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29/01/1929: James Catton interviews G. O. Smith
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G. O. SMITH
ON FOOTBALL'S CHANGES
James Catton | 21/01/1929
To-day, in continuation of the series of special interviews on A Life-Time in Football, the "Athletic News" presents the Life Story and Impressions of G. O. Smith, the famous Corinthian, who is generally regarded as having been England's greatest centre-forward.
Famous footballers do not, as a rule, remain so vivid in memory as celebrated cricketers. Why this should be it is rather difficult to say, unless it be due to the fact that the average length of the career of the footballer is less than that of the cricketer.
No doubt the great batsman and the bowler who is a master of mystery is more in the public eye. There is more time to dwell on the excellencies and the personality of the cricketer, for football produces faster movements, is essentially a team game, and the man who embodies and produces its spirit is often one of eleven earnest men striving for the common weal, and not making runs and taking wickets, work which singles him out much more emphatically than a forward who with a clever pass ensures a goal.
Yet a select company of footballers can never be forgotten.
THE BALL OBEDIENT
Looking at a photograph of England's eleven against Scotland at Birmingham on April 8, 1899, there is G. O. Smith, the captain, in the centre, with Bloomer sitting on his right, and Ernest Needham and James Crabtree sitting behind.
Of course, there are in this group others who were renowned in their day, but these four will be remembered as super-men who have left an indelible mark in the annals of the winter game.
Gilbert Oswald Smith is talked about and will be until all enthusiasts over fifty years of age have been gathered to their fathers.
The centre-forward occupies a position which focuses all eyes. There is a lustrous charm round his place because he's the leader of the attack; at least he used to be that leonine figure. G. O. Smith was a superb leader — so perfect in body balance, so neat in footwork, so sure in making the ball obedient, so admirable in passing, so canny in anticipation, and so accurate in shooting.
This is a big bonquet, but it is the lasting impression left on the mind.
"BEST I EVER SAW"
And, above all, remember what John Goodall said of "G. O." We were talking in his house at Watford twelve years ago when this famous professional said:
— 'Jo' Smith, as we called him, was the best centre-forward I ever saw. I used to play with him and against him. He was such a complete centre that it was never any trouble to play with him. I saw Georgie Ken, the first great Scottish centre. He was a big, hardy fellow, a tearaway who could dribble and shoot tremendously. But he was not a scientific man like 'Jo' Smith, who, I repeat, made football so easy for others.
» And 'Jo' always passed to the right foot. He did not fiddle about. No, he was making headway all the time, getting others into position without telling them. You could see what he meant.
» And he never hesitated in getting the ball to the man he wanted to serve. As an old player I always judge a footballer by one test — is he easy to play with? Ye mind I said a footballer
Quite so, and I may add that G. O. Smith never made any fuss over his play. Everything seemed easy to him, and he came off the field as unconcerned as if he had been playing croquet and as little disturbed in any way.
HAD NO COACHING
There were many centres of class in G. O. Smith's era, but he played in 20 matches for England and would at least have taken part in two other matches if a bereavement had not decided his withdrawal against Wales and Ireland in 1901.
Seeking out the old Oxonian in his Hampshire home we asked his cooperation for one of our Life Stories. He pleaded that everything happened long ago and that memory was fleeting. But to oblige the readers of the Athletic News he eventually consented to help, and in reply to questions said:
G. O. Smith: Early in life I got an insight into football, for I went to Branksome House, a school conducted by the Rev. R. Sainsbury. We played a little there, but we had no coaching and matches were few and far between.
» I went to Charterhouse in 1886. There it was that I began to understand the game, because I was at this fine school for several years and played with many boys who became adepts and quite well-known as footballers when they reached manhood.
» No. We never had any coaching at Charterhouse. But Mr. A. H. Tod, a member of the Old Carthusians, who won the Cup in 1881, used to referee in the school matches, but as far as I can remember he did not do more than that.
AN AMATEUR GALLERY
» No, I have not always been a centre-forward. I played outside right for the first two seasons I was in the Charterhouse team and in the centre for the last two years. I was captain of the team in 1889-90, 1890-91, and 1891-92.
