Derby County’s former manager James Michael Smith, known as Jim Smith or the Bald Eagle to Rams fans, sadly passed away on 10 December 2019 aged 79. He joined Derby in 1995 and resigned in October 2001, taking charge of 281 games. Based on league position in the top divisions, Jim Smith was the best manager the club have had in the last 30 years since Arthur Cox guided the Rams to fifth in the old Division 1 in the 1988/89 season. The Bald Eagle’s achievements and contribution to Derby County over those six years were considerable. He gained automatic promotion to the Premier League in his first season, then created exciting teams capable of beating the best English clubs of that era, as well as overseeing the move from the Baseball Ground to Pride Park Stadium in 1997.
In his autobiography It’s Only a Game, Jim Smith recounts how he succeeded Roy McFarland as Derby manager in June 1995. At the time there were around 8 managerial vacancies but only Sheffield Wednesday and Derby appealed to him. His brother-in-law had contacts at Wednesday, but their chairman wasn’t interested. Another contact helped to arrange a meeting with Derby’s chairman and owner, Lionel Pickering, at Ednaston Manor. Pickering made it clear that players would have to be sold in order to generate transfer funds. Despite this, Smith left the meeting optimistic and felt that Pickering would be a ‘terrific guy to work for’. The next day, the newspapers were telling a different story. One headline stated Barry Fry was as good as appointed. Another had Steve Bruce down as player-manager. Over the next few weeks Ossie Ardiles, Steve Coppell, Martin O’Neill, Mike Walker and Neil Warnock were all linked with the job but there was no mention of Jim Smith.
Stuart Webb, Derby director at the time, tells a slightly different version of events in his own autobiography Clough, Maxwell & Me. Steve Bruce was the manager they wanted and he ‘interviewed brilliantly’ but Alex Ferguson would not release him from Manchester United because he thought he could get another year out of him. Horton was interviewed by Pickering over a weekend and made such an impression that Pickering had decided to offer him the job. When Webb was told of this on the Monday morning, he was adamant that Horton was not the right man for Derby. Over the weekend he had found out Jim Smith, working at the League Managers’ Association at the time, may be available. According to Webb, Pickering reluctantly called Horton to advise that they were still considering their options.
Back to Jim Smith’s version of events – though it is important to remember that his autobiography was written in 2000 while still managing Derby and working with Lionel Pickering. Several weeks after his meeting with Pickering, Jim had almost given up on the role when Stuart Webb called. He was told that there was one other serious candidate who was slightly favoured, but Webb told Jim; ‘If he doesn’t take it, it’s yours’. It transpired that the other candidate was Brian Horton. Horton called Jim to ask if it was true that he was also in the frame. Smith made a genuine offer to withdraw and leave the job open for Horton – after all, he was still working for the League Managers’ Association whereas Horton was out of work. However, Horton revealed he was talking to another club and told Jim to hold on. A couple of days later, Stuart Webb called Jim to confirm that the Derby job was his. Jim recalled that he said in a TV interview that he was delighted to get the job but was unsure if he was the chairman’s choice. Pickering later told Jim that one of the directors was unsure about Horton because there were ‘bad vibes from the supporters and the media’ and thought the club should go for a top name like Trevor Francis. But Pickering was clear on his choice: ‘Gentleman – if we aren’t having Brian Horton, we’re having Jim Smith and nobody else’.
The Bald Eagle was quite aware of fan opinion, saying in his autobiography: ‘I am not too sure I was flavour of the month with every Derby supporter. I would say it was about fifty-fifty with half being alright with me taking over and the other half disappointed that it was not somebody like Kenny Dalglish or Graeme Souness’.
Lionel Pickering’s mandate was clear, and he told Smith that ‘your job will be a difficult one and if we finish mid-table you will have done well.’ The wage bill had to be significantly reduced, starting with players with contract clauses that allowed them to move on when the club did not get promoted. But Jim Smith was not concerned, saying about Pickering; ‘He was my kind of bloke – straight and down to earth. I was determined to get it right from the start. I viewed Derby as my last throw of the dice as far as top-class management was concerned and I was going to make the most of it’.
