Precious few share the connection with Tamworth that Gary Smith does, so much so that his 2018 return felt every bit a homecoming. Alongside Andrew Danylyszyn, his first full season as joint-manager was cruelly halted with the promotion odds strongly in their favour, but if anyone knows about moving on to the next chance, it is the Lambs’ legendary former marksman.
“I do a bit of DJing as well; probably that will be a surprise to a few people!” he reveals. “It is a bit of a pastime, so I do like to spin a few discs.”
“That’s what keeps me going. When I’m not working and it’s not football, that’s how I relax and go and enjoy myself really.”
Festival, dancefloor and gig scenes apart, music hasn’t faded at all of late, acting as something of a saving grace for many in the past two-to-three months. Although gradually returning in a spectator-less form, football has been altogether much more decimated, with the cut and thrust of constant action reduced to the rewatching of old footage, ‘live tweeting’ significant games gone by, and so on.
It has all proved extremely challenging, and arguably even more so for a club like Tamworth, not just for the obvious loss of revenue, but because of the superb springboard they had given themselves in 2019/20. The Lambs sat 2nd in the Southern Premier Central, behind Peterborough Sports on goal difference but with three games in hand, on the home strait of the first full season at the helm for Andrew Danylyszyn and Gary Smith.
“Obviously we’re missing the football, because we got so deep into it the season before, and then being in charge this season,” said Smith. “We were on a good roll, we were playing some good football and we stood a good chance of getting promotion, but that’s been taken away.”
“Missing the football, but life’s had to continue, and I haven’t had a day off, I’ve still been working every single day. I work for Ford Motor Company, and we haven’t been able to stop, because we’ve got contracts with people that supply national health, the police and all sorts, so we still have to maintain those contracts and keep those sorts of people.
“So I’ve just been in non-stop, just trying to crack on. I’ve had the passing of a very close family member as well, so been dealing with all of that and it’s been hard.”
‘Smudger’ is Birmingham-born, and even a Leeds United fan, but he speaks of his return to Tamworth in 2018 as ‘coming home’. Scorer of 70 goals for the club before his 2001 departure, when he returned two summers ago, managing the first team was far from in his sights.
Mike Fowler was head coach at the time, though would stand down in September 2018, and when Dennis Greene’s tenure ended after four months, it was Under-21 joint-manager Gaz (alongside Gareth Zimmerman) and Under-19 lead coach Andrew Danylyszyn who stepped in.
“When we first took over, initially, we only thought we’d be in charge for a few games and they’d come and appoint somebody with a bit more experience at that level. I was at Tamworth anyway as Under-21 manager, so we were asked to step in and take charge until they did whatever they needed to do.
“We drew the first game (2-2 with Bedworth United at home) – it was a game we could have won – but we took good heart from the fact that it was a better performance from the team than what the fans had been seeing. We just said to the boys we’d go out onto the training ground and try and build on that, build our philosophy and a way of playing, and take these teams on.
“We did just that and we went on a fantastic run for the last 15 games (winning nine).”
After what was certainly a disrupted campaign following relegation from the National League North, the Lambs would finish 12th, and the interim management team of Gaz and assistant Andy were officially appointed as joint-bosses in April 2019. Thomas Baillie followed in June as head of senior football, with the ex-Kettering and Stratford Town manager forming the ‘third part’ of the operation.
“The club was still searching for somebody else to take over, and when that didn’t happen, we asked the question ‘could we get the opportunity to go for it in the next season?’” Gaz continued. “They gave us the opportunity, and we’re glad they did, because we built a fantastic squad.”
— Tamworth Football Club (@tamworthfc) February 7, 2020
“Tom Baillie came in and was an extra pair of hands for us and brought a lot of know-how as a manager, and the contacts that he has in the game. It helped us no end, and the three of us just got our heads together and put the squad together.
“We stuck to the way we wanted to play and it just worked. We went out and we won football matches when people thought we wouldn’t, and the squad just got better and better.
“Like I said, we were in a great position, and the opportunity was there for us to go on to the next level, and that would have been a fantastic achievement, considering me and Andy, neither of us had managed at Step 3 before. We weren’t very happy (with the decision to null and void the league season), but we’ve got through it, we’ve dealt with it, and we’re planning behind the scenes between the three of us.”
The challenge of lifting back to greater heights a club that was in the National League as recently as 2014 is an appealing one. The Midlands outfit contended well in the National League North for three seasons, twice finishing 7th and once in 9th before being relegated by seven points just over two years ago.
The arrival of someone who knows a club and has seen its best times can be a source of considerable comfort for supporters when their side is down on the footballing canvas. Sometimes it works out, sometimes not so.
Gaz led the line on the field in the Paul Hendrie era, which notably included the Southern League Midland Division title success in 1997. Far from past reputation landing him the top job, though, over 15 years of coaching experience have led him here.
