Tommy Smith on Warnock, Hughes and that promotion campaign - Interview
Tuesday, 5th Mar 2019 14:28 by Ron Norris
In his latest interview with figures from QPR's past, Ron Norris meets promotion-winning winger Tommy Smith who talks about the club's unbelievable 2010/11 season, his great relationship with Neil Warnock, and how it all fell apart under Mark Hughes.
You came to QPR from Portsmouth, they were having financial issues at the time, how did your move come about?
Neil Warnock was in charge at QPR at the time and he had tried to sign me on a couple of occasions previously in my career. Portsmouth were coming out of administration, had just been relegated from the Premier League and they were looking to get rid of some players to get some money in the bank. I was told if the right offer came in then I could leave. I was going to go to Glasgow Rangers actually but for one reason or another that didn't transpire and I think it was a week or so later, just before transfer deadline day, that Neil showed some interest and it moved pretty quickly from there. As it happened we didn't get it done in time so it ended up going through as a loan for first few months so unfortunately it meant I missed a couple of games due to that. Then I officially signed the following January.
I’m always curious how QPR were seen within football that that time. Things would pick up under Warnock of course but we were still something of an oddball club. Do people in the game not worry about that as deeply as maybe the press and fans?
As a player you take everything into account. I think different players move for different reasons. Some financial, some would be the league they are playing in or the opportunity to play at a higher level, others might be because they worked with the manager before. Portsmouth were having issues and although I didn't want to jump off the ship it was sinking at that time. Neil was at QPR and they were having a brilliant start to the season, the squad was looking great and he had been desperate to sign me for a number of seasons previously. He's so passionate about football and he's certainly very convincing. For me it was a really nice challenge and it was one I really wanted to take on at that point.
How did Warnock sell the club to you and what did he say he wanted from you?
I think he's very clever and shrewd in his signings and he will sign players at the time for a role that he feels is missing from his squad. Often he will sign players he has worked with before because he knows and trusts them. Whilst I didn't fall into that bracket we had played against each other so many times over the years that he knew what I could bring and I think he just thought I could fit into the squad nicely at that time. I certainly felt at home pretty quickly.
Your debut was at Loftus Road, a late sub against Middlesbrough, do you remember much of that?
I'd played at Loftus Road loads of times in my career and I always loved those older grounds with the stands close to the pitch, it generates such a good atmosphere. So I had always enjoyed playing there. I'd scored there a few times in my career....
(laughs) yeah it's a ground I had enjoyed going to, I had a few friends who were fans and I know how passionate they are. They had a very mixed past and I know at the time they hadn't had the best of it for the previous ten years or so. I just thought what a fantastic opportunity to go to a club like that and get them promoted. It was a really good challenge for me.
You carried on in that way for a bit with late appearances off the bench but you scored your first goal in your first start?
Was that Reading?
Sorry yeah it wasn't a test!
(laughs) I think we won 3-1 didn't we, obviously as a player you want to get off to the best start possible and as an attacking player for me it was about end product. So you want an assist, a goal and to be consistent, they are the three main parts of my game that I always judge myself on. You want to get off to a good start at a new club but I had to bide my time which was understable, the club were on a fantastic winning streak when I signed so it was just a case of being patient, waiting for the opportunity to come and when it did I wanted to make sure I grabbed it to stay in that starting eleven. So to get the goal early on was really pleasing.
I guess if you have done nine or ten late sub appearances when you do get that start the only thing you can do is score, you need to get that goal up?
You do, absolutely and then it's up to you to keep your place after that. We had a small squad that was very strong and everyone was playing well when they got the chance, scoring, keeping clean sheets whatever and there was a real feel good factor around the club and where it where it was going. Everything seemed to be going right for us at that time.
Then the next week, a trip to your old club and we keep the unbeaten run going by scoring a penalty in the last minute to nick a 1-1. That must have been an interesting day?
Yes, very much. You never really enjoy going back to old clubs, particularly that early. Sometimes you just want the dust the settle a bit so when you go back fans might have forgiven you a little or forgotten some of the bad feeling. I felt I did all I could at Portsmouth and I left due the circumstances there but it was very weird to be in one dressing room a few weeks previously and then go back with all your teammates and be in the next one. It's a strange feeling as a player because you don’t feel like you have bedded in that much and you probably know your old teammates better than your new ones. Still it was great to go back and we were obviously one down and to be able to score the penalty at the end was nice, it's nice to show your old club that hopefully they might miss you.
Were you on penalties anyway or did you just want that one?
I wasn't, I think maybe Adel and Helguson were both off the pitch at the time, it was stoppage time after the 90th minute and it was myself who put the cross in that won the penalty. No one else seemed to want to step up so I'm always happy to grab the ball and put myself under that kind of pressure.
The unbeaten run stretched into December until Watford saw us off at Loftus Road. We know now with hindsight that the squad reacted well but at the time did that knock us or did the fact we went unbeaten that long just inspire us to push on?