The Bald Eagle’s first few weeks were certainly busy. He appointed Steve McClaren as assistant coach, sold three players who did not want to play for the club in Craig Short, Paul Williams and Mark Pembridge for a combined £4.7m, and signed Gary Rowett, Sean Flynn, Darryl Powell, Robin van der Laan and Ron Willems.
Jim Smith’s first league game as manager was at home to Port Vale on 13 August 1995 – an uneventful 0-0 draw. The Derby team was: Steve Sutton, Sean Flynn, Darren Wassall, Gary Rowett, John Harkes, Paul Trollope, Darryl Powell, Robin van der Laan, Mark Stallard, Marco Gabbiadini, and Paul Simpson. Jim Smith’s programme notes are reproduced below:
‘First let me say a big thankyou to all the fans of Derby County for the tremendous welcome I’ve received over these past few weeks. It’s great to be part of a club which has such a brilliant following. I’m obviously aware of the tradition which surrounds the Baseball Ground and of all the club’s past achievements, but I’m here to look forward, not back, and hopefully to bring new success to Derby County.
The game against Leeds United on Tuesday night was one 0f the most competitive pre-season games I’ve seen for a long time and what I learned was that we are capable as a team of standing up and being counted. Our players all had to work very hard and all had to compete. We’d seen super football against Tottenham and there was some too against Leeds, but most satisfying for me was seeing Derby County prepared to battle against a Premiership side. It gave me an insight into the qualities of the players we’ve got. I can honestly say that every one of the new signings has done very well so far, even better than we anticipated.
I’ve been delighted with the way Gary Rowett has fitted into the sweeper system we’ve been employing in pre-season. I put him in that role against Chesterfield because of his height and he settled in straight away, despite the fact that he’d hardly ever played in that position before. Not only can he defend, but his use of the ball from the back is excellent and that for me is what a sweeper system is all about.
We’ve had quite a hectic home programme in the past couple of weeks and I’ve been very pleased with the way our fans have turned up in great numbers and really got behind the team. I think you are going to continue to enjoy what you see and I want to appeal to you all again today to give us the lift that we need in the League opener against Port Vale. Every club needs this. When the noise levels are high at the Baseball Ground it’s a great place to be and I’m hoping we can all gel together – both the team and the fans – and really have a great season’.
Also discussed in the Port Vale programme are the transfer dealings that occurred throughout the summer, with Paul Williams’ exit written in a manner that surely would not appear in any club’s official publication today: ‘So, Paul Williams played his last game for the Rams in the pre-season victory over Spurs at the BBG. And, quite frankly, after the public soundings Josie made about wanting to get away, there’s a feeling of relief that he’s finally got his wish.’
‘Rams profile’ featured new signing Gary Rowett. It stated that ‘the biggest surprise for the BBG faithful watching the Rams’ pre-season friendlies has been the form of Rowett. After seeing another inch perfect pass sweep from one side of the field to another during the 3-3 home draw with Hearts, a ‘Press Box sage’ reckoned Rowett had already doubled in value after a few weeks at Derby.’ Rowett was valued at £300,000 in the £2.5 million deal that took the 1994/95 Player of the Year Craig Short to Everton, with Rowett moving in the opposite direction.
The Port Vale programme contains a match report on the pre-season home friendly against Heart of Midlothian. Derby took a 3-0 lead, Gabbiadini scoring on 16 minutes after a quick free kick taken in his own half by Rowett. Gabbiadini scored his second after 32 minutes, exchanging passes with John Harkes before forcing his way into the box and scoring with a low shot. Gabbiadini was brought down in the box two minutes later by Neil Berry, with Paul Simpson scoring from the penalty spot. Hearts pulled two goals back before half time from a John Robertson penalty and a David Hagen header, before a second half own goal from Darren Wassall made the final score 3-3.