As he discusses more in the regular, accompanying Q&A to this interview, a hostile atmosphere was almost as good as a perfect through-ball or pinpoint cross for him back in the day. For what he needed from his managers, a sense of all-round understanding was king.
“The six years I spent at Tamworth were amazing, under Paul Hendrie. What a fantastic manager he was, and he was somebody that I’d known before he took the job, while I was playing at Worcester City and he was doing a fantastic job managing Redditch United.
“I think Paul Hendrie was up there with the best of them. He had his way of getting what he wanted from each player, and I’ve learned myself as a manager, everyone’s different.
“I could go in the changing room and I could rant and rave at Bob over there, but then I couldn’t do it to Steve in the other corner because he’s not that type of person; he’d probably go into his shell and then I wouldn’t get the best from him. George Rooney at Worcester was good at it and so was Brendon Phillips at Halesowen, where I won the championship.
“They built a rapport and they knew how to deal with you, whether it was one-on-one or with the group.”
— GAZ SMITH (@Smudgedem) April 25, 2020
Unlocking the good times again, with a modern twist, is the objective at The Lamb. The terrific progress in the league this past season brought a taste, and so too the FA Cup euphoria on an October midweek night at Hereford.
The third qualifying round replay went to the wire, and after James Fry’s penalty meant the visitors from a league lower triumphed in the shootout, the celebrations they enjoyed were cherished by their joint-gaffers, with Andy Danylyszyn describing it as his best moment in football. Nobody would be prouder to see the club start to bring those longed-for ‘brighter days’ to reality than the main men in the dugout.
“The chairman (Bob Andrews) and the vice-chairman (Steve Lathbury) are brilliant,” Gaz explained. “They’ve backed us 100 per cent and they’re still doing that now, and the fans are still backing us, so we’ve got unfinished business and we want to give it another go.”
“Whenever season 2020/21 starts, we’ll definitely make sure we’re ready.”
Along with the club stalwarts, Tamworth have also had some notable names pass through at varying points in their respective careers over the years. Current England and AFC Bournemouth striker Callum Wilson was a 19-year-old loanee, while Lee Hendrie, Paul Merson and Gerry Taggart all appeared in the twilight of their playing careers.
Don’t, though, forget their first international. It is a golden thread in Gaz’s football life, and though recounted a few times before, it loses none of its shine.
With 1999 fast winding down, the Lambs forward was over on the Caribbean island of Saint Kitts (the larger of Saint Kitts and Nevis) with his family, and he had taken football training gear with him to maintain some sharpness before his return home. As he watched a match at the national stadium, his comments on the game from the stands had alerted the man nearby – Saint Kitts and Nevis player Keith ‘Kayamba’ Gumbs.
Invited to take part in a friendly game between a national 11 and a ‘foreigners’ line-up, Gaz twice got himself on the scoresheet for the latter, and so followed a conversation afterwards with someone interested in his talents and possible eligibility for the national team. Unbeknown to him, it was manager and long-time ex-Bradford City defender Ces Podd.
When a fax later came through at Tamworth to call him up, the ‘33-year-old IT student with no league experience’, as he was described by a national newspaper carrying the story in early-2000, was in dreamland.
“Obviously at that time everyone knew Saint Kitts and Nevis to be a footballing minnow, in terms of the world stage, but it was a fantastic opportunity. Ces Podd was in charge, and having played in the Football League himself, the standards that he set were absolutely brilliant in terms of the training sessions that we had, and the togetherness and the camaraderie amongst the boys.
“We had Lutel James over from Bury, Bobby Bowry from Millwall, Des Hazel, ex-Sheffield Wednesday, so we had some players that had played at a decent level in England. Michael Crawford was another one, ex-teammate of mine.
“We all travelled over together. Coming from England, I suppose we came with a lot of expectation, a lot of know-how, a bit more experience to what the local boys were used to.
“Ces Podd managed to put us all together and we played four games in the World Cup qualifiers, eventually got knocked out by Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. I travelled back a year later and played in the Copa Caribe; we went to Antigua, qualified, and went on to Trinidad, played Haiti and I think the Dominican Republic.
“We got knocked out from qualifying by about one goal. There were players like (former Fulham forward) Barry Hayles playing for Jamaica in it at the time, Barbados had (ex-Bristol City and QPR winger) Gregory Goodridge, Saint Vincent had (ex-Crewe Alexandra and Torquay United striker) Rodney Jack; there was some really good players.”
Netting on his debut against the Turks and Caicos Islands, Gaz went on to win ten caps. He has been asked to revisit his international football adventure before, but did you know about the Preds sent his way by a one-time Premier League midfielder?!
“I roomed with Bobby Bowry and I remember he even sent me a pair of Adidas Predators. That was a big thing at the time!” he laughs.