» Naturally I have pleasant memories of those days. During the six years I was at Charterhouse the most prominent players of the winter game were. W. F. H. Stanbrough, W. E. Gilliat, N. F. Shaw, E. C. Streatfield, M. H. Stanbrough, E. C. Bliss, E. F.C Buzzard, G. S. Wilson, C. D. Hewitt, E. H. Bray, R. J. Salt, and C. B. Ward.
» All these got their Blues later at either Oxford or Cambridge with the exception of the first named, W. F. H. Stanbrough, who had extremely hard luck in just missing that distinction.
— Would you like to try and name the eleven best players of all time from the Charterhouse? Mr. Bentley thought that the Old Carthusians were good enough to be original members of the Football League. Your Old Boys did win the Cup, defeating the Old Etonians in the Final, so that you have ample choice. To oblige me you must place yourself at centre-forward. I will take the responsibility for that one choice.
G. O. Smith: This is a very difficult question and the wide range of choice only makes the subject the more embarrassing. But I will do my best to give you an answer and be impartial. I really should put a query mark after my own name. I should say that my team would be:
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M. H. Stanbrough G. O. Smith C. Vassall
A. Amos C. Wreford-Brown E. C. Bliss
P. M. Walters A. M. Walters
T. S. Rowlandson
» I believe that W. R. Page, the captain of Charterhouse in 1876-77, a very close and clever dribbler, and J. F. M. Prinsep, a half-back, were both magnificent, but the former died young and the latter I, personally, saw play only once.
THE PRINCE OF DRIBBLERS
— I suppose you saw a good deal of Cobbold?
G. O. Smith: I knew Cobbold, Nuts we called him, quite intimately. I played with him a good many times, though not as many as I should have liked. He was, indeed, a prince of dribbles besides being a magnificent shot. I imagine that he was the finest inside left who ever played. I never knew a better and cannot believe that anybody could surpass him in skill.
— What is your view of the playing of the Association game at the Public Schools? Do you not think that the present position is most unfortunate?
G. O. Smith: I think it is undoubtedly a pity that the Public Schools have, in many cases, forsaken Association football, as owing to this amateur football must inevitably suffer. It would be all to the good if amateur sides could compete on an equality with professional teams, but I am afraid that nowadays this can hardly be expected.
— Did you always play centre-forward when you went up to Keble College, Oxford?
G. O. Smith: On going up to Oxford I was put outside right again, but after a few matches I was placed at centre — I believe owing to the advice of C. Wreford-Brown — and I occupied that position in the four University matches I had the privilege of playing in. I played in 1893-94-95-96. Cambridge won the '94 match and Oxford the others. I was captain in my last year.
» You ask me about Oxford's defence. Yes, it was strong. For the first three of these matches G. B. Raikes, C. B. Fry, and W. J. Oakley were goalkeeper and backs. They were very good. Was there ever a stronger defence by amateurs? I should consider Raikes, L. V. Lodge, and Oakley or L. H. Gay, Lodge and Oakley a better combination — and little inferior to W. R. Moon and the brothers Walters. Varsity football was pretty good in my day.
— In your first International match, that against Ireland, when England won by 6—1 at Birmingham, you played inside right — did you not?
G. O. Smith: I played centre in all my International matches, except the first, when the team was entirely amateur. No. I did not feel 'out of it' at inside right. You see I played between G. H. Cotterill and R. Topham, the Casual, who used to assist Wolverhampton Wanderers. They made the way fairly easy for me.
— Of all the centre half-backs and backs you ever met, who gave you the most trouble?
G. O. Smith: Of the centre half-backs I should select, as the most troublesome, James Cowan, the Scotsman of Aston Villa, and Tom Crawshaw, of Sheffield Wednesday. Still, I always look upon Ernest Needham as the finest half-back I remember. Luckily for me he was on the left wing.
» As to the backs I played against, I think, I should put Lodge and Oakley first and Crabtree not far short of them. Of course, I generally played in front of the two first named, but I often had to face them as opponents when playing for Old Carthusians and the Casuals.
AGAINST THE VILLA
— Did you score many goals in any one season?
G. O. Smith: I have no idea jow many goals I got. I never kept statistics, and the newspapers in my day never published such figures as these. No one cared who got the goals. I once got 14 goals in a week, but that is all I can remember.
— Would you like to mention the one goal which gave you the greatest pleasure?