The other pre-season friendly played at the Baseball Ground was against Leeds United. The match report describes the game as a ‘physical encounter’ and a ‘bruising battle’ where the Rams ‘more than held their own in a tough game which made the ‘friendly’ description a bit of a joke’. Derby took the lead on 6 minutes from a John Harkes penalty after Stallard was shoved from behind in the box by Nigel Worthington as he ran onto a through ball from Gabbiadini. Derby held on to the lead until the final minutes but were forced to make ‘wholesale substitutions’ which left the defence in ‘disarray’. This was exploited by Leeds through Phil Masinga’s header, then deep into injury time Gary McAllister ran through to score past Russell Hoult, who was a substitute for Steve Sutton.
The programme from Jim Smith’s first game in charge contained some other interesting news:
- It was reported that goalkeeper Martin Taylor had been training alone and undergoing muscle work to walk properly again 10 months after suffering a horrific injury at Southend from a challenge by striker Dave Regis.
- Derby had agreed a four year replica shirt and sponsorship deal with Puma, priced at £32.99 each for the now iconic, and collectable, home and away strips. The shirts were not available for sale until mid-September though.
- The new all-seater Baseball Ground had a reduced capacity to 17,000 for the season. The most expensive season ticket in the B Stand was £280 for an adult with Normanton Lower the cheapest at £150.
- The Rams stats from the 1994/95 season showed that the average attendance was 13,589, the sixth best in the division, with the highest attendance against Swindon (16,839) and lowest against Reading (10,585).
Despite making a poor start to the 1995/96 season with 10 points from the first 10 games, by April Jim Smith had guided Derby to second place and a place in the Premier League. Automatic promotion was secured on Sunday 28 April 1996 in a 2-1 win at home to Crystal Palace, Robin van der Laan scoring a famous header from a corner to win the game. Smith recognised two catalysts for the success in his autobiography. One was signing the Croatian international centre-back Igor Stimac from Hadjuk Split in October. Stimac brought confidence and leadership to the team – after a 5-1 defeat at Tranmere Rovers on his debut, the Rams went on a 20 game unbeaten run. The second catalyst according to Smith was replacing goalkeeper Steve Sutton with Russell Hoult at half time during a 2-0 win at Sheffield United as he thought Hoult would deal with the aerial threat better. Lionel Pickering later said he thought it was the bravest change he had ever come across in football.
Under Jim Smith, Derby finished 12th, 9th and 8th in the Premier League over the next three seasons helped by the signings of players such as Christian Dailly, Jacob Laursen, Aljosa Asanovic, Stefano Eranio, Francesco Baiano, Paulo Wanchope and Mart Poom. The loss of Steve McClaren in February 1999 to Manchester United as Assistant Manager was the beginning of a decline and the Rams struggled to 16th and 17th place over the next two seasons.
Jim Smith’s final game in charge of the Rams was at home to Arsenal on 29 September 2001, a 2-0 defeat with Thierry Henry scoring in each half. This left Derby third bottom of the table with just one win and 5 points from 7 league games. Derby’s line-up on that day was: Andy Oakes, Danny Higginbotham, Richard Jackson, Brian O’Neil, Chris Riggott, Paul Boertien, Seth Johnson, Adam Murray, Darryl Powell (the only survivor from Jim Smith’s first game as Derby boss), Malcolm Christie, and Fabrizio Ravanelli. Ashley Cole, who would end his career with the Rams 18 years later, played left-back for Arsenal. Jim Smith’s programme notes contained several points of frustration;
We played some super football in spells against both Leicester and Leeds. But, ultimately, we wasted good opportunities to get more points on the board. We went ahead early on against Leicester and should have built on the goal and our performance. But we let ourselves down by taking the hard option and being too extravagant instead of getting the job done. They didn’t look like scoring but they netted two soft goals and then there was that penalty. Whatever you may think about the decision, we shouldn’t have put the challenge in on Savage – he was going nowhere. So we missed out on a vital point.
