NEW: GARY SMITH INTERVIEW!
Gary Smith’s Colorado Rapids winning the MLS title in 2010
In 19 years of Major League Soccer, four British players have won the title – their names are at the end of the interview, if you get that far – but only one British manager has done the same.
That man is Gary Smith, who led Colorado Rapids to the American title in 2010, beating FC Dallas in the final. Now, after a spell at Stevenage in League One, Smith is back in the USA – this time with Atlanta Silverbacks in the North American Soccer League, the second tier of US football.
As a player, Smith stayed in the foothills of English football, on the borders of league and non-league: one year at Fulham, then Colchester United, Enfield, Wycombe Wanderers (under Martin O’Neill), and Barnet, before a leg-break ended his professional career. He turned out for Aylesbury and Gravesend, did his UEFA A Licence, and set off on his coaching career. Luckily, he had contacts.
“My dad (Roger Smith) was academy director at Wimbledon when they were in the Premier League,” he says. “He offered me the chance to get some experience, and take on a team. Being a player, I thought I was ready for the 16 or 18-year-olds. Instead, he gave me the Under-12s.”
The sessions took place in the evenings, and the money wasn’t great. But the journey to Colorado began with those cold nights in South London.
“When you’re dealing with young players, you’ve got to explain things properly,” he says. “You’ve got to be organised. You’re having to deal with odd numbers, with kids who don’t turn up, with difficult situations. It’s like doing an apprenticeship. It was the best grounding I could imagine.”
After four years learning from the likes of Terry Burton (“a fantastic mentor”) and Stewart Robson (“a brilliant coach”), Smith moved from Wimbledon to become youth team coach at Wycombe, under Tony Adams. From there, he was headhunted by Watford, becoming reserve team manager, and then started scouting for Arsenal, the team he supported as a boy.
“Steve Rowley (the Arsenal chief scout) is a very close friend,” says Smith. “He needed more eyes on the ground in Spain, so I went there for four months. I was based in Malaga – I watched Malaga, Betis, Sevilla, teams in the Segunda. Financially, it (scouting) wasn’t huge. But it was a chance to expand, to see different styles of play, and different training sessions. I took an awful lot from that.”
After conversations with Rowley and Dick Law – now Arsenal’s transfer executive – Smith moved to America in February 2008. Arsenal had a partnership with Colorado Rapids, and wanted to set up an academy in Denver alongside the Rapids’, mainly for Central and South American players. But then, as Smith says, “things evolved in a very different way”. And that’s an understatement.
Smith helped with the first team, and when manager Fernando Clavijo resigned with Rapids bottom of the western conference, the Englishman took over as caretaker. He’d been there six months.
“I suppose it was the right place at the right time,” he says. “But to begin with I was concerned. I didn’t know the league well enough, the team weren’t doing well, and I was concerned that my reputation might be tarnished. As it turned out we missed out on the play-offs by five minutes.”
The turnaround wasn’t an accident. Smith brought in Steve Guppy – a friend from his Wycombe Wanderers days, who was already working in the US – and they put long-hold beliefs into practice.
“Steve and I had often talked about what we wanted (at a club). We wanted players who weren’t satisfied with doing an hour and a half’s training then going home to put their feet up. It was our mission to get players asking for extra work. Players in the team wanting to get better, and players out of the team trying to get in it. If they want to improve, we’ve done our job properly.
“We also wanted to break the squad into smaller groups, to make training much more specific. The goalkeepers obviously – but also the defenders, midfielders, attackers, all working in groups. We wanted the players to feel like our coaching was enhancing their own games and their own careers.”
In 2010 – Smith’s second full season – the Rapids made the play-offs, and beat Columbus Crew and San Jose Earthquakes before coming back from 1-0 down to beat Dallas 2-1 in the final.
“We were the ugly ducklings of the MLS, the black sheep,” says Smith. “Compared to other teams, we were underfunded. We were so unfancied it was untrue, so to win the league was testament to the staff and the players. We had great characters – Pablo Mastroeni, Jeff Larentowitcz, Conor Casey, others. In the final, I could have sat in the hotel, and they’d still have gone and won it.”
Which begs the question why – five years after winning the biggest prize in American football – is Smith starting again with the Atlanta Silverbacks, in the second tier?
“I was planning many years in the MLS,” he says. “But – as for all sportsmen – circumstances play a big part. In 2011, we had a good year. We played in the Concacaf Champions League, but things caught up with us. We had enormous injuries; we had a lot of ill fortune.”
The Rapids came fifth in the western conference in 2011, but lost 4-0 on aggregate in the semi-finals to Kansas City. They were also knocked out in the Champions League group stages, and Smith left the club at the end of the season. He joined Stevenage early in 2012.
“From the outside, I think people felt I wasn’t fully committed to the US,” he says. “I took a job back in the UK very quickly, and I suspect it looked like I was jumping ship; like I wasn’t prepared to throw myself into American football. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. I loved living in Denver, my family loved it, and we had a wonderful way of life. Leaving was a huge wrench.”
Smith led Stevenage to the League One play-offs in 2012, but was sacked in 2013, after a bad run of results. “When I took over, Stevenage were doing well,” says Smith. “But the chairman wanted me to change the style of play and the image, and that wasn’t easy. Looking back, I think I did a very good job. When I left, our form wasn’t good. But Stevenage are now in League Two and I wonder if – on reflection – the chairman thinks ‘I dropped bit of a clanger by sacking him’.”
After scouting for the Republic of Ireland under Martin O’Neill, Smith, was “desperate to get back on the grass”. A friend mentioned his name to the president of the Silverbacks, he was interviewed, and accepted the job late last year. He moved over in January, with the season starting in April.
“From what I’ve seen, Atlanta is a wonderful place,” says Smith. “My wife and children are moving out at the end of the school year, and it seems like a really nice place to bring up a family. It’s a great outdoor lifestyle – the environment isn’t dissimilar to Denver and the climate is excellent.
“As well as that, football is growing beyond belief. When I came to Colorado for the first time, I felt I was part of a new world that was growing; really going places. I’ve been away for three years, but I still believe that. All those same thoughts have come flooding back. It’s an exciting time.”
NB: The four British players to win the MLS are – we think – Paul Dalglish [Houston Dynamo 2006, 2007], Jamie Smith [Colorado Rapids 2010], David Beckham [LA Galaxy, 2011, 2012], and Dom Dwyer [Sporting Kansas City, 2013].