Cult Heroes: Tommy Smith
With a bad taste still lingering from Tuesday's lacklustre loss at Blackburn the lads don't have long to wait to right the many wrongs of that performance as we welcome QPR to the Stadium of Light on Saturday afternoon. The "R's" have had a rollercoaster of a season since their promotion and have yet to see any real improvement, or honeymoon period, since the arrival of one time candidate for the SAFC hotseat, Mark Hughes, a man I tipped for the post... Shows what I know!
The London outfit have a number of familiar faces among their ranks, including a fellow Cult Hero past, the always dangerous, Djibril Cisse, Anton Ferdinand, Nedum Onouha and the star of this very piece, the likeable Tommy Smith.Tommy first made a name for himself with Watford, where his father helped to lend a hand during training sessions at the academy and came through the ranks before signing his professional papers in 1997. Smith was given an early debut, as a substitute, by Graham Taylor in November of 1997, but would not really figure in his first team plans until the following season.
The 1998/99 term saw Watford make a successful push for promotion, ultimately securing their Premier League status via the Play-Offs, with Smith becoming a useful if still underutilised member of the squad. While not being involved in the squad for the Final itself Tommy had been involved in enough games to be rewarded with a Winners medal.
The club's return to the top flight also coincided with Smith's break-through as a first team player making twenty-two appearances in Watford's ultimately doomed Premier League campaign. Tommy also managed to find the net with goals against Manchester United and Middlesbrough, with the striker holding particular fondness for his effort against ‘Boro because the game was televised. It is this kind of down to earth nature which endeared Tommy to many fans, there was no pretentiousness nor arrogance, Smith was simply living the dream we all wished we could emulate.
Following relegation and the inevitable departure of George Graham, there were sweeping changes made across the board by new boss Gianluca Vialli upon his arrival but Smith still remained in the Italian's plans and the pair enjoyed a good working relationship to begin with which would ultimately end unpleasantly, much like Vialli's stint with the club.
Following relegation from the Premier League at the end of the 2002/03 season, Sunderland were forced to cut their cloth accordingly and shed no fewer than sixteen players from an expensive and ineffective squad. Mick McCarthy was forced to be more than a little economical with his recruitment process, not bargain basement stuff but rather the players that had found themselves scattered on the floor around said basket.
Cue Tommy Smith's arrival on Wearside. The striker was deemed surplus to requirements at Vicarage Road and following trials with Charlton, West Ham and even a three week stint with Perugia, the diminutive forward found himself at Sunderland in mid-September of 2003 with a lot of catching up to do to achieve match fitness.
I always remember liking the look of Tommy, no, not in that way, he always struck me as a clever, thoughtful striker who quickly became a useful member of the squad and brought some variation to our strike force at the time which was made up of Kevin Kyle and Marcus Stewart. Tommy would often drift into the wide areas of the pitch, which would stretch Championship defences out of their comfort zone. The key term there was Championship. I seem to remember Smith taking a bit of stick at times from some sections of the crowd who possibly expected a Kevin Phillips clone given Tommy's stature. At the time and at that level Smith was a handy player, who coincidentally given Sunderland's current run, made a habit of popping up with important goals in the FA Cup.
Smith had previously put Sunderland to the sword in the 2002/03 season with a high-pressure penalty, which the forward was required to take twice, which secured Watford's progression into the Quarter-Final and would go on to score the winner against Burnley in the next round. This time round, in the red and white stripes, Tommy would step up with a goal in the victory at Ipswich before another masterclass in a FA Cup Quarter-Final replay at Sheffield United.
Despite discussions surrounding a new two-year deal, Smith was on his way out of the Stadium of Light following the heartbreaking defeat on penalties in the Play-Off Semi-Finals - thanks again Jeff. Tommy would go on to have spells with Derby, a return to Watford and a season with Portsmouth before joining Saturday's opponents, QPR, in August of 2010, initially on loan. The deal itself was farcical, as a £1.5m transfer between Rangers and Portsmouth had been agreed but was blocked by the Football League as they believed the paperwork had been submitted two minutes too late. The clubs hastily arranged three separate one-month loan deals to ensure his availability until
Smith got QPR off to the best possible start upon their return to the top flight this year with his goal proving to be the winner in their opening day trip to Goodison Park. Since then Smith has had to make do with a place on the bench as he competes in a squad with a burgeoning number of options for the forward line which now includes January signings Djibril Cisse and Bobby Zamora.