“The occasions, the FIFA officials, the travel, it was an amazing experience for someone like myself, coming from a non-league background. It was something that dreams were made of really.
“As non-league players, we’d probably put the FA Cup as the biggest experience, followed by the FA Trophy, so to go into international football and travel the world, link up with the players who were at a higher level, it was a brilliant experience for me. For Tamworth, a lot of exposure in the media, TV as well, and fantastic for my family.
“Something that I’ll treasure for the rest of my life.”
Today I Am Flying The Flag Of ST.KITTS/NEVIS High High & Higher & Wishing All My Fellow Islanders @ Home & In The Diaspora A Happy 36th Independence Day #Proud #Patriotic #TwinIslandOneParadise #LikkleButWeTallawah #UnstoppableForce #SKB2DeBone pic.twitter.com/X1vKwf9Nzu
— GAZ SMITH (@Smudgedem) September 19, 2019
That glimpse of the extraordinary, and some of the many non-league memories he has enjoyed, are equally treasured. He is very well acquainted with the lower levels of the Midlands’ footballing circuit by now, but why not strive for broader horizons?
That is exactly what he is working for and would dearly adore for what he came to know as ‘his club’ over the years. In the meantime, another life love is helping keep him in step.
“Obviously family life is massive – kids, grandkids – and my love for music as well. Music’s always been another part of the family life; my brother was a big collector of vinyl, my mum loved music, my dad loved music.
“I’m the youngest of seven, so everybody in the household was musically inclined. In my younger days, the sound systems were something I used to love, and that passion carried on.
“Just started DJing, and got my laptop and my controller! I’m available for bookings, so if you’re having a party, let me know!”
Each manager in The Bosses’ Lounge also takes on a unique Q&A…
When did you want to start coaching/managing?
I went to Gresley under Jon Newsome, the ex-Leeds United defender, was there for a little while and by then I’d completed my UEFA licence. I was well into my 30s then and I decided I was gonna hang my boots up and concentrate on coaching. I went to Continental Star and did some coaching there; I managed them for one season and kept them in that division. Went to Coleshill and starting doing the 21s. I spent some time at Aston Villa and went to Birmingham City as well, and learned quite a bit from shadowing coaches in the academy, watching what was going on because I wanted to learn more. That was what led me on to Continental and to Coleshill, and when the opportunity came with the Under-21s at Tamworth, it was like going back home, and it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. I made the call and I put my hat in the ring and I went for the interview. It all evolved from there and we are where we are today, striving to win that league and get up to Step 2, which would be fantastic.
Which training sessions do you enjoy leading the most?
It’s funny you ask that, because since me and Andy have took over, I’ve kind of left Andy to do most of the coaching. I will join in and help him, but I take more of a back seat, just observing. I’ll throw something in to the strikers, the midfielders, the defenders if I feel there’s something to point out. Then me and Andy will go through and dissect it to see if it worked, or which personnel would work better etc.
Will you ever take part in training, in terms of actually being in the session as an active part, like an extra player?
Oh yeah, course I join; I can’t keep up with them, though! I do have a penalty competition going with our goalkeeper Jaz Singh; I think I’ve scored more than he’s saved, if I’m right. He might say differently! I do love joining in with the boys. It’s a way of keeping myself ticking over as well and getting that bit of exercise that you need when you get to this ripe old age!
Favourite ground that you’ve visited or would like to visit
Going to Elland Road is a big enjoyment for me, as a supporter; I love the atmosphere there. There’s been many grounds in non-league I’ve enjoyed going to, especially local ones like Nuneaton Borough etc. I just enjoy going to them, especially if it’s hostile! That’s what I used to enjoy as a player; King’s Lynn was one. That was what used to get me going. There’s a few I enjoyed going to and scoring a few goals and beating teams on their own ground. In terms of achievement-wise, going and playing in FA Cup games at Bury and Exeter were brilliant times, Bolton Wanderers when I was at Sutton (Coldfield Town) and they were still at Burnden Park. We had the ex-Bolton player Barry Cowdrill playing for us as well. The FA Cup games like that are brilliant, when you get to sample that atmosphere. We did it this season when we played Hereford at home, drew, and had to travel there on a Tuesday night. Even though they’re at Step 2, Hereford are still a big club in non-league and a fantastic draw for anyone. You pull up on the coach and it’s all professional, and to win the game as well, the atmosphere, the celebrations, running across the pitch to celebrate with our fans, those are the kind of atmospheres I thrive on.
Favourite player to watch (past or present)
From the 70s, when my mum used to take me to watch Leeds United, my favourite was Peter Lorimer. I loved Peter Lorimer, and then because I lived a stone’s throw from St. Andrew’s, going and seeing people like Trevor Francis. Liam Brady, Glenn Hoddle, Kenny Dalglish, Kevin Keegan, those were the type of players that used to really excite me and inspire me. Then you had the likes of Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham coming through; all those type of players I aspired to be like, those were my footballing mentors.
