Derby County manager Jim Smith lost his hair by getting angry and throwing cups at players. He can laugh about it now
[I have a soft spot for Derby because I went to university there. I think it was the 96th best university in the country out of 96 but what stood out for me was its 4:1 female to male ratio. Seven years after I’d departed Derby, I was given the chance of a return to the city to interview County’s manager Jim Smith – a particular favourite of mine. He was superb value. Brilliant photos by Richard Ansett]
Mr Smith is sat on an orange plastic seat in the middle of a football pitch, giving his opinions about the world of football. We’re at the training ground of Derby County, a fine lawn of a togger field next to a dual carriageway. The reserves have been out this morning and now the big boys are turning up for an afternoon’s slog after midweek internationals. “Kinkladze’ll have an excuse not to come in,” Jim says. “He was playing for Georgia the other night, so we’ll be lucky – ha-ha-ha!” The Bald Eagle is plugging his new book It’s Only A Game. It’s one of the most honest accounts of a football career you will ever read.
Are Derby going down this season?
Ha! Well, we’re in a bad position at the moment, but I have every confidence with the quality of the players we’ve got that we’ll stay up. We’re scoring goals, and that’s important.
But you’re letting in more goals than everybody else.
Ha-ha-ha, that’s true. That’s got to be sorted, but I think we’ll be OK.
If you could buy one British-born forward, who would you go for?
British-born? Not a foreigner? The choice is huge, because we’ve got quite a good crop. It’s got to be Michael Owen really. But I don’t need forwards, I need defenders, ha-ha-ha! And there’s not many of them.
There’s none coming through, is there?
No there isn’t. That’s the problem.
Jim, you’ve got a big spider on your head.
[Jumps] Eeeeh – have I? Let’s hope it’s a money spider! Has it gone?
Yes, it’s dropped on the floor.
Where was I? Yeh, if I was after any British-born defender, I’d want a leader really, so I’d want a young Tony Adams.
Did you watch England’s last World Cup qualifiers?
Yeh. Shocking, wasn’t it?
What’s your opinion on the way Keegan went?
I respect his decision to go. But I felt if he was going to go, he should have done it after Euro 2000, or after Finland – not after Germany.
It sounded like a spur-of-the-moment thing – he’d heard the crowd, and Keegan’s always been receptive to the crowd, hasn’t he?
Graham Taylor said the same to me, he said, “I know what it’s like, cos I’ve been there. When you walk down that tunnel and the crowd are giving you stick, it’s horrible.” That’s where the mob stands, of course.
Have you had that kind of stick?
Oh aye, yeh – ha-ha-ha!
Very personal stuff?
The worst was in Newcastle. On a New Year’s Day, against Wolves, it was. We lost at home 4-1. It started a bit from the yobbo end, like.
How does that affect you?
Well it’s not very nice, obviously. You look at ’em and you want to bash ’em, but you’ve got to keep face, haven’t you? It gets at you a little bit. You start to feel, I’m wrong, I’ve got to go, but the decision has to be what’s good for the club. With Keegan, it weren’t good for England. I understand why he’s gone, but I felt the timing wasn’t right.
Have you ever been approached by a country to manage them?
Ha-ha-ha, the Faroe Islands! No, I’m having you on, son.
Do you think that foreigners are ruining our game?
I’ve had a lot of foreigners, to be fair, and I’ve got a few here now. I think there will be a time when we won’t have so many. It was forced on us in a way because of transfer fees and the lack of quality in our game. But I believe our lads at this club have benefited by having foreign players in. Hopefully they’re gonna replace them. I’m not against having a number of foreign players at a club though.
There are some good young players coming through – the under-21s could whip the proper English national side.
They’re tremendous. There’s a hell of a lot of top-quality players. They’ve got Jeffers, Smith and Joe Cole in the international squad, Barry, Ferdinand, d’you know what I mean? And I think they’ve been encouraged by the skill of the foreign players. That’s my opinion.
You use a psychologist at Derby, don’t you?
Yeh, we do – we did. He was with us for four years, then he decided that four years is too long to work with one set of players, which I can understand, and he went off and joined Manchester United – ha-ha-ha!
