“NEVER in my wildest dreams – or should that be nightmares? – did I think that, more than 20 years later, that miss in front of goal would still be getting replayed on television and mentioned in the media wherever I go.”
The words could only have been said by one man and they appear in the autobiography…And Smith Did Score (Black and White Publishing, 2005).
Gordon Smith’s football career included being a treble trophy winner with Glasgow giants Rangers, top scorer of the season for Manchester City, and becoming chief executive of the Scottish FA.
But it is what happened in the final seconds of extra time in the 1983 FA Cup Final that he is most remembered for.
Gordon Duffield Smith was born in Kilwinning (20 miles south of Glasgow) on 29 December 1954 and followed in his grandfather Mattha’s footsteps in becoming a pro footballer.
He was at Kilmarnock for five years, scoring 36 goals in 161 appearances, during which time he earned international honours with Scotland’s under-23 side, twice starting and three times coming on as a substitute.
In 1977, having joined Rangers for a fee of £65,000, he also collected an under-21 cap as an overage player, in a 1-0 defeat to Wales, but he was never selected for the full international side.
In his first season at Rangers, they won the domestic treble and he scored 27 goals from midfield. To cap it off he scored the winning goal in the 1978 Scottish League Cup Final against Celtic.
Alan Mullery paid £400,000 to take him to Brighton in 1980, and talked about the deal in his autobiography. “Sadly, Gordon Smith is remembered as the man who missed the last-minute chance to win the FA Cup in 1983,” said Mullers. “That’s a shame because he was one of the best players I ever worked with. He reminded me of Trevor Brooking. A midfield player with silky skills who could read the game perfectly.”
Smith played 38 games in his first season at Brighton and scored 10 goals. “I couldn’t ask for more than that,” said Mullery. But when Mullery quit the club in the summer of 1981, the rest of Smith’s time at the Goldstone could at best be described as turbulent.
He didn’t get on with Mullery’s replacement, Mike Bailey, or his assistant John Collins, mainly because of their more defensive style of play. In March 1982, the Argus reported Smith was pondering his future having been left out of the side, with Gerry Ryan and Giles Stille being selected ahead of him.
“I am just wondering what is happening now that I’m not even travelling with the team. I don’t know what my standing is at all,” he told reporter John Vinicombe.
Bailey accused some players of lacking commitment following a 4-1 reverse at Notts County, and Smith was dropped for the following game.
Smith voiced his displeasure at being made a scapegoat and told the Argus: “It seems that every time we lose, I get dropped. Then I read the manager’s remarks about lack of commitment. What other inference can I draw?
“He asked me to play defensively at Notts and I don’t think I let him or the team down. Throughout my career, I have never shown any lack of effort.”
In the 1981-82 season, Smith played 27 matches plus four as sub. He started 15 of the first 16 games of the 1982-83 season but, as Bailey and Collins tried to find the right formula, he lost his place to summer signing Neil Smillie and decided to take the opportunity to return to Rangers on loan.
He only played three matches, but one of them happened to be a League Cup Final defeat against Celtic at Hampden Park!
Almost as soon as Bailey and Collins had left, on Smith’s return to the south coast Jimmy Melia restored him to the first team, hence his subsequent involvement in the 1983 FA Cup Final.
“I had said I would never kick another ball for Brighton, but that was because I had been told there was no place for me as a regular first team player,” Smith said in the run-up to the big game.
“The change of manager altered that and obviously now I am looking forward to playing at Wembley within six months of taking part at Hampden Park. I just hope the result is different.”
Interestingly, the Express said: “The Wembley stage may just suit Smith’s style of game; he’s a studious player with a capacity to drift past people and quite capable of producing telling passes from the bye-line.”
It didn’t help Brighton’s striker options that Brian Clough had refused to allow Peter Ward’s loan from Nottingham Forest to continue until the end of the season, nor that Melia had organised a deal that saw striker Andy Ritchie swap places with Leeds United’s Terry Connor – who was already cup-tied, thus ineligible to play cup games for the Seagulls.
But, in an amazingly prescient pre-match comment, Melia said: “Gordon can be a matchwinner in his own right…he can play a very key part in this final.”
As the title of Smith’s autobiography reflects, the Scot silenced Manchester United followers the world over by opening the scoring for Brighton on that memorable May afternoon in 1983.
In only the 13th minute of the game, young midfield player Gary Howlett found Smith with a delightful chipped diagonal pass over United centre back Kevin Moran and Smith arched a header past Gary Bailey to put the Seagulls in dreamland.
After United had taken the lead, and Gary Stevens had equalised for Brighton, the game went into extra time and the stage was set for one of the most talked about moments in the club’s history.