I think we knew it would come to end at some point, I mean you can't expect to go unbeaten in the Championship, with so many games you are always going to find a team that's just unplayable. To be honest all of us were in agreement that Watford were brilliant on the night, we perhaps didn't play as well as we could but Watford were excellent and we couldn't get near them, we were a yard off them.
I think it was good timing really, it was a little reminder of what the Championship could be like. If you don't play to your utmost, give 100% or are slightly off the pace you will get punished. I think it was a combination of Watford being outstanding on the night and us perhaps thinking ‘it's Watford at home we are going to win this one’.
By this point Taarabt was just on another level, what was it like playing with him from your point of view?
He just seemed to get better and better as the season went on. He's such a confidence player as most enigmatic players are. Warnock knew how to get the best out of him so all credit to Neil, but it did frustrate the dressing room because he seemed to get special treatment. Neil knew that was what he had to do to get the best out of him though. People say to me now who is the best player you have played with and Adel is always in my top five because that season he was unplayable. I don't think I've played with a player who, through the course of the season, did what he did. Some of the goals he scored and the way he controlled games ... when he was on it he was just a fantastic talent.
So frustrating to see him have that one season and the rest of his career has just gone away from him…
Yeah, he kind of had that self destruct button in him. Neil did wonderfully well through the season to manage that. I can remember going to Hull where Adel just literally gave up, it was the first half and he lost the ball every time he got it and he was trying to sub himself off. At half time the lads just wanted to kill him, we are all running around and can't get near this team because we are effectively playing with ten men. I remember the gaffer said anyone that shouts at Adel I'm going to sub you off, leave him alone, so we all had to sit there biting our tongues. He just let Adel be Adel really and it certainly worked.
I don't think anyone has done that since with him.
No and I think that is what made it a special dressing room at QPR, it was designed to get the best out of everyone including Adel. We had loads of experience and some really good young heads with some fresh energy. It was a good blend and you probably couldn't get away with treating a player like that in many dressing rooms. I think we self managed ourselves a lot with the experience we had in there so as much as we wanted to kill Adel at times we also all knew what he could do and you don't mind when he's producing it four out of five games. That fifth game you go alright fine, we will have to work twice as hard then because he's not going to.
It wasn’t all about Adel though we had such a good set up in that side from back to front really?
That's it yes, look at Paddy Kenny in goal, he saved us god knows how many points that season. For a lot of us it was one of the highlights of our careers, the style of football we were playing, the victories we were producing. When you get on a run like that you get little knocks but you almost don't feel them because you are just enjoying your football so much. You don't want to not play because you might not get back in the side. It didn't happen too often in my career to be in a dressing room like that and get on that sort of feel good factor.
Players in interviews will always say they take it one game at a time, they aren't thinking about promotion etc but at what point did you really start to think “yeah this is going to happen for us”?
It's different stages really. We always knew we had a chance from very early on but then you get a lead and you have that pressure, can we keep the lead, can we cope with being top of the table? Then you have a period like Christmas, four/five games in two weeks and we need to make sure we get through that. I do remember towards the end of the season we would look at the league table after games and start working out well if they lose there and we win here then we could go up. You play out all the scenarios in your head. It was such a good group though that when we got on the pitch it was focus heads on really. All that bit of banter checking the what-if-scenarios went out of the window and we just go to work and do our jobs.
You scored in the game at Watford that secured the promotion, that must have been an incredible day, incredible night too I guess?
It was, it was fantastic, I mean obviously Watford were the team I came through at youth level, all my family are big fans and it's where I grew up so I had a big attachment to the club and that made it more special. It's such a great ground, I had so many good years playing there in a Watford shirt so to do it in a QPR shirt was slightly odd but I've got fond memories of the day. I didn't want to overly celebrate and be disrespectful to the Watford fans but at the same time you are obviously ecstatic as it pretty much sealed our promotion. Fantastic day that, really was, and you're right lots of celebrations after.
QPR of course can’t do things easily and the Faurlin saga hung over us. For the players was it a case of just getting the job done and let the authorities decide the rest?
A little bit yes, we were always fairly confident in the dressing room but perhaps if we had a manager who hadn't had Neil's experience it might have affected us more. Neil never once showed any fear or concern about it, he just said it will be fine don't worry about it, they are dealing with it and it will get sorted. He said it with such conviction and he never seemed to be worried so we weren’t. It wasn't until the decision got made that you could see how worried he probably had been all along. So looking back they protected us very well from it all because it was something that could have realistically gone horribly wrong for us but I think the staff and the owners took the brunt of the pressure at that time.
How did it affect Ale? Did the squad rally round him? He must have felt very strange having this all about him.
Yeah I think he did. He dealt with it remarkably well, credit to him it didn't affect his performances on the pitch or how he was in the dressing room. I think it was weighing him down hugely but he was such a professional and such a lovely lad he never let it affect him and because the dressing room was close and tight there was never that element of blame, there was no finger pointing, we were one as a group and it wasn't his fault. I think the only pressures he had were from himself but we knew he had nothing to do with it and it was great to get over that barrier in the end, although it was all quite eleventh hour wasn't it.
