Interview: Neil Smith

Neil Smith (centre) back in the white shirt for a charity match at the cottage. Image: Getty.

Neil Smith was a pivotal part of Kevin Keegan’s team as they became the first Fulham side to break the 100-point barrier in a league season. The South Londoner feels passionate about his time at Fulham and shared his memories in a chat with Fulham Focus’ Dannyboi.

DB – I suppose the best place to start is by telling us how you became a footballer and did you have any role models in the game growing up?

NS – I was always playing in my spare time over the park and that, I’ve got two brothers, one older, one younger and we’d just kick a ball around together. When I was playing at secondary school, one of the coaches was also coaching at Tottenham. He liked me and got me over to Spurs and I was there until I was 19.

My role model funny enough was Kevin Keegan, I used to love watching him in those fantastic Liverpool sides and then when he went over to Hamburg. Being the England captain too at the time made it an obvious decision that he was going to be my hero. I wanted to be like him as a player. So, to then get that opportunity to play for him at Fulham was amazing, it was all my dreams come true. Even in his autobiography, there’s a little passage where he comes to Fulham and he mentions some of the players and ‘Neil Smith’ is in there so to make his autobiography just tops everything I’ve achieved really.

DB – Did you start out as a midfielder?

NS – Well I started out as a centre-mid and I went to Tottenham as one. Then after a year I was playing centre-forward and finished top scorer that year. I then went to centre-back and right back. For Gillingham, I was centre mid and ended up at right back. For Fulham, I was signed as a right back and went back to centre mid haha. I was just one of them that would fill whatever position was required but Fulham gave me that opportunity to be a regular centre mid and I loved every minute of it. Then Keegan took over and signed Steve Finnan so there was no chance I was going back to right back, in fact, there was no chance anyone was going to right back!

DB – My mum has asked me to tell you that you are her favourite player from that Keegan team. When I told her that I was phoning Neil Smith for a Q&A she got quite excited!

NS – Oh really?! There were a lot of players at the time that were much better than me so if your mum said that I take it as a massive compliment, she’s very kind. I’ll tell the boys that at least I was someone’s favourite!

DB – Why did you sign for Fulham? Were you sold the ambitious project?

NS – Where the club went afterwards was beyond everyone’s wildest dreams and I’m so proud to have been a part of that. One week you’d be training with the likes of Richard Carpenter, Darren Freeman and Paul Watson all great lads that I knew from my Gillingham days to people like Phillipe Albert and Peter Beardsley walking through the door, it was just another level. You were just waiting around for the next one to walk through the door and then you’d see Chris Coleman and it was just getting better and better every week. The competition was getting harder and harder in the team and it raised my standards and that’s all I ever wanted. To be the best I could be and achieve the best I could, and I did that at Fulham.

If I’m brutally honest the reason I signed for Fulham in the first place was nothing to do with the ambition of the club. It was to say I’d played for the same club as George Best, Bobby Robson, Rodney Marsh, Bobby Moore etc. Being a London boy from Lambeth I was very much aware of Fulham’s players growing up, so it was purely for that reason that I wanted to join Fulham and be part of that history. Obviously, I was never in the same bracket as them but to say I played for the same club is very special. That was the nearest I was going to get to playing at a Premier League club with the past big names because Fulham’s history of personnel is so rich. Then to win the league with 101 points and to go to places like Old Trafford, White Hart Lane, Anfield. To win at Villa Park and against Southampton, it was all a dream come true.

I always felt Fulham was a family club. “I support Fulham because it’s been in my family for years” and stuff like that. They were knowledgeable supporters who knew their club inside out. Even if you lost, if they could see that you tried they were understanding and supportive about it.

I wasn’t going to an average club, to say I’d played for the same club as George Best was unreal

DB – I’m guessing that the lads from Mickey’s team were very close to him especially as he was a player-manager. Did you fit in straight away with the group?

NS – I was in the middle cos I knew some of the boys from my Gillingham days and Micky signed me, not Keegan so I was already there. Then when Ray and Kevin came in and signed new players I wasn’t part of the old school or the new school. I was in the middle and had to make sure I wasn’t left in the lurch. I had to train harder than anyone else cos I had to prove myself to two managers in the space of a month whereas the older lads knew Micky and the new ones just had the new regime to worry about. The old lads had a little bit of loyalty to Micky, but I had to look after myself and make sure that I was working hard for whoever was the manager.

