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Legends Of Soccer: Tommy Smith, Liverpool

The sad news that Tommy Smith, “the Anfield Iron”, had passed away last week loosens our ties with the past – and with what many consider the golden age of the English game in the 1960s and 1970s – just that little bit more.

The Past Is A Foreign Country: Tommy Smith 1945 – 2019

By Dave Bowler

dave bowler logo for tommy smith article

Tommy was the archetypal hard man of the era, the take no prisoners type of defender that every team had in abundance in the days when the tackle from behind wasn’t merely legal, it was compulsory. Defenders back then would carry baseball bats to see off their opponents and having clubbed a striker into the ground, would merely get an indulgent, “don’t do that again son” from the referee, prior to doing it three or four more times before being booked.

You pays your money and you takes your choice over whether that was a better era than the present one, if that physical spectacle of giant warriors crunching into one another is your preference over the modern game where attackers are protected to the point where we come close to football being a non-contact sport now.

The two eras are sharply different and their different attributes are, more than anything, why it is so difficult to answer the ongoing “GOAT” debate across the years. Today’s players enjoy better pitches, better training, better nutrition but, above all, if you are Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar or their ilk, what you enjoy most of all is freedom from the bludgeoning tackle.

tommy smith liverpool legend
Liverpool legend Tommy Smith

Hard Man

None of this is to downplay the extraordinary brilliance of the current crop because the real truism is that a great player in one era would be great in any because that would be their natural environment. But as a gnarled, grizzled old veteran of the era of George Best, Pele and Johan Cruyff, their achievements seem all the greater for what they had to come up against, defenders who were masters of the dark arts when those arts were pitch black.

Get onto YouTube and access some of the comparatively little footage there is of Best and watching him waltzing through defenders, skipping across the mud, while they are desperately attempting to scythe him down. It’s extraordinary.

Then look at the multitude of Messi clips, glorious goals, fabulous technique, exquisite balance, cool finishing. But then think back to Best. Doesn’t it occur to anybody to try and tackle Messi? He slaloms this way and that, his control making it so hard for defenders to snatch the ball cleanly, but in days of yore, if Tommy Smith couldn’t get the ball, he sure as hell was going to put his man on the ground. Or in the stands.


That’s the way football has gone as the rules have changed over the piece, designed very specifically to benefit attacking players. As I said, whether you think that shift in balance is a positive or not depends on what you value in the game, if you are a PlayStation devotee or a fan of something a little more human and visceral.

The inescapable truth though is that the demise of defenders like Tommy Smith has made the game altogether easier – and safer – for people like Neymar. And that should be factored in when working out if he is greater than Pele…

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