The Bald Eagle: A lower league wing-back who went on to fly as a manager

Former footballer and manager Jim Smith has died at the age of 79.

The man fondly known as The Bald Eagle took charge of nine clubs during a 38-year career as a manager which spanned five decades, and played for five more before that.

He is perhaps best remembered for his time as Derby boss and his spells at Oxford, but Smith also won promotions with Colchester and Birmingham.

One of football’s most respected and well-liked personalities, Smith is part of a select group of bosses to take charge of more than 1,000 matches – he actually oversaw 1,475 – and he also served as chief executive of the League Managers Association (LMA) for a brief time.

Jim Smith File Photo
Jim Smith, pictured on the Wembley pitch alongside his QPR team before the League Cup final against Oxford (PA).

Born in Sheffield on October 17, 1940, James Michael Smith grew up a Sheffield Wednesday supporter but it was city rivals Sheffield United who signed him up and where he turned professional in 1959, although he never made a first-team appearance for the Blades.

In terms of his playing career, the wing-half never made it out of the lower divisions but he did make more than 370 league appearances for Aldershot, Halifax, Lincoln, Boston United and Colchester before retiring in 1973.

By the time of his retirement, Smith was already making his first strides into management. It was as a player-boss at Boston United that he started out, putting together an impressive run of 40 league games without defeat before being offered a job at Colchester.

Smith was from the old school of plain speaking, no frills management, and all the more likeable for that. In his autobiography, he says that he thought he was appointed by Colchester on the basis that he told the directors that he thought the team were “bloody awful” when watching a game with them and they respected his honesty.

Jim Smith – Photocall – Colchester United
Jim Smith, in his Colchester days (PA)

It was at the Essex club where Smith hung up his boots and concentrated solely on management. He got the Us promoted from the Old Fourth Division.

After that it was Blackburn, then Birmingham – where he won promotion from the Second Division in 1980.

Smith joined Oxford in 1982 and led them to the Third Division title in 1984. He achieved back-to-back promotions as they won the Second Division crown a year later to reach the top flight for the first time in the club’s history.

However despite such success a fall-out with Oxford’s owner – controversial media mogul Robert Maxwell – saw Smith leave for QPR. He took the west London club to the 1986 League Cup Final but lost at Wembley to former club Oxford.

He managed Newcastle for three years from 1988, presiding over a Division Two play-off defeat at the hands of local rivals Sunderland, before taking over at Portsmouth in 1991.

His time at Fratton Park saw the club reach the FA Cup semi-finals in 1992 before missing out on automatic promotion to the Premier League a year later on goal difference, before losing in the play-offs.

Jim Smith hangs his head as Oxford side are relegated from the Football League with a last-day home defeat to Leyton Orient at the Kassam Stadium in 2006.

Smith left Pompey in January 1995 and became chief executive of the LMA but returned to club management that summer with Derby – where in his first season the club were promoted to the Premiership.

In his six years at Derby the club was transformed – and not just by moving away from the Baseball Ground to Pride Park. Smith’s teams were exciting to watch with the additions of players like Igor Stimac, Aljosa Asanovic, Paulo Wanchope, Dean Sturridge, Georgi Kinkladze, Francesco Baiano and Stefano Eranio.

The Rams finished a respectable 10th in their first season in the top flight and achieved eighth position in 1998-1999, narrowly missing out on a place in Europe.

Coaching roles at Coventry, Portsmouth and Southampton followed, and Smith played an important part in Pompey’s promotion as First Division champions in 2003.

He returned to front line management in March 2006 back at Oxford and was also given a seat on the board of directors – but failed to prevent them falling out of the Football League at the end of the season.

He stepped down from the club’s board and severed ties with the club in 2009, never to return to the game.

Football Paradise Staff Reporter

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