DB – Was there any backlash or unrest in the dressing room when Mickey was sacked so early in the season having still been regarded by all as a hero?

NS – Yes there was a divide between the old and the new. Obviously, the new players had done nothing wrong, but they came in on better contacts than the lads who got Fulham promoted the season before. So, there was a bit of jealousy but Al Fayed was clever. He knew Keegan was a much bigger name than Micky Adams and it needed the big name to attract the better players who would naturally need to be on better money to persuade them to drop down a Division or two. Nobody now could say it was the wrong decision. At the end of the day, I’d signed my deal and agreed to the money I was paid so I was just professional and got on with it.

It was harsh on Micky as he hadn’t done anything wrong, but it was always going to happen when someone like Al Fayed bought the club, that’s just Football. Keegan said that “you are going to become the team that everyone wants to beat and the best team in the Division so can you handle that pressure?” He was spot on and that’s why it was massive to not only sign better players but great characters and leaders.

DB – What involvement did Keegan have in his first season as Director of Football? Did you sense it was inevitable that/Keegan was going to replace Wilkins eventually?

NS – Ray was picking the team and Kevin was picking the players we were signing with Arthur Cox. I don’t know if the rumours are right, but I think when we got to the playoffs Kevin wanted to play his new signings and I think Ray wanted to play the best team whoever that was and didn’t want to be told who to play. Then we get the bombshell before the day of the game at the Cottage that Ray’s gone which wasn’t the news you want to hear just before a massive game like that.

It shouldn’t have impacted on our performance because you are still a professional and we were desperate to play in the playoff final looking to achieve what we set out to do all season but sadly it did affect us a bit. Ray had been loyal to me, we had so many new signings coming in all the time, but he stayed loyal to me, so I felt I owed Ray. I felt bad for him because he hadn’t done much wrong and it was just a case of personal preference of who the two guys wanted to play.

DB – You scored two goals for the club, one against Colchester in the league. The second must have been satisfying scoring against Spurs at the Lane in the FA Cup. Do you remember them?

NS – Yep, Colchester… good header! I managed to make a run into the box and the cross came in and I finished it off nicely. Can’t remember who crossed it though… (it was Rufus Brevett)

It was nice going back to Spurs, playing against some old teammates. I never got any opportunities for them but then again, they had the likes of Lineker, Gascoigne, Paul Stewart, Paul Allen. It was the team that won the FA Cup for Spurs, so it got to the stage where I was 19 playing in the reserves with Sammy Conway and John Moncur and if they can’t get into the side then what chance have I got! I could have stayed there like they do now until I was 22,23 just to say I was a Tottenham player but I never felt like I was, so I moved on.

So, to end up playing at White Hart Lane against the likes of Sol Campbell, Ian Walker & David Ginola was great and made me feel that I made the right decision leaving to benefit my career. To score as well was amazing, the result wasn’t great, but I had all my family in the Fulham crowd so when I scored I knew where they were, and it was a great feeling seeing them all celebrating. The only thing was I got a little too carried away and tried to do an overhead kick from 25 yards out which didn’t go to plan!

DB – What was Ray Wilkins like as a manager?

NS – He was brilliant. Coaching wise you had him and Frank Sibley. Kevin would join in, but it was the other two who were in and amongst it. Frank came in from QPR and he was great, but Ray was something else. Considering what he’d achieved, his door was always open. He was that sort of person, he even dropped me for a game and still made me feel a million dollars. Saying things like “you’re brilliant, so professional, always giving your all, I’m going to rest ya cos I know I’ll need you later on in the season” and I walked away thinking “right ok” and then I turned around and said “I’m not playing Saturday am I?!” but he put it in such a positive way that I felt brilliant but when you think about it if you aren’t playing the next game then you’ve been dropped!

He was a proper gentleman who always made time for you, we kept in touch up right up until his sad passing. He was always there for advice and I miss him dearly.

DB – So Keegan takes over, what was he like and what did he change to turn us into a team capable of 101 points?

