We lost a former Imp in Jim Smith last week and our regular historian Malcolm Johnson has penned one of his ‘Looking Back’ articles in honour of the Bald Eagle.
Date of birth: 17.10.40, Born: Sheffield
Height: 5ft 9in, Position: Midfield
City appearances: League: 54, FA Cup: 4, 1 goal, League Cup: 2, Total: 60, 1 goal
James Michael Smith, usually known as Jim, grew up as a Sheffield Wednesday supporter but was taken onto the ground staff of rival club Sheffield United. He turned professional at the beginning of 1959, but after failing to break into the first team of the Second Division club the 20-year-old joined Fourth Division (League Two) side Aldershot in the summer of 1961 to become something of a journeyman lower division player.
After four seasons with the Shots, making a total of 74 league appearances and scoring one goal Smith returned to his native Yorkshire in 1965, signing for Halifax Town. He was to be a regular first-teamer at the Shay for two and half years making a total of 113 league appearances and scoring 7 goals.
After Lincoln City had made a good start to the 1967/68 season results had slowly deteriorated until by the beginning of March, they were close to sinking into the re-election zone. Manager Ron Gray then acted to revitalise the side bringing in three new players, the first of them being the now 27-year-old Jim Smith at a cost of £1,000.
Smith’s City debut saw a 1-0 defeat at York, a result repeated on his home debut against Barnsley two games later, but once the new men had bedded into the side a run of seven wins in eight games saw City safely into mid-table, Smith playing in 13 games.
The 1968/69 season began with four straight wins for City putting them top of the table before a 5-0 thrashing at Darlington heralded some more mixed form. Smith then was kept out of the side through injury for five games, his replacements first being close-season signing Graham Parker then the attack-minded Jack Lewis. His return to the side however, marked the end of an unbeaten run in those five matches as City dropped out of the top four promotion places. An improvement saw them in third place by the end of the year.
City meanwhile had battled their way to the Third Round of the FA Cup and a meeting with second tier side Birmingham City at St Andrews. The Imps were not disgraced in a 2-1 defeat which saw Jim Smith score his only goal for the club, a header from just inside the area which was adjudged to have crossed the line before being headed clear.
Back in league action a run of only one win in 12 games saw City slip out of the promotion places and despite an improvement towards the end of the season they could only finish a disappointing 8th.
Smith had played in a total of 47 games, scoring just the one goal and had been a key member of the side, so it was a major surprise when he was given a free transfer during the summer of 1969. A possibility may have been that Ron Gray had decided on a less rugged approach to the midfield in future, with Smith’s replacement, Bill Taylor from Nottingham Forest, being more of a midfield schemer.
At the age of 28 Smith had ambitions of moving into management and coaching and joined Boston United as player-manager. The Pilgrims were about to start their second season in the Northern Premier League, then the highest level of non-league football. In his first two seasons Smith led Boston to third and fourth place finishes respectively, following this up with the runners-up slot in 1971/72 and a run to the Third Round of the FA Cup, losing 1-0 at home to Second Division side Portsmouth. Along the way he returned to City to sign former team mates Gordon Hughes, Alan Pilgrim and Bobby Svarc.
Boston were on their way to the Northern Premier League championship and were 40 games into a record 51 unbeaten when Smith left in October 1972 for his first Football League management post joining Fourth Division Colchester United. Soon followed to Essex by Bobby Svarc he also signed fellow ex-Imp Ray Harford and City reserve goalkeeper John McInally. Bottom of the league when he joined them, he was unable to prevent Colchester from having to seek re-election at the end of the season. Still registered as a player, he turned out a total of eight times during the season before hanging up his boots at the age of 32.
Smith soon turned things around with Colchester and the following season saw them finish third and win promotion to Division Three (now League One). After establishing them with a mid-table finish in the higher division he left in the summer of 1975 to join Blackburn Rovers, newly promoted to the second tier and was quickly followed again by Bobby Svarc.
