Gordon Smith takes charge at the SFA, Neil Forsyth reports
When the SFA announced their choice for a new chief executive in June, few expected to hear a name that would cause a flicker of recognition, let alone debate and a degree of bewilderment among followers of the national game.
This was, after all, an institution that didn’t set much store by surprises. The previous chief executive, former lawyer David Taylor, was the first person to arrive in the job from outside the Scottish FA in living memory and was only the sixth holder of the post since 1882. Before him had come solid committee men who had worked their way up from junior roles and, in the case of Taylor’s immediate predecessor Jim Farry, from a previous existence as a landscape gardener.
And so for the SFA to go for Gordon Smith came as a shock that was met by a varied response. Smith, a 52-year-old former player, insurance salesman and latterly football agent and BBC Scotland pundit, was not known to be angling for the role and the SFA were certainly not known to be angling for him. This was, after all, a man with the permanent tan and shiny suits of your average Glaswegian car dealer and whose playing career was (unfairly) indelibly linked with missing a sitter against Manchester United.
So went the reaction in various quarters to Smith’s appointment. The fact that among his list of clubs (which included Manchester City, Admira Wacker and Brighton, with whom he faced Manchester United in the 1983 FA Cup final – ‘and Smith must score!’) are a certain Rangers FC also provoked a predictably partisan reaction from the more conspiracy-happy Celtic followers, just as would have happened in reverse if it were green hoops that Smith had once worn. But, while the sniping died down, Smith quietly went about discussing his new role with a tactful approach that has made it so far impossible for his detractors to find examples of his presumed unsuitability for the world of bureaucratic diplomacy.
The elephant in the room, however, is the case for a united British squad competing at the 2012 Olympics. The formation of such a team is a cause célèbre for Prime Minister Brown, the English FA, and those whose job it will be to fill the Olympic Stadium. Smith came into his role with form on the issue, having popped up on Newsnight last year and disagreed with the refusal of the SFA and David Taylor even to countenance such a proposal.
He has stuck to his guns, confirming that the matter will be discussed anew and declaring: “I have always considered we were strong enough to stand on our own as a football nation even with Olympic commitment.” This will be a strong test for Smith, with the SFA previously enraging their English counterparts and a host of politicians by coldly refusing any negotiation on the subject.
Smith’s other beliefs vary from the sensible to the unlikely, in the form of a national network of indoor training arenas and a long-term hope of switching Scotland to summer football. When the talented Scotland Under-20 team performed limply at their World Cup in Canada in July, Smith announced that he would be personally investigating the reasons behind the poor showing. His stewardship certainly signifies the arrival of a new culture of ideas at the SFA, and also of a different kind of chief executive.
It’s not exactly revelatory for former players to move into administrative roles, or to be urged to do so. Such was the poise of Lothar Matthäus in captaining West Germany to the 1990 World Cup that there was genuine talk of him as a future German chancellor. In a more likely setting, both Franz Beckenbauer and, most impressively of all, UEFA president Michel Platini have progressed seamlessly into the world of meetings and politics. The uncapped journeyman Smith, however, arrives at the SFA’s Hampden offices with a less grandiose heritage.
Of all the challenges he will face in the next few months, possibly the most damaging will be a charity boxing bout with controversial Scottish politician Tommy Sheridan, a fixture that he enthusiastically confirmed he intends to keep despite his new role. The two men, who share suspiciously deep tans despite their Glasgow bases, will face off for the second time after Sheridan complained bitterly about Smith’s points victory in an earlier fight, branding the judge “Stevie Wonder”. It’s unlikely that Platini has such demands on his time
From WSC 247 September 2007