NS – Well after being left out of the playoff game when Keegan took over we had words over the summer and he told me that he’d received an offer for me, he asked if I wanted to go. I told him that I wanted to fight for my place. He replied, “not a problem but you will need to fight hard for it” which was never going to be a problem. I was determined because I wanted to be here. I told him “you give me my chance and I’ll prove to you how much I want to stay here” and in that second year he gave me my chance and I was in the team for every game. I had to win him over but once I did, he had more respect for me because the easy option was to go to another club and I didn’t.

He was very honest and overall, he was brilliant to me. If you showed him, you were willing to give everything for him then he’d give everything back to you. Ray was probably tactically better than Kevin, in respect of ‘this is how we are going to beat this team today’. Kevin just made you believe that you would beat anyone. There was no real pattern of play, he had good players and just got us to play to our strengths.

DB – How does it feel to be a champion, and do you still have your medal?

NS – Still got my medal, still got the shirt I wore to clinch the title and all the players signed it. I’m very proud, to win something in football you’ve got to be a very good team. You only get 4 champions a year so to win it shows what a great team we were and I’m very proud of that. Watching the club go into the Premier League and then play in the Europa League Final was amazing. In my own little world, I felt part of that and I felt I played my little part at the beginning to take the club there. I’ve got my medal still and I will always have my memories. Sometimes I go through old programmes still and look back, it was a very special time, not just winning it but who I won it with. You will never see a team in that division ever again with the kind of personnel we had. Thoroughly loved it!

DB – Why did you leave the club, and did you know you were going to be leaving before the end of the season?

NS – Paul Bracewell literally just said “I’m bringing in someone better to replace you” within weeks of winning the league. Next thing I knew, Lee Clark was brought in and it was a tough one to take because I’d just won the league with Brace. But although I was disappointed I took it as a compliment that he was bringing in someone of Clark’s ability to replace me.

Paul had already made his mind up when he took over that he was going to change it so that it could be his team. He lost a lot of the players for that reason. The promotion team were a close group who all got on so well, all the wives knew each other. We’d go out and spend time together, it was a close team and he wanted it stopped. Managers obviously change things when they come in and do it their way, but he took it too far and he lost the respect of the players very quickly, players who all respected him as a player and a teammate the season before.

I was forced to leave and go to Reading when I didn’t want to, which hurt. The worst thing about it was it all happened so fast and I never got the chance to say thank you and goodbye to the supporters and to this day it’s something I’ve never been able to do.

DB – You played in a charity match at the Cottage a couple of years ago, do you visit the Cottage often and did you enjoy playing at such a unique ground as many times as you did?

NS – I love it! It’s such a good feeling getting back in the changing room with the old faces and they are getting old now! It’s as if all the time in between hasn’t happened and you’re back to bantering with each other. You get to catch up on people’s stories and new family members etc, it’s brilliant and I look forward to it every year.

DB – You’re doing well as manager of Bromley. How did you feel about last season and the experience of taking the club to Wembley for the FA Trophy final?

NS – Last season will be one that I won’t forget for different reasons. We were a new team put together on a tight budget but still wanting to be competitive. We got off to a great start to the season being topped off with a 6-1 win over Leyton Orient at home on a Tuesday evening followed with a 2-0 win over Hartlepool at home. This led to us believing in what we could achieve during the season. We stayed in the playoffs right up until the last few weeks of the season with the club getting to Wembley for the first time in 70 years. We just missed out on the playoffs by 3 Pts. It was an honour to lead my hometown club to Wembley, unfortunately losing to penalties. We took 20,000 supporters along which was incredible.

We finished the season in the highest position with the highest points total the club has ever achieved in this league. We were also second top goal scorers in the division and developed three players that have now gone to clubs in league one. This season will be another difficult season, but I’ve always wanted to achieve better than the last. I’ve had to bring in new players again, so hopefully, they will be better than last seasons. I’m really looking forward to a very tough but exciting season coming up.

DB – Finally, the whole Q&A rests on this question…pie or pasty, which filling?

NS – Pie Always, pasties are too peppery for me. Got to be steak and kidney, can’t beat it! A few red meats are good for you! That’s what gave me the strength to run up and down the pitch