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Coping with Cristiano Ronaldo

Tommy Smith

By Phil Gordos

Tommy Smith's reply was telling. Asked how he would go about subduing Manchester United's mercurial winger Cristiano Ronaldo, the legendary Liverpool hardman was unequivocal: "Don't go for the player, go for the ball."

I had half expected him to say he would give the tricky Portuguese star a sly dig in the ribs when the referee wasn't looking, maybe even threaten him with a trip to row Z if he dared make him look silly with one of his trademark stepovers.

Not a bit of it. "He's a crafty player and looks like he's dancing around the ball at times," Smith told BBC Sport. "The only thing to do is keep your eye on the ball and not let him con you. You have got to be as crafty as he is."

Smith, who turns 63 on 5 April, insists he was hard but fair as a player, although I am sure there are a few ex-footballers out there who would testify otherwise.

I have never started a fight in my life but I have finished a few... sometimes I shudder when I think about what I have done

Tommy Smith

Smith was, after all, an uncompromising figure on and off the football pitch, a player who opposition forwards tended to avoid like the plague - and for good reason.

"I did warn players," said Smith. "When Tottenham striker Jimmy Greaves came out at Anfield one time I handed him a piece of paper. He said: 'What's this?' I said: 'Just open it.' It was the menu from the Liverpool Infirmary."

But Smith's bark was often far worse than his bite.

For all the stories and hyperbole associated with the so-called Anfield Iron, he amassed only one red and three yellow cards in a career that resulted in him playing more than 600 times for Liverpool - and that sending off was for dissent.

That certainly does not sound like a player who went around kicking anything and everything that moved.

"I've only been involved in one bad tackle," he assured me.

"I was a marauding inside-left playing in the Liverpool reserves at the age of 15 when I went into a tackle with a lad from Nottingham Forest and he came out of it with a broken leg.

Tommy Smith and Brian Hall (left) celebrate Liverpool's 3-0 win over Newcastle in the 1974 FA Cup final
Smith won every major club honour during his 18 years with Liverpool

"I sent him a letter apologising but it was just an ordinary tackle, just one of those things. It wasn't over the top or a case of jumping in with two feet."

In fact, Smith, who won every major club honour going with Liverpool, including four First Division championship medals, two FA Cups, one European Cup, two Uefa Cups and one European Super Cup, claims he was more sinned against than sinner during his 19-year professional career.

"Someone took the side of my knee off once, while another fella scraped his foot down my right shin," he said.

"There was no blood or anything. I rolled down my sock and I was looking at my shinbone. That is when the fun started."

Smith revealed he was also a target off the pitch, his image ensuring every wannabe tough guy sought him out in an attempt to enhance his own reputation.

"A few times people asked me if I was Tommy Smith and wanted to step outside," he remembered.

"Sometimes I said 'yes' but I'm not someone who went around beating people up.

"If somebody has a go at me I can take care of myself.

I don't think tackling is at all acceptable these days... there are a lot of cheats in the game, too

Tommy Smith

"I have never started a fight in my life but I have finished a few. Sometimes I shudder when I think about what I have done."

There are few players of Smith's ilk around these days. That is not a lament, just a fact.

Certainly, the monikers like those from the Sixties and Seventies, when Smith and fellow hardmen Ron 'Chopper' Harris and Norman 'Bite Yer Legs' Hunter were in their element, are no more.

Unsurprisingly, Smith suggests football has gone a bit soft.

"The game is a farce now and I don't think tackling is at all acceptable these days," he stated.

"There are a lot of cheats in the game, too, with people throwing themselves around and rolling over and over."

Maybe so but Smith, a clever and canny player, would no doubt have adapted to the modern game.

He demonstrated several times during his Liverpool career that he was capable of re-inventing himself.

Tommy Smith
Smith had a heart attack last year and needed a six-way heart bypass

He started off as an inside-left under Bill Shankly, quickly demonstrating an eye for goal before cementing himself at the heart of a formidable Reds defence.

Then when Emlyn Hughes, a person he disliked intensely, arrived at Anfield, he turned himself into a right-back of considerable prowess.

Naturally, Smith was fond of managers Shankly and Bob Paisley. I say 'naturally' because it seems few people had a bad word to say about either man.

And it was Shankly who summed up Smith best: "Tommy Smith wasn't born, he was quarried."

Smith's body may now boast two plastic knees, a replacement hip and a new elbow but it's a fitting epitaph.

Tommy Smith, Anfield Iron, The Autobiography, 18.99, is published by Bantam Press.

see also
Alan Hansen's column
31 Mar 08 |  Football
Arsenal v Liverpool
31 Mar 08 |  Europe
Roma v Man Utd
30 Mar 08 |  Europe
Gerrard hails crucial derby win
30 Mar 08 |  Premier League
Liverpool 1-0 Everton
30 Mar 08 |  Premier League
Shankly search over with casting
26 Mar 08 |  Merseyside
Reds hero Smith set for surgery
13 Jun 07 |  Liverpool

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