Back in August of 1987 City splashed out £40k on a player who would form an integral part of the GMVC winning team. He went on to make over 300 appearances for Lincoln, and was voted in at 74th in the centenary ‘top 100 legends’. Today, twenty two years after he left the club, he is barely ever mentioned when talking about the all-time greats.
Paul Michael Smith was voted in ahead of players such as Graham Bressington and Ian Branfoot, but in 1987 he was just another Football League quality player willing to swap the prestige of proper football for Murphy’s Mission in the GM Vauxhall Conference. His first four years were spent at Sheffield United, but after just 36 appearances for the Blades he moved to Port Vale. He had just one season with the Valiants, scoring seven times in 44 outings. As the 1986/87 season wound to a close he became the subject of attention from Colin Murphy, eventually signing ahead of our early season trip to Stafford Rangers.
His first Lincoln home match was against Enfield on September 19th, 1987, and this writer was stood at the Railway End as he made his debut. I was a boy of just nine years old with a mop of ginger hair and a new found passion for the Imps. This was to be my first full season as a Lincoln fan and this was the first home match I’d been to in the GMVC. I’d witnessed most of the relegation season, and my first proper hero, Gary Lund, had moved on. I was on the look-out for a new idol.
It wasn’t long before Paul Smith nominated himself as my favourite player, he only had to run out on the pitch to capture my attention. He had that striking ginger hair just like me, and he played up front which was my preferred position for Wragby Primary School. After ninety minutes he’d scored twice as I watched City win 4-0, and in my mind a hero was born.
It helped significantly that he scored both goals right in front of me at the home end. one a classic centre forwards header, and the other a delicate finish with his right foot to nestle the ball in the back of the net, close enough for me to touch. He celebrated in front of the home end, and so did I. Even at the age of nine I was feeling elation when City scored, and this constituted the biggest win I’d ever seen with my own eyes. Lincoln came alive that day and the deep red hair of Paul Smith seemed to be behind everything good we did. The following week (probably) I scored twice for Wragby as we beat Bucknall 6-0, and despite the nasty green itchy shirts I believed I was Paul Smith. I probably commentated in my head as I struck the ball into the goal.
His hairstyle was questionable, a proper eighties mullet untouched at the back but trimmed at the sides. In a dubious fashion move I decided to do the same, convinced everyone at my school would instantly know who I was emulating. They didn’t but I still sported that ginger mullet one and off for a couple of years in homage to my favourite Imp.
As the season wore on he took to spiking the fringe at the front, but leaving that red dangling down his neck like a foxes tail. I took to spiking the front as well, and aside from my seven skinhead years, I have done it ever since. Paul Smith was a style icon that has stayed with me for a lifetime.
He also scored a few goals, most of them away but one or two witnessed by me. I remember almost crying the day we beat Boston 5-1 because Smith wasn’t playing. My Dad explained he was injured, but for me that wasn’t a good enough answer. I wanted to see a hero on the right, but instead of Smith it was Paul Casey. I couldn’t grow a moustache, nor was my Mum willing to perm my hair, so I just swallowed my pain and waited for him to come back into the side. Of course at the end of the season we were promoted amidst joyous scenes, and in my minds eye Smith was responsible for our success. He raced up and down the right wing with grace, but also had the physicality to deal with some real hatchet men.
After two goals in as many games at the start of the 1988/89 season he picked up an injury, and that kept him out until December 26th. He returned after just three wins in seven games, but instantly hit five in four including a Boxing Day goal against Grimsby and two as we beat Doncaster 3-1. Then just like magic he was gone again, injured until mid-February. By now I’d lost the mullet, and got to fewer games. I couldn’t dictate how many I attended, at ten years old you tend to ‘go with the flow’. I couldn’t even kick off about it either, because back in 1989 it was okay to still get a slipper to the arse.
Paul Smith suffered badly with injuries (not slipper related thankfully), another spell out at the stat of the 1989/90 season meant he had to fight for his place in October when fitness returned. He started his first game back on the bench, and then in his second started up front to bag our only goal in a 1-1 draw with Grimsby Town. He was infrequently amongst the goals, and eventually a run of poor form from right-back Steve Stoutt saw Smith fill in for a couple of games. As it was he’d lost a yard of pace through his injuries, but he quickly settled in his new position. A change of manager saw him more advanced for the following season, but by the time Steve Thompson arrived he was back at full-back permaently. He stayed there for four years, struggling with the occasional injury but never shirking a tackle. His consistency was similar to that of Sam Habergham, he eventually became the steady seven all sides need on the defensive flanks. He remained the steady Eddie until leaving City in the summer of 1995 courtesy of the broom of change wielded by Sam Ellis.
By 1995 I’d hit sixteen, and I’d realised that a ginger mullet was not the way forward in life. Paul Smith, or ‘Sugar’ as his team mates knew him, had done the same. It mattered not, for a season or two I made infrequent visits to the Bank, instead preferring to hang around in the local park chasing girls who didn’t want to know. They were awkward times, and whenever I did attend a match it was the scintillating flair of David Puttnam or the goal scoring prowess of Tony Lormor that I’d preferred to see. In those days without the internet his release passed me by, and it was only at the start of the following season I realised he’d gone.
After a short spell at Halifax Paul Smith retired from the game, and from there he drops off the radar. I’ve been to a GMVC dinner which most of the squad attended, but nobody had heard from Paul Smith. I went to that dinner specifically hoping to see him, but just like Easter Monday of 1988 against Boston, I made do with Paul Casey (who was a charming chap). Since then my attempts to find him have all failed. It’s fairly easy to pump Marcus Stergiopolous into a search engine and be sure you’ve found the right man quite quickly, but a name like Paul Smith throws up far too many variables. Even ‘Paul Smith footballer’ throws up six or seven matches, and not once have I got a firm enough to lead to know that I’ve found the man who was responsible for giving me such joy as a kid.
It was rumoured he is now in Sheffield, and there was a whisper he may have joined the police force after leaving Lincoln. I’m not too keen on trying to track down a police officer, usually it is them looking for someone and not the other way around! However, if anyone knows how I could meet him I would be eternally grateful.
Paul Smith was fast and tricky with an eye for goal which is exactly what I wanted to be. When he switched to full back he was attack minded and asked questions of the opposition. He made ginger cool, he proved it didn’t clash with the red shirts and he proved we weren’t all snivelling weaklings that smelled of urine. We didn’t howl at the moon and get sun burn when we opened the fridge door, we were footballers and he was our then-record signing. He showed me you could be ginger and a bloody great footballer (that GMVC team were great, I won’t hear anything different). He made me have the most embarrassing haircut a young boy could possibly ever have, and I still felt proud as punch. One day I would love to shake his hand and thank him, not just for the goals or the 300 odd appearances, but also for being one of my first true footballing idols.