It was with deep regret that we learned that Jim Smith, our popular manager of the mid-1970s, had passed away at the age of 79 on 10th December 2019.
At 34, Jim Smith became the youngest manager in the club’s history when he agreed to move from Colchester United to Ewood Park in June 1975. However, despite his youth, he had already enjoyed managerial success at Layer Road, having taken the club to promotion from the Fourth Division. Prior to joining Colchester he had cut his managerial teeth in non-League football as player-manager of Boston United. His move into management came after the majority of his playing career, which had begun at Sheffield United, had been spent in the lower divisions with Aldershot, Halifax Town and Lincoln City.
When he arrived at Blackburn, Smith inherited a team that had just won the Third Division Championship and a club that was about to celebrate its centenary. He also inherited a fan base that, after many lean years, had suddenly found success and naturally expected it to continue. However, Smith had not only to win over the players and the supporters but had to work within a very tight budget. He returned to his former club to sign striker Bobby Svarc for £25,000, a fee that was a record for the Layer Road club. Sadly, injury curtailed Svarc’s season after 6 goals in 19 League outings.
With limited financial resources, Smith endured a difficult introduction to life at Ewood Park. The threat of relegation was never far away but the sale of Roger Jones and Graham Oates enabled Smith to make a couple of key acquisitions. Gordon Taylor was signed from Birmingham City while Dave Wagstaffe, who had previously been on loan to the Rovers, arrived from Wolverhampton Wanderers. These two experienced campaigners proved vital in the successful fight against relegation.
During his second season at the club he stabilised the Rovers as a mid-table outfit and did so with very little expenditure.
Smith’s third year at Ewood Park finally brought the sustained promotion push that the supporters craved. Once again Smith was able to utilise his limited resources to gain maximum results. His key signing was that of Noel Brotherston, a youngster from Northern Ireland who was signed on a free transfer from Tottenham Hotspur. Brotherston could play as an orthodox winger, a midfield player or a forward. He proved to be a bundle of tricks with an eye for goal and progressed into the Northern Ireland international team. Unfortunately, Smith continued to be hampered by the club’s financial situation and this resulted in the loss of Paul Bradshaw, who was sold to Wolverhampton Wanderers for a substantial fee.
Smith had carefully constructed a team that was the perfect blend of youth and experience. John Butcher, who replaced Bradshaw, seemed another young ‘keeper with potential while Kevin Hird and John Bailey formed an exciting pair of young full-backs. Indeed, both had been wingers who blossomed even more when asked to drop a little further back. A permutation of any two from three between Derek Fazackerley, John Waddington and Glenn Keeley occupied the central defensive positions. In midfield, he continued to tap into the experience of Wagstaffe and Taylor, while Stuart Metcalfe and Tony Parkes continued to be the power in the central areas. Although Brotherston impressed, both on the wing and in attack, Smith was frustrated in his attempts to find a successful goalscorer to lead the front line.
Thwarted in his attempts to sign Steve Kindon from Wolverhampton Wanderers, he turned to John Radford, the former Arsenal and England centre-forward, who was signed from West Ham United.
Unfortunately, the arrival of Radford seemed to disrupt the rhythm of the team as Smith had to make subtle changes to get the best out of the veteran centre-forward. Frustrated by the failure to sign Kindon, and with the promotion push beginning to stutter, Smith accepted the opportunity to become manager of First Division Birmingham City in March 1978.
In signing the likes of Glenn Keeley, Noel Brotherston and Simon Garner, Smith’s legacy at the club would remain long after his own departure.
After leaving Ewood Park, Smith went on to enjoy a long and illustrious career in football management and became popularly known as the ‘Bald Eagle’. He suffered the despair of relegation and the joy of promotion at St Andrews before he left to take the hot seat with Oxford United. He took that unfashionable club from the Third Division to the First Division and then took them to a League Cup Final at Wembley. He then had varying degrees of success with Queens Park Rangers, Newcastle United and Portsmouth before becoming the chief executive of the League Managers’ Association. However, the lure of front line management proved too strong to resist and he returned to management with Derby County in 1995, since which time he has been assistant manager at Coventry City, Portsmouth, and Southampton. Smith returned to Oxford as both manager and director in March 2006 before he settled for a role in the boardroom, which he left in 2009.
We wish to express our deepest sympathy to Jim’s family and friends at this sad time.