And how would you have sold the club to let’s say Peter Lorimer, if you were trying to sign him for Tamworth (in his prime)?!
(Laughs and pauses for a moment) Sell the history of the club, because obviously Tamworth have got a rich history behind the football club. It’s a family atmosphere, and just let him know that we’d welcome him really. Everything is done for you as a player at Tamworth Football Club; there’s no stone we leave unturned. We have people that are available 24 hours a day if that’s what’s required. So I think that rich history, the stadium, the atmosphere, that’s a great selling point for any non-league player, or any footballer really. It’s a great place to play. If you look back through some of the teams that Tamworth had earlier in the 2000s, when they were in the Conference, people like Lee Hendrie and Paul Merson played for Tamworth, so if they’re coming out of the pro game and they can turn out for Tamworth, that shows something must be right at the football club.
Pre-season tour anywhere in the world
I’d take them to Saint Kitts! That would be fantastic.
Most challenging/frustrating part of your job
At this point at the moment, it’s obviously frustrating not finishing the season, but probably not being with the players enough really. Especially with some of the training sessions we do, we could do with longer time. If we were able to get promoted then maybe we could go full-time again, but obviously we’d have to work our way back to that. It’s frustrating when you go out and you set a plan and it doesn’t work, and you go back and you look and you start blaming yourself, because you do, you take responsibility as a management team for what happens when the team crosses that white line. Other times when your team’s playing so well and you should be winning, and you don’t put the ball in the back of the net, and then the other team goes down the other end and scores and wins the game, that’s very frustrating.
Funniest player/coach you’ve worked with, or just one of the funniest
Wow! There’s been a few. Dennis Mulholland comes to mind; he was at Tamworth and he was an absolutely crazy one. Changing-room banter was different grade from him and the things he used to get up to. Dennis wins, hands down!
Most embarrassing moment as a manager/player
I think one of my most embarrassing moments was being sent off in the Birmingham Senior Cup final, at Tamworth in front of our home fans against Burton Albion. That wasn’t a good one; that walk of shame is horrible! There’s been a few opportunities as well that, as a striker, I should have taken, and I’ve skied them or put them six foot wide!
Your routine on a match day
I do get up and go for a walk on a Saturday morning before the game. I usually record it and send it to the players; wake them up, say ‘good morning’! Starting to get a few recordings back now as well!
One singer/band or song you would sneak on to the team playlist
Well, the players have already beaten me to it; there’s a Bob Marley one that we play, ‘Three Little Birds’. Some of the songs that they have got on the playlist, though, are a bit like ‘wow’; I must be getting old!
Advice you remember getting that’s stuck with you
Yeah, just to always have a smile and go and enjoy what you do. Enjoy the good times, because they are short-lived, as a manager, as a footballer. Just go and create memories and things that people can never, never erase from your history and from your own mind. That’s the driving passion behind what I’m doing at the moment and to see where it takes me.
If you could have some time with any manager, past or present
If I go back into the 70s and that, I would definitely say Don Revie, Bill Shankly. Then coming up through the years, ones like Bobby Robson, through to the likes of Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola, Marcelo Bielsa today. Those are the ones I’d love to go and speak to, or listen to, or go and watch how they do things. Alex Ferguson is another one that springs to mind as well, Those type of winning managers, those managers with that mentality that seem to just drive their teams on to be successful. Those are the managers that if I had the opportunity, I would definitely take the time out to go and speak to and listen to how they go about what they do and how they prepare their teams on a match day.
Any misconceptions about you as a player/manager/personality, myths you’d like to dispel, or something you wish people could understand a bit more?
They used to think ‘he’s nuts, he is!’ That I was an angry person; it wasn’t even that I was angry, I just played the game to win and that was just me. Yeah, it didn’t match what people wanted to see or what they thought it should be like, but when I went across the line, there was no friends to me. It was just ‘win at all costs,’ and sometimes that didn’t go down well. It wasn’t meant in a horrible way, I wasn’t that kind of person, but I wanted to win.
And finally, what’s the best thing about having this life around football? When you wake up and football’s your focus for the day, do you still get that same buzz as you always did?
Yeah, football’s been in the blood for as long as I can remember, for most of my life. Now, being a manager, I still have that same drive and that same passion. There’s no better place to be on a Saturday afternoon than a football changing room. I still head and kick every ball while I’m standing on the side; I might say ‘oh, I would have scored that!’ I still get up on most days with something football-related that needs to be taken care of. I could wake up with a message from Andy, or Richard (Wassall), the general manager, so there’s always something football-related to do. Even in this time we’re in now, there’s no let-up, there’s no rest. Some players are still training, and as a management team, you’ve still got to plan and prepare for when we’re given the go-ahead to resume.
Interview/article by @chris_brookes