires. And there is a generation of sports journalists coming through to whom it would have read like fiction.
But the secrets will go to the grave with Bobby, who lost his fight with cancer at the weekend. I had put the book on the back burner when, just a few weeks ago, it became obvious that he was struggling.
The moving minute’s applause in his memory before the game against Arsenal at White Hart Lane on Tuesday would have been even warmer if the crowd had been fully aware of the facts of Smithy’s footballing life.
He was 28 before he earned more than £20 a week, and when joining Spurs from Chelsea in 1956, he was taking home just £17 a week.
In the 1960-61 season that he blasted Tottenham to the League championship and FA Cup double with 33 goals, the maximum wage was lifted. The following season – along with the rest of the double-winning players and newcomer Jimmy Greaves – he was paid a princely £65 a week.
But these relative riches had come too late for Bobby. He was a wreck from recurring injuries, and had to play through a pain barrier every time he went on to the pitch.
He told me how on the morning of the 1961 FA Cup Final he made two secret journeys from the team’s Middlesex hotel to see his GP near his home in Palmers Green for painkilling injections on his knee.
“If our manager Bill Nicholson had known the pain I was in, he would have left me out,” said Bobby. “This was the game of my life and I was determined not to miss it.”
Bobby played through the pain and scored the first and laid on the second of the goals in the 2-0 victory over Leicester City that clinched that historic double.
THERE IS PECULIAR IRONY in the first legal betting shops in the UK being opened in May 1961, the very week that Smithy enjoyed his Wembley glory.
What few people knew is that Bobby was addicted to gambling, and betting shops became like his second home.
When Tottenham were checking out of their hotel after the away leg of their European Cup first round tie against Feyenoord in 1961-62, Bill Nicholson called a meeting of the players to say in the pre-STD days: “Our telephone bill is 10 times what we expected. Somebody has taken liberties calling home.”
Bobby snapped: “All right, all right. Keep you hair on. I’ll pay it when I get home.”
Nobody had known that Smithy had been on the phone throughout the trip to his bookie in London.
After the Double, Bobby had two barnstorming seasons alongside Jimmy Greaves before his injuries caught up with him. He moved on to Brighton in May 1964 for £5,000.
I was interviewing Brighton manager Archie Macaulay when Smithy reported for pre-season training, and I arranged for Daily Express sports photographer Norman “Speedy” Quicke to take a picture of him weighing-in on the club scales.
It was going to be just an innocent “atmosphere” picture. Smithy had weighed 13st 9lb according to the Spurs records. Archie Macaulay hit the roof when the arrow on the scales shot up to 16st 9lb!
It went from being a run-of-the-mill photo to supporting a back page lead story under the headline “Blobby Smith!” He was given extra training, and got himself in good enough shape to help shoot Brighton to the Fourth Division title before moving to Hastings for the final shots of his goal-gorged career.
As he signed off, he sold his story to the Sunday People, who ran the front-page banner headline: MY LIFE OF BIRDS, BOOZE AND BETTING
“I made most of it up,” Bobby told me. “I was desperate for cash to clear gambling debts. But the bit about birds virtually ended my first marriage.”
He became a painter and decorator and drove a minicab before the crippling injuries he had collected on the football field finally caught up with him, not helped by a fall through a manhole that damaged his already wrecked legs.
Bobby had to take a disability pension after suffering heart problems and having a hip replacement. It would have been handy if he could have sold his League championship and FA Cup winners’ medals from 1961 and 1962, but they were stolen and he had the heartache of hearing how the 1961 Cup medal had turned up at an auction and sold for £11,200.
Here’s something for Spurs fans to chew on. Bobby told me: “I am always made very welcome when I go to White Hart Lane, but my first club Chelsea go further. Every Christmas they send a cheque for £1,500 to all those who were in the squad for the 1955 League championship win … and I hardly got a kick because manager Ted Drake hated my guts!”
If he had been playing today, Bobby – who mixed cruiserweight strength with subtlety on the ball – would have been revered as a player in the Alan Shearer class, and rewarded with the riches that his ability warranted.
But he played in the soccer slave era. His rewards were pain in the limbs and – much of it self inflicted – poverty in the pocket.
Bobby’s story deserved to be told. But he has taken his secrets with him.
Rest easy, old friend.
Read Norman Giller’s previous columns for the SJA website by clicking here