Would you say that he helped the club?
Very much so. And he works for England with the under-21s. I think he did a good job, yeh.
Did he do one-on-one psychology sessions, or group meetings?
Nah, not group sessions, they’d all mess about.
Did he bring a bit of belief back to the club?
Yeh, and he used to watch every home game looking at body language. I was all for it, and it worked, yeh.
Do you punish players for going clubbing?
Well they’re not all angels at Derby, but in the main, they’re too quiet, ha-ha-ha. They’re very well-behaved lads. You find out about one or two who’ve had a drink, and what-have-you, but as a group, we take the lads away. They did a four-wheel-drive thing in Bristol at the weekend. If they break the rules you’ve got to fine them. But that isn’t too often in the game now. It’s a different lifestyle now. They don’t go out to a club, they go to top restaurants and have wine and champagne. Not like us – it were sing-songs in the pub!
Is it difficult to keep your temper?
Yeh, sometimes. I do better now than I ever did, cos they’re a different breed of footballer. They’re foreign. It’s a different way of managing and a different way of coaching now. You have to test their ability and their thinking, not throw cups at them, as we used to do.
Have you thrown cups at players before?
I have done it, yeh – ha-ha-ha! The only problem is that I’ve done it once or twice, and now I’m labelled as the biggest cup-thrower of all time. I’ve done it twice, I think. Well no, I’ve done it three times.
Who was it at?
I threw a cup against the wall when I was player-manager at Boston United. And all the tea spattered over me, so that was a waste of time. Did the same at Newcastle – I wish I’d noticed it was a plastic cup. We let in a goal at the last minute, and I thought, I’m gonna show you lot what I can do. I got drenched. But I knew what I was doing and there was a reason – to frighten them a little. I did it at Newcastle when we played Southampton. The game more or less sent us down, and Mirandinha had missed two open goals. He was smiling as I bollocked the lads. I saw this tray of sandwiches and launched them at Mirandinha. My assistant, Bobby Saxton – they landed on him.
Did you burst out laughing?
We all burst out laughing, so it didn’t actually work.
Is language a problem for a manager?
No. With Georgi Kinkladze, he’d been at Man City for a while and then in Holland, so he speaks English. It’s embarrassing – 90 per cent of ’em come in and they speak very good English, so that’s never been a problem. We’ve got an Argentinian – Carbonari. He weren’t from Buenos Aires, he was from the sticks, and when he came over he could say a couple of words, but now he’s picked it up and he’s even got the same sense of humour as us. They have to do, to be fair.
How did you get on with Robert Maxwell at Oxford?
I never had a problem with him, not till the end of being at Oxford.
Did he look after his people?
He was good. He employed me, and he’d never interfere.
You didn’t have to fax through team sheets?
No, in all fairness, he was brilliant with me. Once he bought the Mirror he changed. He kept asking Harry Harris who we should buy. He became big-time when he was at the Mirror, and that’s when we had a big fall-out, and that’s when I left. But overall, he was very supportive.
Do you have a problem attracting players to Derby, because it’s not as fashionable as London?
Not many problems, but I’ve had the odd one saying he doesn’t want to come to Derby. When they say to me, “I want to go to London,” then you think – are they coming here for football or restaurants? The people we’ve brought in, in the main, are people who enjoy this kind of life – Derby’s a nice place to live. Eranio loves it. Stimac was good when he first came here, but he was always hankering after the big lights, London, and what have you.
Before you lost your hair, was your nickname just The Eagle?
Ha-ha-ha-ha! Very good. No, it was Tony Curtis, because I had curly hair. All curly it was! Ha-ha-ha!
If a lad who lived next door to you kicked the ball through your greenhouse windows, would you get angry with him?
Has it happened?
No. When you’ve got kids of your own, and when you’re a kid yourself, you knock a few in. It wouldn’t bother me, no.
That’s good to hear.
Well, you wouldn’t, would you? Lee Gale
Jim Smith The Autobiography: It’s Only A Game, which was written with Bob Cass, is published by Andre Deutsch. It’s funny because there’s a lot of shouting. And cup throwing.