G. O. Smith: All goals are welcome. Of course, I was pleased when I scored the only goal of the match against Cambridge at the Queen's Club in 1896. It is not an easy question to answer. Still, off-hand, I don't think any goal gave me more pleasure than the one I obtained in the Dewar Cup match on November 8, 1899, at the Crystal Palace.
» That was against Aston Villa, who had such a team as: George; Spencer, Evans; Bowman, Wilks, Mann; Athersmith, Devey, Garraty, Wheldon, and Steve Smith — a pretty good lot.
» In the first half, on a heavy ground, Garraty headed a goal from Steve Smith's centre, but Gilbert Vassall beat the half-back, drew the back, and centred to "Tip" Foster, who equalised with a capital shot. The Villa were well held in the second half, and twelve minutes from the end, we — the Corinthians — got the deciding goal.
GOODALL AND BLOOMER
» B. O. Corbett made a run, and from him I got the ball under control and placed it in the far corner of the net with a left-foot oblique drive. The Dewar Cup had never previously been won outright, and this was a desperately hard game from start to finish.
» Aston Villa were a very fine side that year, and we Corinthians just scraped home. I was fortunate to get the winning goal, and we were all pardonably proud of having beaten such redoubtable opponents.
— Would you care to say the cleverest partners you ever played with — that is at inside right and left?
G. O. Smith: Undoubtedly John Goodall and Stephen Bloomer were the cleverest professionals partners I ever had by my side. You only needed to say "Steve!" and Bloomer had the ball in the net.
» However, R. C. Gosling and S. H. Day at inside right, and W. N. Cobbold and J. G. Veitch at inside left, were companions who made the task of a centre-forward peculiarly easy. Really of amateurs there were so many in my day really first-class that it is difficult to make a selection.
» You wish me to name the strongest national team I ever played with and the most formidable I encountered. At this distance of time I am afraid I can't answer these questions. England generally had good teams. The Scottish sides always seemed to me very hard nuts to crack, and I do not think that I could pick out one eleven as being manifestly superior to the others.
— Can you make any comparison between the football of your day and the present time?
G. O. Smith: For many years I saw little football, but during the last five I have seen all the Varsity matches and a good many of the Cup-ties in which the Corinthians have been engaged.
» I know it is a common tailing to think that there are no days like the old days. Still, making allowance for this, I do not think there is any doubt that the standard of play has fallen off very considerably.
» The ball is not kept under control as much as it should be, and wild kicking by the half-backs and wild passing by the forwards are far too prevalent.
» The game may be fast, though I doubt it, but skill and finesse seem to be considerably less.
» Certainly in my day the centre was supposed to be the leader of the forwards and the pivot, so to speak, on which the others turned. His task was to initiate the attacks, to make openings for the inside men, and to lure the defence to one side and then pass to the other.
» Nowadays I am told that the centre allows his comrades to open out the game and make the play, and that his duty is to finish the work of his mates. That may be so, but I haven't seen, as you know, very many matches of late. I can only tell you what we used to try to do.
» You wish me to tell of a funny incident. I can recall one or two, but I found the following story the most humorous.
» A. M. and P. M. Walters, as you will remember, gave up the game for some years. Eventually they were persuaded to take the field again, and played for the Old Carthusians against Sheffield Wednesday at the Crystal Palace. Of course, the brothers hardest of knocks at football, but were unaware of the nasty tricks that had been acquired by some professionals during the time they had been absent from the game.
THERE WAS A ROAR
» One of the Sheffield Wednesday forwards had the temerity — I don't fancy he knew who his opponent was — to give "P. M." a nasty surreptitious hack on the calf: there was a roar of fury and "P. M." rushed at the man, who took to his heels and fled for all he was worth.
» The game was supposed to be going on all the time, but nobody paid attention to it.
» All eyes were focused on the race. The Sheffield Wednesday forward careered far beyond the confines of the ground, pursued by his relentless foe, who eventually caught him up about 50 yards beyond the touch-line and with a fair but hardish charge burled him to the ground.
» After this the two calmly returned and the game was resumed, though we were all too convulsed with laughter to do much at it to start with.
» Mrs. P. M. Walters was watching the match, and rumour hath it that she was so upset by the incident that she told her husband he must never play again.
» Whether the rumour was true or not I shouldn't like to say, but, as far as I can remember, this was the last appearance of P. M. Walters.