You always feel more positive going into a game against a side who have just played a European game and, again, for much of the Leeds match we acquitted ourselves well. We scored what we thought – and, after studying the evidence – still think was a ‘legal’ goal but it was knocked off. Then we conceded a goal from a free-kick in an area where we really shouldn’t be committing fouls. After taking a lot of flak for their performance in Portugal, I was concerned that Leeds would grow stronger after their first goal but our lads took to the task, defended well, worked hard and, for about 30 minutes, played some great stuff. You won’t get many opportunities against a side like Leeds so we should have made the most of them when they came. Mally and Rava had good chances but didn’t take them. It was a case of good football without the cutting edge. Kewell had been having an average game but he popped up to score – his shot hitting both posts before crossing the line – and that decimated the lads. They didn’t deserve that blow. But we have to glean the positives from that match. We had a lot of young players out there, perhaps too many, and it’s time to turn these ‘encouraging spells’ of play into consistent match-winning performances.
Ipswich aside, I have been reasonably happy with how we’ve performed but we’re not punishing teams…they are finding a way to punish us. We’re playing better football than this time last season but we’re no better off in terms of points. Without making light of our position, though, it’s worth noting that, after half a dozen games, we’re only four points behind Aston Villa in sixth place. It’s going to be a tight league this year and, while some think the championship is more than a one-horse race this time, there are a handful of teams who could be involved in a dogfight at the other end.
One team I expect to be realistic challengers are Arsenal. They would have been disappointed with their Champions League result earlier this week but you won’t need telling that they are a side of real quality. We don’t have the best record against them in recent times but we have beaten them at Pride Park and our battling scoreless draw against them at Highbury last season gave us the confidence to go on and win our first game a week later. We held our own for much of the return game here in April until they brought on Henry and Pires, who conjured up the winner.
We have taken on board the best elements of our Leeds performance, worked on what went wrong and we believe we have a good chance of heading into the league break on the back of a good afternoon’s work today. Of course it won’t be easy. But, as always, your support will help. You created a hell of an atmosphere against Leicester. More of the same today please!
Enjoy the afternoon.
The Arsenal programme reports that the club successfully bid for Dave Mackay’s 1968/69 Second Division title medal and the 1974/75 League Championship manager of the month plaque at a Sotheby’s auction, along with other artefacts from his career with Tottenham and Derby. David Moore’s Old Moore’s Anorak puts the Rams recent form in perspective, referencing the recent World Trade Centre attacks: ‘On the way back to the car after the Leicester match I overheard someone say it had been a disastrous week with the single point from two home games. He was right, it had been a disastrous week. But that had nothing to do with football. All we had done was fail to win a couple of football matches, the real disaster was thousands of miles away. Football is just a game which we should just try to enjoy and recent events make Bill Shankly’s comment about football being more important than life and death seem even more ridiculous than they were before.’
Jim Smith resigned from his position as Derby County manager on 8 October 2001, with assistant Colin Todd taking over. Smith’s statement read: “This is a really sad day for me. I appreciated the chairman offering me the position of Director of Football, but felt I had more to offer the club. I will always appreciate Derby County and their magnificent fans for everything they have done for me and my family. I sincerely wish the club and the players every success this season and in the future.” Derby chairman Lionel Pickering told the club’s official website: “We wanted to continue to use Jim’s vast experience in football for the benefit of Derby County. He thought carefully about the new role but decided it would be better to leave. We respect that decision and wish him well.”
Jim Smith later became assistant manager at Coventry City, Portsmouth and Southampton and returned to management at Oxford United in 2006, his second spell at the club. After stepping down in 2007, he had another brief spell as caretaker manager in 2008.
Jim Smith was manager of Derby County for 281 matches. His record was 99 wins, 81 draws and 101 defeats – a 35% win rate. The Bald Eagle created a lasting legacy and many memories during his time with the Rams, with famous wins against Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur along the way, and brought several players to the club that are considered Derby legends to this day. Rest in Peace, Jim.