28 Mar 2009

Liverpool FC's unsung heroes: Sir John Smith

Ask most Liverpool fans about Sir John Smith and I’m sure the majority response would be one of confusion. This is a sad state of affairs considering Smith is the most influential Chairman in Liverpool’s history. His contribution to the club is unmatched at boardroom level, and without him, it is doubtful Liverpool would have achieved such an amazing level of success.

Affectionately known as ‘the dapper Chairman’, Sir John Smith ran Liverpool FC for 17 years from 1973 until 1990, playing an integral part in Liverpool’s unparalleled success over that period. During his tenure, Liverpool won four European cups and eleven championship titles – a feat that has never been (and will never be) matched in English football.

Values, integrity and business acumen

A strong believer in continuity, Smith ended the club's policy of changing the chairman every three years. In his time, changes on the board were rare and shares in the club were never quoted on the Stock Exchange. Liverpool has always been a family club, and John Smith strongly believed in this ideal and fought to ensure it remained that way.

Smith's major strength was his savvy business acumen, which had been developed as Deputy Chairman of an electronics firm and as a brewery Sales Director. He ruled with an iron hand but would always seek advice when it was warranted, as by his own admission, his knowledge of football was that of an enthusiast, not an expert.

Working with former Chief Executive Peter Robinson, Smith ran a tight ship, and during his time, Liverpool’s exemplary business practices became the envy of many other football clubs. Smith was also a staunch defender of the "Boot Room" system of promotion from within, which created continuity of success under Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish.

Smith was a strong proponent of another of the club’s defining philosophies: the idea that no manager or player was bigger than the club. This is something synonymous with Liverpool FC but, once again, this ideal is slowly being eroded in the modern game, with player power increasingly having a negative impact on the game.

Smith was a man of values and integrity, something sadly missing in the commercial depravity of modern football. Like most Liverpool Chairmen, he preferred to stay out of the media spotlight, something that tallies well with the humble spirit of the club.

Heysel disaster

An influential and effective leader for Liverpool, Smith never shirked difficult decisions, and this was illustrated in his handling of the Heysel stadium disaster in 1985. Within days of the tragedy, Smith acted decisively by announcing that the club would be withdrawing from the following season's Uefa Cup.

He ensured that the club behaved with sensitivity and responsibility towards the victims and the guilty, but also recognized that the stadium was substandard and possibly contributed to the collapse of the stand.

He commented at the time that "The ground was not good enough for an ordinary match, let alone a final". And he was undoubtedly right.

Smith also defended Liverpool’s travelling fans, who were under fire across the world. He issued a statement saying that the Heysel troublemakers were actually National Front supporters, probably from London, and that a shot had been fired before the worst part of the riot.

This was a view backed by Liberal Councillor Peter Millea, who was at the match. He told the Liverpool Echo that he distinctly made out a contingent of skinheads wearing Union Jack T-shirts and speaking with cockney accents.

The suspension of Liverpool from European competition brought considerable financial pressures, but Smith overcame these by co-opting experts onto the board – another example of his crucial business prowess.

Bringing the King to Anfield

John Smith’s greatest contribution to Liverpool FC is arguably his role in bringing Kenny Dalglish to the club. This one piece of business laid the foundation for 13 years of non-stop success, with Dalglish being the creative catalyst for the most successful period in Liverpool’s history.

It was no secret that Liverpool wanted Dalglish, and John Smith took a leading role in trying to acquire the Scotsman’s services. Just 72 hours before the 1977 Scottish season began, John Smith and then Liverpool Manager Bob Paisley travelled up to Glasgow with one intention: sign Kenny Dalglish.

In order to keep their anonymity, they checked into a hotel as a pair of brothers, though this was not enough to fool one inquisitive fan, who recognized Paisley and asked for an autograph!

Smith and Paisley watched Dalglish play for Celtic against Dunfermline Athletic in a pre-season friendly the same afternoon, and although there were rumours that the Liverpool manager had been seen in the stands, there was no solid evidence to back it up.

These rumours filtered back to Dalglish, but on hearing nothing he simply changed after the game and left the ground. It was only much later that evening, when he was called to Parkhead for a meeting that he would learn the truth.

John Smith and Bob Paisley had already been at Parkhead for some hours negotiating what turned out to be one of the most important deals in the club's history. An initial £300,000 was offered but legendary Celtic Manager Jock Stein rejected it as ‘paltry’, despite it being only £50,000 short of the British transfer record Everton paid Birmingham City for Bob Latchford.

In private talks prior to negotiation, the Liverpool party had agreed to keep adding 10%, with £400,000 being the final offer. That figure was reached, but Stein once again rejected the offer, but for some reason suggested that a further 10% may tip the scales.

A simple nod of heads sealed the deal; Stein had lost his man, and he would remain silent on the matter after the deal, only ever stating that Liverpool got a better player than Kevin Keegan (Dalglish’s predecessor) and still made a profit.

Negotiations had taken all day, finally concluding at midnight, but neither Bob Paisley nor John Smith were in any mood to leave until their target had agreed the transfer. Personal terms were much easier to settle - Dalglish was located at his father-in-law's pub and called Parkhead, and within minutes of meeting, Smith, Paisley and Dalglish were shaking hands on a deal.

Smith was understandably delighted with the deal, enthusing "There's never been a better bit of business than that”.

And no Liverpool fan would ever argue with that statement.

John Smith also recommended the appointment of Kenny Dalglish as successor to Joe Fagan, whose spirit had been broken by the Heysel disaster.

With Dalglish as Liverpool Manager, the club’s success continued, with the league and Cup double achieved in 1985-86, and two more titles in 1988 and 1990 before John Smith retired.

Post-Liverpool and legacy

After resigning as chairman, Sir John Smith continued as a Liverpool director and retained his interest in lawn tennis, for which he had chaired a government inquiry, which reported in 1980. His wide interest in sport was also reflected in the fact that he was chairman of the Sports Council from 1985 to 1989.

Football has changed dramatically (and for the worse) since Smith ran the club, with ignorant publicity hounds like Peter Kenyon and Freddy Shepherd indicative of the new breed of shallow, media hungry football Chairmen.

Indeed, current Liverpool Chairmen Tom Hicks and George Gillett could take a leaf out of Smith’s book and learn how to conduct themselves in the proper manner. Their public war of words with Rafael Benitez (Coupled with Hicks' comments about Jurgen Klinnsman) brought shame on the club, and Smith is probably turning in his grave at such a gross lack of professionalism.

Ultimately, Sir John Smith was a model of integrity and a credit to Liverpool FC. Like Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley, he was ‘old school’ and represented everything that was good about the club. His achievements deserve respect and his contribution to the club should never be forgotten.

Click HERE to follow Liverpool-Kop on

Sign up for email updates when new articles are published:

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

1 comment:

  1. Top man, from the same mould as Shanks and Paisley.

    A truly admirable humble gentle man.