SUNDERLAND ‘TIL HE DIES in conversation with football agent & former Sunderland A.F.C footballer, Martin Smith (part 2/2).

It’s a big mix of Sunderland fans here in South Shields (we’re talking in the Littlehaven Hotel) there is the Shields branch and the Jarrow branch. I lived in Spennymoor which at one time was all Sunderland then the Keegan era changed that, same for a few Durham pit villages.

They were so entertaining they became everybody’s second team, for a Sunderland fan that was horrible. Although the way things are now with Brucie at Newcastle, sounds like a few Mags might want to come over to our side (laughs).

A message for the Mag’s. Celebrating scoring at St James’ Park (home of Newcastle United) for Sheffield United.

Wherever I’ve been I’ve enjoyed my time, and always got players player of the year that sort of thing. My record for goalscoring was 1 in 4 and scoring a goal is one thing you cannot replace.

I scored at St James’ playing in the FA Cup for Sheffield United, we were a Championship club then. It was right in front of the Gallowgate to make it 1-1. I bent it past Harper and went off to dance around the corner flag. I lost my head, for 15 minutes after that I was on a different planet.

It doesn’t look like the best goal I scored, but it meant a lot to me. It was special. In the end we got beat 4-1. I wasn’t bothered. I had a few songs from the fans in my career ‘Martin Smith, Martin Smith, running down the wing’ and ‘Loved by the lads, feared by the Mags’ (laughs).

I was playing for England under 21’s at Newcastle and got booed every time I touched the ball. People asked if I was upset ‘No I wouldn’t want the Mags cheering for me’ (laughs).

When I was at Northampton we were playing against Mansfield and I scored putting us 3-0 up. Job done. One of our players came up to congratulate me, he seemed to be more excited than usual and I didn’t know why, ‘It’s your hundredth goal’ he shouted. He was the statto of the team – every club’s got one.

I think I played in all, 400 odd games with over 100 goals. With the injuries I’ve done well to notch that many games. The Premier League is so demanding now, have an off day and you get found out – back then I could hide on the wing for 10 minutes and get my breath back.

You look at tactics now and the lengths they go to suss out a team’s weakness, they analyse everything. Back in our day somebody would go to scout the opposition and come back with a few notes and then go through it on a Friday.

A lot of 18 year old players I know have no doubt got the ability, but it’s what they have up there that counts (points to head). Can they handle bitter rejection, what about people having a go at you, you’re not going to be the best when at previous teams you’ve always been the best, can you handle fans telling you that you’re rubbish ? Suddenly it becomes a different game.

A big difference now is the intrusion into your life. When I was playing you only had a letter in the Sports Weekly newspaper that was having a go at you, or someone shouting at you in the pub, but now it’s all over social media, and it can be constant.

Remarks from the crowd from week to week are you’re either great or rubbish, maybe the amount of money the players are getting paid is something to do with that.

Stuart Ripley (Blackburn & Middlesbrough)

A former pro told me that Stuart Ripley who used to play here in the North East for Middlesbrough, during one game when he was playing for Blackburn he was getting a hard time from the fans. There was one guy in the crowd shouting at him ‘Ripley you’re absolutely f***ing useless’.

But Stu was sitting on the subs bench with his head in his hands thinking ‘I’m getting stick and I’m not even on the pitch’.

Footballers now are so different, they are athletes. I was at Northampton later in my career when we were playing Southampton in the cup. Both teams were lined up in the tunnel, I looked around and seen every player towering above me. 6 ‘2 players going to run over the top of you.

I think it was Brendan Rodgers (Leicester manager) that said don’t class yourself as a professional footballer until you’ve played 50 games. Today you see young players with their shiny cars in the carpark, my first game as a pro I only had a Ford Escort.

Sadly, I ended up with 13 operations during my career. I done most injuries like hamstrings and calves, the longest time I missed was a full season. But my main problem wasn’t something you could see like a broken leg, it was a degenerative cartilage in my knee.

You’d have the operation then three month rehab, come back kick a ball and it would go again. This went on for 15 month and the physio’s started to question what was happening.

Martin playing for Northampton.

It all started when I was at Huddersfield, then I went to Northampton, eventually the last one happened at Darlington and I didn’t come back from that. 

I remember we were playing Macclesfield, something just didn’t feel right. I tackled and my knee blew up, I knew I was finished. I retired in 2008. I eventually went back to light training and playing in the Northern league.

Martin had a spell at Blyth Spartans in 2008.

I tried a couple of other things but I had to come back to football, it’s all I know. Now I work for a football agency, Quantum Sports, I do a bit of scouting and some radio commentary for Northampton when they play in the north which I love.

In the agency I like working with the younger lads and try to help them make the right decisions. I talk to managers and try to get the lads signed. I like being involved, seeing players develop and I offer them advice and tell them the mistakes I made.

Actually there is more chances out there for young English lads to come through because of Brexit, I know a lot of foreign lads can’t come in to the country unless they meet a certain criteria.

Scotland and Northern Ireland used to be countries for good players but stopped coming through for many years because there was maybe a Romanian or Slovak player in front of them, but now they are starting to come through again.

I mentioned the camaraderie and togetherness that football gave us as players and even now we keep in touch. We have an ex-players club where four or five times a year we get together and play golf against different clubs around the North East. The FA Cup ’73 lads still get out and a few of us younger lads play – well we’re nearly 50 now (laughs).

I don’t think there is a day goes by when I don’t think about football, wishing I was going into training or playing. I’ve got a 7 a side game tonight, just can’t give it up. For the rest of my life I’d like to stay in football in some capacity – well that’s the plan.

Interview by Gary Alikivi   August 2021