AN UNSUNG hero of Brighton’s 1983 FA Cup Final side, winger Neil Smillie, later became a teammate of current boss Chris Hughton.
Smillie had the distinction of being the first ever apprentice the legendary Malcolm Allison signed for Crystal Palace.
Big Mal had enjoyed league and FA Cup success at Manchester City as Joe Mercer’s sidekick but he swept into Palace in the early 70s as a boss in his own right, courting publicity with his flamboyant fedora hat and giant cigar.
Smillie admitted: “I was going to West Ham but Allison persuaded me to take a look at Palace.
“The place was so alive and vibrant under him that I went there instead.”
Born in Barnsley on 19 July 1958, Neil followed in the footsteps of his dad, Ron, a former professional who played for Barnsley and Lincoln.
After joining Palace in 1974, Smillie turned professional a year later and was on Palace’s books for seven years, although he had three loan spells away from Selhurst.
In 1977, he went briefly to Brentford, who he ultimately would have a long association with later in his career.
The following two years, he went to play in America for Memphis Rogues where his teammates were players from the English game winding down their careers: the likes of former Albion players Tony Burns and Phil Beal, ex-Chelsea, Leicester and Palace striker Alan Birchenall and former Chelsea winger Charlie Cooke; the side being managed by former Chelsea defender Eddie McCreadie.
At the end of the 1981-82 season, Smillie was denied a pay rise by Palace so he decided to quit and wrote letters to clubs in the top two divisions in England asking for a job!
Brighton had managed to offload the troublesome Mickey Thomas to Stoke City so had a need for a left winger. They were the first to come up with an offer, and with full back Gary Williams surplus to requirements since the arrival of experienced defender Sammy Nelson, Brighton offered him in exchange for Smillie.
The bubble-haired winger gratefully accepted the switch to the Seagulls. While he made the starting line-up for the opening game of the new season, a heavy (5-0) defeat away at West Brom in the next game then saw him dropped and sidelined for months.
It was only once ultra-cautious manager Mike Bailey had left that Smillie got back in contention, and only then – in January 1983 – through someone else’s misfortune.
He said: “I was out in the cold and only got my break when Giles Stille was injured during the Cup game against Newcastle United.”
Smillie seized his opportunity and remained in the side for the rest of the season, culminating in the two Wembley FA Cup Final matches against Manchester United.
Back in the second tier following Brighton’s relegation, Smillie played 28 games plus once as a sub but following new manager Chris Cattlin’s signing of Northern Irish winger Steve Penney, there was competition in the wide areas.
Throughout the 1984-85 campaign, Smillie was more often than not a substitute rather than a starter. He did manage a seven-game run of appearances in the late autumn and began the final three games of the season, but the last game, a 1-0 home win over Sheffield United, proved to be his farewell.
Several eyebrows were raised when Cattlin managed to secure a £100,000 fee from Watford for Smillie’s services in the summer of 1985. The winger joined Graham Taylor’s beaten FA Cup finalists but failed to establish himself in the side and made just 16 first team appearances in three years.
In 1988, he moved on to Reading where, five years after his disappointment with Brighton, Smillie was a winner at Wembley, scoring and setting up two goals as Reading beat Luton 4-1 in the Simod Cup Final.
The Hatters were led by former Albion captain Steve Foster and another of Smillie’s former teammates, Danny Wilson, was in their midfield.
Mick Harford scored the opening goal for Luton, but Smillie’s pass allowed Michael Gilkes to bundle home an equaliser.
Smillie then won a spot kick converted by Stuart Beavon, and, in the second half, Mick Tait swept home another Smillie assist. Smillie then rounded off a great afternoon by scoring himself.
It was hailed as one of the best days in Reading’s history, witnessed by over 45,000 loyal Royals fans.
Nevertheless, Smillie didn’t hang around and instead joined Brentford, where his former Palace teammate Phil Holder was assisting the manager at the time, Steve Perryman.
Nick Bruzon interviewed Smillie in depth for a Where are they now? feature on the Brentford FC website in July 2010.
“Representing Brentford over three different decades, initially on loan in 1977 and then for five years from 1988 to 1993, Neil Smillie combined raw pace with ceaseless energy to make him one of the most popular players to patrol the New Road touchline,” said Bruzon. “Whilst with Brentford he experienced promotion, relegation and play off heartbreak, scoring 18 goals in 185 games.”
Smillie said: “I’ve got to say, the five years I spent at Brentford (and I was 30 when I signed) I thoroughly enjoyed.
“I’d reached a point in my career where I felt comfortable in terms of what I could give on the pitch. I’d always been a hard worker and I got the feeling that the supporters appreciated someone who worked hard.”
In the 1992-93 season, he played alongside Hughton, who, like Smillie, was winding down his playing career.
“I loved taking people on and I loved getting crosses in for people to score so that just seemed to fit in nicely at the time with the team that we had,” he said. “I played my part as well as others who played theirs in getting the ball to me. We all did our bit and for me it was a great part of my career.”
On leaving Brentford, Smillie became a player-coach at Gillingham when Mike Flanagan was the manager. When Flanagan was sacked, Smillie took over the managerial reigns on a caretaker basis while the club tried to stabilise during financial troubles.
Smillie told Bruzon: “We were in a fairly precarious position and ended up in a decent position. So there was some enjoyment to it but the situation at a club without any money and struggling was difficult.”
Some names familiar to Brighton fans were at Gillingham at the time. Smillie played up front with Nicky Forster. Paul Watson was in defence and Richard Carpenter in midfield.
His three-month reign came to an end when Gillingham appointed Tony Pulis as the new manager and former Palace manager Alan Smith took Smillie to Wycombe Wanderers to look after their youth team.
When Smith left, Smillie was caretaker manager until former Albion full back John Gregory got the managerial post. Smillie then became Gregory’s successor in the hot seat for a year.
When the inevitable sack came, Smillie stepped outside of day to day running of football to become sports marketing manager for Nike in the UK. His role was to identify emerging talent for Nike to associate themselves with, and, as a result he stayed in touch with the game.
Among the players he signed to Nike were Theo Walcott, Darren Bent, Gabby Agbonlahor, James Milner, Tom Huddlestone, Danny Wellbeck and Johnny Evans.
Pictures show (top) Smillie in action on the cover of the Albion programme; walking his dog; in Match magazine, on the cover of Shoot! being tackled by Liverpool’s Sammy Lee; a Simod Cup winner with Reading.