I’ve written previously of my admiration for former Imps player Paul Smith, a big influence on my formative years as a Lincoln City supporter. After my article about him last season, he got in touch and we chatted about his Imps career, as well as what he did before and after.
I’ve since had the pleasure of meeting Paul as he’s become involved with the Former Players Association. Here is the first instalment of my two-part interview with a genuine club legend.
In the summer of 1987, Lincoln City was an odd place to be. The club had been relegated from Division Four, the first ever club to find themselves automatically relegated to the GM Vauxhall Conference. Having not been bottom all season, City faced an uncertain future.
One thing was certain though, Colin Murphy would be looking to assemble a team to bounce back at the first attempt. He set about rebuilding, bringing in experienced Football League players such as Trevor Matthewson and Clive Evans.
Just after the season started he raided Port Vale for forward Paul Smith, formerly of Sheffield United. Whilst we first saw him at Sincil Bank during the 4-0 destruction of Enfield, his career started many years before.
“At the age of 14 having represented Sheffield and South Yorkshire Schools I was approached by a number of Professional Clubs for trials. The clubs included Sheffield United , Sheffield Wednesday , Manchester United and Barnsley. I subsequently signed ‘Associate Schoolboy’ forms with my home team Sheffield United whom I had supported since my early years.”
He served his younger years as an old-school apprentice amongst some familiar names.
“The Manager at that time was Martin Peters however, following the clubs relegation to the old fourth division he was sacked and replaced by Ian Porterfield who had joined following success at Rotherham Utd. It was at this time I at the age of 16 I was offered a two-year Apprenticeship with the club. Incidentally former Imps players Richard Cooper, Gary West and Julian Broddle were also apprentices with me at the club at time.”
Once he progressed to a full-time professional, his path soon crossed with a man who would be instrumental in bringing him to Lincoln City.
“At the age of 18 after successfully representing the club’s youth and reserve teams I was offered a two-year professional contract by Ian Porterfield. In 1982 I made my first team debut as a right full back for the club away at Southend Utd. However as the case with many young players breaking through to gain further first team experience I had a short loan spell to Stockport County during the 1985-1986 season, where Colin Murphy was the manager.”
It was another familiar name that helped set up that deal, a club legend, well-known to Mr Murphy, had been involved in the initial loan.
“Glenn Cockerill was instrumental in the loan after he had recommended me to Colin and had made me aware of his excellent track record in developing young players in the lower leagues. The loan was extremely successful scoring 6 goals in 9 appearances whilst playing centre forward. However the loan was short-lived as I was recalled by Ian Porterfield and placed straight back in the first team at Sheffield Utd in what was the old Second Division.”
His elevation to the first team was exciting, but it came with a return to full-back despite his free-scoring spell at Stockport County. He found himself in a star-studded Blades team.
“Strangely I was selected to play right back and not up front and continued to hold down my position in the team until the end of the 1985 -1986 season, making 20 first team appearances. At that time there was some famous names in the team such as ex Liverpool and England player Phil Thomson and ex Aston Villa players Peter Withe, Ken McNaught and Dennis Mortimer.”
Despite breaking into the first team of his boy hood heroes, eventually the time came to move on.
“Unfortunately despite us finishing 7th in the league Ian Porterfield was sacked at the end of that season and was replaced by Billy McEwan. I was offered another two-year contract however, I felt the time was right to move on to develop my career and after talks with a number of clubs I was delighted to sign for John Rudge at Port Vale. They had just been promoted to the old Third Division (League One nowadays). In the 1986-1987 season I played as a right-winger for Port Vale scoring 9 goals in 51 appearances. John Rudge was an excellent manager and a very decent man whom I respected very much.”
It was from here that Paul’s journey brought him to Sincil Bank, the club at which he’d enjoy the best of his playing days.
“Just two games into the new season I was delighted to get the opportunity to play centre forward, and to join up with Colin Murphy for a then record Vauxhall Conference fee of £48,000. So began what was to become known as “Murphy’s Mission.”
It was a bold move for a young player whom had played all of his football in the Football League. The GMVC wasn’t the hot bed of talent that the National League proves to be today, and stepping down with City was moving into unknown territory.
“It was without the biggest career decision I had to make in deciding to drop two divisions and out of the Football League. However, I believed the decision was more of a calculated risk in that the excellent Chairman John Reames and his board had made the brave decision to invest in improving the squad and brought in Colin to oversee and secure the clubs promotion at the first attempt. The primary reason I decided to drop out of the league was Colin Murphy’s appointment as manager, the club’s investment in the playing staff and the club’s ambition and financial investment for the future in terms of seeking an immediate return to the Football League.”
Some things change in football, but even back then the special spirit in adversity that we have as a club was evident to Paul.
“On arriving at the club I was impressed by the “can do” spirit that existed throughout the club. Board, management, back room staff and even supporters had it, despite the uncertainty financial future the club faced. Despite the club’s misfortunes and the pretty basic infrastructure that existed in terms of the ageing ground and training facilities, Colin engendered a fantastic team spirit and work ethic amongst the players which was to be the bedrock of our success in my opinion.”
The GMVC season was a high point of the late 1980’s for Imps and Paul Smith played an integral role in that swift return.
“Reflecting on the GMVC season there are a number of games that come to mind .. my home debut against Enfield in which I scored twice, scoring the winner away at Maidstone where the pitch was like a swimming pool and barely playable, and of course the final home game beating Wycombe to secure the Championship ahead of Barnet. I believe this was the only time we were top of the league all season!”
“We had a very good squad with an exceptional team spirit. We definitely had some ups and downs but Colin in his usual enigmatic style with wise words of encouragement, or in some cases reading the riot act in no uncertain terms, always ensured we never lost sight of our ultimate aim of promotion.”
Paul classed the experienced spine of the team as one of the main reason’s that promotion was secured.
“Bob Cummins was exceptional and inspiring that season in terms of his no nonsense combative approach in midfield, Nigel Batch had his moments in-goal but proved his worth time and again and Phil Brown, my travelling companion, and Jack McGinley scored consistently throughout the season.”
Of course, coming up against the likes of Bath City, Fisher Athletic and South Liverpool was a culture shock to all at the club, irrespective of their backgrounds.
“Playing in the GMVC was challenging in terms of its physical nature and the fact that Lincoln City was the one team all other teams aspired to defeat and were not particularly welcomed by other supporters away from home. I remember playing away at Telford not long after signing for Lincoln and their manager kept shouting to me that I was a waste of money. Needless to say a couple of minutes later I scored the goal to secure an important away win. You wouldn’t be surprised to hear that I asked during my celebrations for him to repeat his comments to which he sat quietly without reply in the away box with Colin looking on with a sly and content smile on his face. On other occasions our away dressing room seats and floor were soaked with water, there was no loo paper, and both water and heating would be freezing cold. Those were all tactics which were employed by certain teams to disrupt and upset our pre match routines and planning.”
It didn’t work though, and Paul puts that down to two things; team spirit and fitness.
“The main qualities required to secure promotion that season were determination, team spirit, and a strong physicality to match other teams. This allowed us to play to our strengths and exploit teams through our overall higher levels of fitness and quality.”
Part Two: Paul discusses working under Allan Clarke, Steve Thompson and his disappointment at being bombed out by Sam Ellis.
Thanks to Jordan Brown and Lincoln City for the only two pictures of any quality in the article!