INTERVIEW: When Alex Smith talks football, you listen
Alex Smith, Falkirk's technical director, will retire at the end of this season. The Falkirk Herald's Sports Editor David Oliver caught up with the 78-year-old hours after Falkirk FC made the announcement to look over a career spanning 60 years in football.
Listen. That’s how Alex Smith learned his football wisdom, from the greats like Shankly, Stein and Revie and that’s what you do if you are fortunate enough to spend time talking football with him.
Afforded time yesterday to pore over his career after announcing his intended retirement at the end of the season, there was little else to do other than sit back for almost an hour and listen to tales of an incredible career in football that is bordering on six complete decades.
Paul Hartley does it, and was keen to stress he gave Alex Smith a role within his club structure when taking over at Falkirk, the players do and Smith did it too working with Bob Shankly at Stirling Albion and travelling to games with him and Jock Stein.
“You’d sit in the back of the car and listen to them talk football all the way to Dundee, and back again,” Smith said.
“You dared not fall asleep in case they asked you something. But you paid attention and you learned.”
Over the years Smith has imparted his football knowledge on many players as a manager since becoming Stenhousemuir’s first ever club boss in 1969. Coaches too – the 78-year-old has been on the Scottish Football Association’s A-licence course as an assessor since 1982.
Now, he’s decided to call it a day and remove himself not just from day-to-day life as Falkirk’s technical director, not even Scottish football where he’s also the chairman of the league managers’ association – he’s removing himself from Scotland and setting up a new life in Australia with his step-son Alan’s family in Brisbane, Australia.
“I think I’ll get to see more UK football over there,” he explained. “I don’t have BT Sport or Sky. I don’t watch English Premier League football – I’m always at the club or at games.
“I’ll be able to take young Eden to his football academy over there, and to Brisbane Roar games there. Maybe his sister Ocean too if she takes an interest.
“I’ve been over many times, we enjoy it and we’re familiar with the lifestyle.”
Moving, and removing himself from Scottish football – an industry where he is entrenched, admired and respected - won’t be easy. But then, neither has been married to someone who lives, eats and sleeps the game – even at 78 years old.
“I was working away with Falkirk as much as I could and my wife Janis and I agreed that we’d move one day. Her mother died in October so we decided the end of this season we’d go and see the grandkids.
“Over the years I’ve been in football she’s worked away at home and put up with the football hours and never questioned it. Never questioned my commitment. She thoroughly deserves it. Now, it’s her turn.”
The day-to-day football life though, will be a miss, one he can still get his fix from via Eden and his interest in the game Down Under. But it’s always been football for Alex.
“I was school team captain at 14. I was picking the team and I was a talker on the pitch, looking to do things better tactically. It was probably then that I realised I had something on the coaching side in me.
“But I didn’t get my studies at school because all I wanted was football. My parents weren’t happy but Stirling High – it was a rugby school and I wasn’t interested in any other sport. It was always football. A way of life for me.” And it has been pretty much ever since.
He’s worked with Scotland and landed two Scottish Cups. He’s managed at the bottom tier with Clyde and Stenhousemuir and at the very top – only missing out on a league title win with Aberdeen in a memorable tussle with Rangers in 1991.
For all the talk of titles, trophies and Europe there is just as much detail and emphasis on the his Clyde project, Stirling spell, and Stenhousemuir start.
“I didn’t want to go to there,” he added. “I was top of the league as a player at Albion Rovers and Stenhousemuir were bottom. But I did to get into coaching.
“They picked their team by committee vote – I was to be the club’s first ever manager and make the decisions.
“You stand and fall by your own decisions and I remember that advice from Stenhousemuir chairman Peter Cowan – ‘don’t fall on anyone else’s’. I’ve used that principle all through my career.”
He applies it to others too. Smith has been behind the scenes for five Falkirk managers, but he’ll always stress the buck stops in that office.
He was instrumental in bringing Paul Hartley to the Bairns, someonehe had – unsurprisingly – come across throughout his career. Hartley was hamper boy when Smith was assisting Craig Brown and Scotland at Euro 96. “I’ve known him a long time,” added Smith. “I like his enthusiasm and drive – it reminds me of myself at that age. He has the guts to make the big decisions and make them himself.
“He’s had promotion with Alloa, promotion with Dundee and he’ll do more, he’ll be successful.”
But he’ll do it without Smith at his side, when he retires to the southern hemisphere in the summer.
“I’m glad I came through my era. I’m really fortunate.
“Billy Bremner was my friend and at Leeds and Don Revie was manager, and a very personable man. I was fortunate to be in his company many times. Jock Stein was a big friend of Bob Shankly’s and I was in his company a lot too. I’ve been to the World Cups and major championships with Scotland. It was a great period of time.
“I phoned Sir Alex Ferguson recently and told him my plans. He thought it was great.
“It really has been a privilege to meet these people.”
It’s a privilege for others to listen to Alex and his football knowledge too.