Its strange how some people can have an impact on your life and they probably never realised that they did. Sometimes that can be in a negative way; maybe someone saying something hurtful that scarred you for life. Hopefully for most of us it will be some small kindness, a word of encouragement or advice that stays with us forever.
One such man for me was the football manager and coach Mike Smith.
This week I heard the sad news of the passing of the former Wales boss and it brought back to my memory a very wet and muddy morning at Ashleigh Playing fields sometime back in the early 1970’s.
But before I get to that here’s some background to Smith’s career.
Mike was the first Englishman to manage the Welsh side. People will often tell you that before Wales made it to the Euros in 2016 the team hadn’t qualified for a major tournament since the 1958 World Cup. Well that wasn’t quite true. In 1976 Mike Smith’s Wales team made it through to the quarter finals of the Euros only to lose to Yugoslavia after some dubious refereeing decisions from an east German referee.
What’s more they qualified by actually topping their group above Hungary and Austria. I remember travelling to the Race Course, the home of Wrexham for the final game of the group stage against Austria. A friend of mine was a postman and he managed to get a few of us onto the Swansea Post Office coach trip. I was 15 years old with a Harrington jacket, flared jeans, platform shoes and a Welsh scarf and I still remember the moment little Arfon Griffiths scored the only goal of the match in the 69th minute.
We got back to Swansea in the early hours of the following day. I think part of the deal with my parents was if I took the day off for the match I would have to go to school the following day no matter how tired I was. But it was worth it, and I had the match day programme to show everyone in the schoolyard the following day that ‘I was there’.
Although obviously disappointed Smith managed to keep his squad together for the following World Cup campaign. This was a great Welsh team including Dai Davies, Joey Jones, Leighton Phillips, Flynn Mahoney, Toshack and Yorath. The outcome of the group would once again turn on a poor refereeing decision. The Welsh FA had decided to capitalise on their home advantage to make as much money as possible by playing the game in Liverpool at Anfield! That just made it all the easier for the Tartan Army to invade from the North. Although I was miles away watching the game on the TV in Swansea it was plain by the volume of the Scottish support that home advantage had now been sold to the Scots.
The game turned on a penalty given to the Scots after Joe Jordan, the Scottish Centre Forward handled the ball. At the time it seemed harsh, the replays proved that it was a Scottish hand that had punched the ball. A goal down in the 78th minute meant Wales had to throw caution to the wind in an attempt to find an equaliser and that allowed the Scottish hero of the Kop, Kenny Dalgleish to break away for a second in the 85th minute,.
After that Mike Smith headed first to league football managing Hull and then more international management with Egypt where he finally won a competition, the 1986 African Cup of Nations. He did have a very short spell in the 1990’s back in charge of Wales but he never managed to achieve anything like the success he had had in 1976-78.
So, back in the 1970’s Mike Smith was Director of Coaching for the Football Association of Wales. He had got the job after a career in teaching which allowed him to continue his love for football by playing as an amateur for the wonderfully named Corinthian Casuals.
It was as ‘Director of Coaching’ that I met him on that dismal day at Ashleigh Road. The weather was awful, and the ground was heavy with mud, but we were excited at the prospect of spending a couple of days with Mr Smith. We were a group of young teenagers who made up the Swansea Schoolboys Squad.
Most of the squad already knew each other well either because we had either played against each other for school or youth teams or played together representing the city. We had been a successful team winning the Welsh Shield in previous years, but we were also competitive individuals who all wanted to be selected for International Schoolboy honours and this man might be able to help make that happen.
Swansea Schoolboys Under 11’s. Most were at the training session some years later
I still remember it clearly. As a captain of the team the previous year and playing at Centre half I had called for the back 4 to move out as one, to make sure any of the opposition teams forwards would find themselves offside.
As we moved forward the ball suddenly popped back to me and without thinking I swung my foot and kicked it as hard as I could back up the muddy field towards the opposition goal. Then I heard it, the short, sharp piercing whistle from Mike Smith. The game came to an abrupt halt. He told everyone on the pitch to stand still and then he turned to me.
He didn’t shout, but he had the vocal authority of a head master. ‘What did you do that for?’
Now, at the time it seemed pretty obvious, their goal was over there. and I was over here, and I was kicking it in that direction. He then made me look at the pitch ahead, where the ball had landed and where my team, and the opposition team were all standing.
He then pointed out all the different places I could have and should have thought about passing the ball instead of just simply kicking it aimlessly up field. I could have laid the ball on for the left winger to run onto, I could have taken a touch and played out to the full backs. There were half a dozen things which, with a little thought, I could have done, but hadn’t.
Then, just to make sure I had heard and received that information he re-enforced it by making me do 5 press-ups in the mud.
I never got my Welsh Schoolboy Cap and I never became a professional player but actually what Mike Smith said to me that day has stayed with me ever since. Sometimes just lashing an opportunity upfield in a hit and hope way might work, but surely it’s better to think just a little in case there are some much better options in front of us.
Mike Smith, I never got the chance to say thank you for making me get my hands dirty that dismal day, but it was certainly a lesson well learnt.
PS I’ll be appearing on ‘Songs of Praise’ tomorrow singing a song I wrote about my granddaughter BBC 1 at 13.15 if you have a spare few minutes.