Interestingly, United ‘keeper Bailey believes Smith has been given a raw deal over the years.
He told the Argus: “It was not the best save I ever made and not the greatest ever seen in English football, but it was a decent one because of my reaction after I’d blocked it.
“I managed to keep my eyes open to make sure I got to the loose ball before Gordon. Often in those 50-50 situations your eyes close and the forward just taps it in but I watched and reacted quickly that time. I want to take credit for it because it came at such a vital time.
“Gordon has taken a lot of stick for what happened, and it was a crucial moment in Brighton’s history, but he shouldn’t get the blame. It is not justified at all. He didn’t score, but he didn’t miss the target.”
On the 25th anniversary of the 1983 final, Argus reporter Andy Naylor interviewed Smith at The Grand Hotel, Brighton, and asked if he ever got sick and tired of being asked about the incident.
“Not really. In life, you have to be able to get over things and deal with them,” Smith explained. “If you become famous for something you don’t do, a lot of people throw it in your face and take the mickey out of you, so you have to show a bit of character and I think I’ve done that.
“I am able to handle it and talk about it and I have no problem at all in taking full responsibility.
“I should have scored. I would love to have scored. I am sorry for the fans, my teammates, the management, everybody who suffered as a result. I suffered greatly too because I’m a perfectionist and I always wanted to be at my best. Everybody else’s disappointment can’t match my own.
“You just have to live with it. There are two choices, either hide away or come out and deal with it. I have put it into perspective. I swapped shirts with Alan Davies after the game. He got a winner’s medal and I didn’t. He’s dead now. He committed suicide. So winning didn’t change his life for the better.”
And, with the benefit of hindsight, would he have done anything differently? “I would have delayed my shot,” said Smith. “I thought Gary would come to me to shut me down. That is why I took a touch and hit it early, hard and low to his side, which meant he would never have got down to it. I scored a few goals in my time like that.
“For some strange reason, I don’t know why, Gary decided to dive. He dived the wrong way and it stuck in his legs. If I had delayed my shot for another split second, he was going down and I would have just chipped it over him.”
To personalise the situation just for a few short moments: Smith’s parents were travelling back to Sussex on the same coach as me that day, and I’ll never forget what happened. We had all gradually drifted back to our seats on the coach and there was understandably an excited hubbub of chatter mixed with the disappointment of seeing Brighton come so close and yet so far from winning the fabled trophy. As Gordon’s parents boarded the coach, an almighty silence descended. You could hear a pin drop. No-one quite knew what to say.
Of course, no-one would have known it at the time, but less than a year later, Smith was no longer with the club.
The new season back in the second tier of English football was barely a couple of months old before manager Melia was on his way, succeeded by Chris Cattlin, the former player who had been drafted in as coach by the chairman, Mike Bamber.
Smith fell out with Cattlin and was ostracised for five months – ordered to train with the youth team and banned from anything to do with the first team and reserve team.
During that time, I can remember travelling by coach to Brighton’s FA Cup tie at Watford on 18 February 1984 and, as we were headed along the motorway, Smith was sitting in the front seat of a minibus of fans heading in the same direction.
Nine months earlier, he had scored – and missed – for the Seagulls at Wembley, and, here he was, reduced to a minibus passenger travelling to watch his pals because the club wouldn’t allow him to use any of their official transport.
His first team exile was suddenly lifted unexpectedly for just one more game, and he scored in a 3-0 away win at Derby County on 17 March 1984. But, within days, he was sold to then second-tier Manchester City for just £45,000.
A tad ironically for an ex-Rangers player, it was legendary Celtic captain Billy McNeill who took him to Maine Road. He made his debut in a home game against Cardiff City on 24 March 1984.
Thirty-eight of his 46 appearances for City came in the 1984-85 season, when he was top scorer with 14 goals.
Smith recalls the details of his spell at the club in the autobiography but, in short, he fell out with McNeill and made his last appearance for City on 4 November 1985, at home to Sunderland. He eventually joined up with nearby Oldham Athletic, where he played nine games.
In 1987, he had the chance to play for Austrian side Admira Wacker, where he featured in 38 games, and the following season he switched to FC Basel in Switzerland, playing 25 games.
Eventually, in 1988, he returned to Scotland and finished his playing career at Stirling Albion.
Smith subsequently became an agent, representing the likes of Paul Lambert and Kenny Miller, but relinquished that work when he was appointed the chief executive of the Scottish FA, a job he held for three years. He was later director of football at Rangers during the 2011-12 season.
In June 2018, the Daily Record reported Smith’s daughter Libby had given birth to a baby boy and she’d taken on board her dad’s suggestion to call him Edson Thunder after the legendary Pele!!