After two seasons of mid-table finishes Smith was well into a promotion push with Blackburn when he left for top-flight side Birmingham City in March 1978 succeeding Sir Alf Ramsey as manager. The following season he was unable to prevent Birmingham’s relegation, but after allowing Trevor Francis to be the first player to be sold for one million pounds he rebuilt the side to make an immediate return to Division One.
Birmingham were on their way to a second season in mid-table when Smith was sacked in February 1982 so that the club could appoint Ron Saunders who had recently left Aston Villa. He was soon given the manager’s job at Third Division (League One) Oxford United and after a 5th place finish in his first full season led them to the championships in successive seasons of Division Three and Division Two for the club to reach the top flight for the first time in their history. However, club chairman Robert Maxwell failed to improve Smith’s contract, causing him to resign in the summer of 1985 to take the job of manager at fellow Division One side Queens Park Rangers. In his first season the club reached the League Cup final, where they were ironically beaten by Oxford.
Smith remained at QPR until December 1988 when he left to become manager of Newcastle United but was unable to prevent their relegation to the second tier at the end of that season. The Magpies narrowly failed to make an immediate return, losing to local rivals Sunderland in the play-offs. In the following season, with no prospect of promotion by March 1991, Smith resigned and had a brief spell with Middlesbrough as coach before being appointed manager of Division Two side Portsmouth. In his second season Smith was a play-off semi-final loser for a second time as Pompey missed out on promotion to the newly-formed Premier League. After that, with a lack of funds for adequate replacements for sold players such as Darren Anderton Smith was sacked in January 1995 with Portsmouth struggling at the wrong end of the table.
Smith then became chief executive of the League Managers’ Association, but returned to club management that summer with Derby County in what is now called the Championship. He brought in future England manager Steve McClaren as first-team coach, and in their first season they guided Derby to promotion to the Premier League.
The Rams had three seasons in the top half of the table, but after two further seasons where relegation was only narrowly avoided, Smith turned down the post of Director of Football and resigned in October 2001. In January 2002 he was appointed assistant to Coventry City manager Roland Nilsson but both were sacked three months later, after failing to achieve a playoff place. Later that year, Smith returned to Portsmouth as assistant to Harry Redknapp, winning promotion to the Premier League at the end of the following season.
After a season finishing in mid-table Smith and Redknapp both resigned in November 2004 to take over at neighbours Southampton. However, following the Saints’ relegation from the Premier League the following summer Smith’s initial six-month contract was not renewed. The following March he returned to one of the scenes of his former triumphs, being appointed manager of now League Two side Oxford United at the age of 66 and also given a seat on the board of directors. He was unable to prevent relegation to the Conference at the end of the season but Oxford came close to an immediate return, losing in the 2006/07 play-off semi-final. But in November 2007, after a poor start to the season, Smith decided it was time to step down as manager and concentrate on his director’s role. That wasn’t quite the end of his managerial career as a year later he had a brief spell as caretaker prior to the appointment of Chris Wilder. Smith stepped down from the board in 2009 to bring to an end his direct involvement in football.
He died on 10th December 2019 at the age of 79.
Jim Smith was well-known for being nicknamed ‘The Bald Eagle’, but in his time playing for Lincoln he could perhaps have been described as merely ‘balding’. My memories of him as a player are of his winning balls in midfield to pass outside him for the similarly balding Gordon Hughes to race off down the right wing. I also clearly recall his solitary goal for City and from behind the goal it certainly looked over the line!
It’s interesting if pointless to speculate what might have happened if Smith hadn’t been given a free transfer by Ron Gray in the summer of 1969. With his strength in midfield from the start would City have gone on to win promotion in 1970? Or if not, would he perhaps have succeeded Gray as manager that year instead of Bert Loxley, and changed the circumstances that led to Graham Taylor being given his chance in management.
As a player, Jim Smith’s Football League record totalled 249 appearances with 8 goals scored.
As a manager he had a record of winning two championships and three promotions with his various clubs, plus three play-off semi-final defeats and one League Cup Final defeat.