Saturday, November 19, 2011

Blogathon: Gordon Smith and why we're here today

Welcome one and all. The first post in the Scottish Football Blog's 24 hour blogathon. Enjoy.

A perfect starting point, then, suggested by the Twitter fixture that is @steakheed

This might seem like a bit of a cheat. People who read this blog will know I don't shy from a spot of Hibernian navel gazing.

Nor am I shy to hark on about the good old days when footballers were men and Scottish football wasn't in a perpetual state of crisis.

But Gordon Smith's story is one worthy of a thousand retellings. And it's a Boy's Own adventure that ends with heartbreaking resonance for the whole idea behind this blogathon experiment.

The beginning: a teenage phenomenon is living in Montrose and has become one of Scotland's most sought after young talents.

He impresses playing against an Edinburgh select. Hearts want to sign him, think they will sign him but they want him to play in a trial.

Hibs act quickly, decisively. He's signed for Hibs and, on the day of his signing, makes his debut.

Against Hearts at Tynecastle.

Wearing borrowed boots that are too small for him he scores a hat-trick.

And so the legend begins.

Spending his early career in the centre forward role he becomes the main man at Hibs.

Moving to the wing he becomes the jewel in the crown of the Famous Five team that won three league championship and, for a brief and shining moment, became Scottish football's irresistible, dominant force.

Gordon Smith became Scotland's first footballing superstar. Handsome, shy, complex. Women wanted to be with him, men wanted to be him.

He became friendly with Matt Busby, Stanley Matthews, the golfer Bobby Jones, film stars and musicians.

He holidayed in the south of France, was coveted by teams in England, Italy and Brazil.

He drove a sports car, dabbled in stock and shares and on one occasion got a £500 bonus in his weekly pay packet.

This guy stood out from the crowd.

As the powers of that Hibs team waned - Bobby Johnstone the first of the Five to leave the club - they remained a force enough to make the semi-final of the first ever European Cup.

Then an injury. Another leg break.

Hibs decided their thoroughbred was fit for the knacker's yard.

The press camped outside Smith's home in Edinburgh's Willowbrae.

Where would he go next?

Not far.

Hearts finally landed their man. A city switch involving one of the best players either Edinburgh team had ever produced.

Controversy? Yes. But nothing outrageous. It kinds of puts the twisting of knickers over a Michael Stewart or a Billy Brown into perspective.

Whose instinct would be proved right? Had Hibs got rid at the right time? Were Hearts signing the player or the legend?

Hearts won this one.

The league championship was brought back to Tynecastle. And Gordon Smith was an integral part of the team.

A second appearance in the European Cup followed.

Then the Hearts team began to disintegrate and Smith found he wasn't enjoying his football quite as much.

What next?

Dundee. A training regime and a relationship with the club and with manager Bob Shankly that suited a veteran.

And a young player called Alan Gilzean who would provide the perfect foil for his skills.

More success. Dundee won the league.

Another European Cup appearance.

Dundee beat FC Koln 8-5 on aggregate after a the first leg at home produced a Gilzean hat-trick and a goal for Gordon Smith.

Sporting next. A 1-0 defeat in Portugal. A 4-1 win - another Gilzean hat-trick - gets the job done.

To Belgium. Anderlecht are beaten 4-1. In the home leg a Smith goal seals a 2-1 win and a 6-2 aggregate victory.

A semi-final against AC Milan is a bridge too far. A 1-0 home win (Gilzean again) can't overcome the damage of a 5-1 defeat in Italy. An exit to the eventual winners.

Five league championships with three clubs. Three European Cup appearances with Scottish clubs.

And not an Old Firm team in sight.

Beat that. Not that anyone will.

The greatest individual achievement in the history of Scottish league football. That was the verdict of the great Bob Crampsey: and he would know.

A retirement out of the public eye. Smith was a private man and I get the impression he might not have been universally popular throughout the Scottish game - too good, too rich, too quiet, too handsome.

But he was lost to the game when maybe he could have offered so much. Maybe that was his choice, maybe it was an opportunity that we lost.

More than that though, I think his achievements have been forgotten. We celebrate less decorated players, less talented players more than we celebrate Smith. The consequence, perhaps, of flourishing in the pre-television age.

A recent biography written by Smith's Tony helps redress that.

It also provides a moving insight into why Gordon Smith is the perfect place to start a blogathon that is raising funds for Alzheimer Scotland.

The footballer of the 40s, 50s and 60s with the matinee-idol looks and the wardrobe and fast car to match suffered from dementia in his later year.

The books contains an honest, candid account of his descent.

The cruelty of the helplessness of the sufferer at the beginning when he is aware that something is wrong.

The helplessness that loved ones - so often thrust into the unfamiliar, unexpected role of carer - feel when faced with dementia taking hold of a family member.

All this is often not spoken about. People outside families often don't know how to cope so they ignore the problem, old friends disappear.

Too often dementia for both the sufferer and those close to them is something that's faced in a lonely isolation.

Alzheimer Scotland's work combats that.

There's also a moment in the book that shows the power of Alzheimer Scotland's Football Memories project.

Gordon Smith, the dashing prince of Scottish football, spent his 80th birthday in a care home.

During a family celebration a football was produced. Smith, who may not have known what was happening to him or where he was, immediately became enthused.

He could, amazingly, still head the football back when it was thrown in the air. Football can do that. And the Football Memories project can help.

That resonated with me. I had a similar experience with my own grandfather on his 80th birthday. He was a musician. When we played a tape of some old Glenn Miller music he managed to get up off his chair and, of his own accord, started to dance with my gran.

The emotion of that moment will live with me for a long time. A brief glimpse of the real character amid the destructive grip of a horrible illness.

So Gordon Smith: footballing legend and just one example of why dementia is so heartbreaking.

And for Gordon Smith, my grandad and thousands of others - I hope today's blogathon can raise some money to support the work of a charity that really does care.

Click here to make a donation to Homeless World Cup or Alzheimer Scotland - your help is really appreciated

Donate to the blogathon's Homeless World Cup fund by text: just text DXVR87 and the amount you want to donate to 70070

Donate to the blogathon's Alzheimer Scotland fund by text: just text APJB49 and the amount you want to donate to 70070

Join the blogathon on Twitter: #fitbablether