You guys found out just before the Leeds game as well right?
Yes just before, I remember Gianni running up and down screaming in the tunnel. I think that's when we all knew because we could hear him screaming and banging off the walls. I think out of everyone he was the most relieved.
That game was the worst of the season in the end…
It was yeah, it all caught up with us I think, the day was great, the atmosphere was terrific and the fans were brilliant. The game probably got put to one side, it didn't really matter it was more a celebration and the game got in the way. We tried to go out and play but it's just the way it happened unfortunately.
Back in The Premier League then, we get done on opening day but then travel to Everton with a weakened squad and you score the only goal of the game in one of the best backs to the walls performances I’ve seen from us. Good one to play in?
Ah fantastic! The opening game was a bit of an eye opener for us because we probably felt it’s Bolton at home this is a great opportunity for us to get three points and we're back with a bang and it didn't work out anything like that. I didn't think it was a 4-0 game but if you give opportunities to players at that level they will punish you. Everton though, like you say to go there with a bit part squad and win was a phenomenal performance. It is just fantastic there, true football fans, terrific stadium, it's a lovely place to go and play football so to go there and get three points was huge for the club and it was a great performance, very gritty and determined.
There seemed to be much to be positive about with new owners and we made some interesting new signings, how did that change the squad dynamic?
It did really, it was interesting because a lot of the players they brought in were good guys. There's no right or wrong when you get promoted as to what you do with the squad but I think most of the players there thought they should make a few additions and keep the core of the team but you get given a bit of a blank chequebook as a manager it's hard not to fulfil the ambitions of the owners. They want you to bring players in that have played at that level, got more experience and can take us on to the next level, not just survive but become a mid table team. I understand that, that's what the manager was asked to do. It does change things though when all off a sudden you have players earning four, five, six times that of the squad that got you up so without realising there's always a bit of an undercurrent and it's always hard to manage that.
We got to January and then the owners moved Warnock on. Did he “lose the dressing room” so to speak? Do you think he deserved more time?
I was really disappointed, I felt it was hard on Neil. He brought in a lot of players and it takes time to settle that all in. I felt to only give a manager three or four months at that level with new players was hard on him. I think he was still trying to find his best team and of course when you bring in players you have to play them otherwise you have got an owner banging on your door saying ‘we are spending this much on this guy why aren't you playing him?’ So you have to allow a period of time for a manager to let new players bed in, give it time then if it’s not working you can start to make changes.
I always felt I would get back in to the team regularly once he had a chance to look at the new boys, I looked at the new signings that came in and thought ‘you know what I'll get back in the team here’. I played in The FA Cup game at MK Dons and Neil called me after that game and said look Tom you are going to be a big part of the second half of the season, I realise now I want to put you in more and involve you so it was great news to hear and then later that night he got sacked. So yeah I was disappointed for myself and for Neil, I have a lot of time for him, he's a lovely man and it's hard to take when you work so well with someone and enjoy it, to lose that isn't nice for players because you don't know what's going to happen.
And how was life under Mark Hughes for you?
Erm, not great. I'm not a huge Mark Hughes fan. I have to bite my tongue most of the time when I speak about him because I don't want to seem like a footballer who is just bitter because he didn't play me and therefore I don't like him. It wasn’t that, I was just really disappointed with what he brought to club. Maybe he didn't see eye to eye with me as a player or see what I offered, that's fine I can handle that but I was disappointed in his tenure and the way he dealt with players.
There was a group of us who were treated very badly under him, for no reason and without any real explanation as to why we were treated that way. It was a real shame because I loved my time at QPR but I found myself wanting to leave. He bought in a whole host of new players again so you had the players Warnock brought in and then the ones Hughes signed and I just thought it all got a bit lost really. That's football, that goes on but I'll always be honest about people and I felt I was treated very poorly, it left a bitter taste in my mouth but you have to take it on the chin and move on.
It seems to be quite hard to find someone with anything good to say about that stint so I wouldn't feel too bad frankly.
No I don't and good luck to him, he has gone off to other things and I'm sure he will continue but I'm not ever going to be a fan of his.
And then off to Cardiff? I was going to ask why but I think that's fairly obvious!
Yeah, well at the time QPR brought in a guy called Mike Rigg. I'm still at a loss to tell you what his job was but I think basically it was to deal with anything Mark didn't want to. So every week or so he would call me in his office and try and sell me to one team or another. Cardiff came up, I'd worked with Malky Mackay and they were interested but I was a bit hesitant at the time as I wasn't sure about moving that far away. But I went down there towards the end of August and had a look around and I really bought into the club and what they were trying to do there and I decided I just need to get away because I really wasn't enjoying my life at QPR. They were doing their best to force us out by making us train at 09.30 and then 17.30, completely separated us off. I didn't want to be forced out but I knew it would only do me damage sitting there being pig headed so I thought ‘let's just move on’ and as it turned out I loved my time at Cardiff, it was a real shame the way it ended at QPR though, it's got a big place in my heart always will do.
I was going to ask where QPR sits for you, fairly short spell and the last six months wasn't the best for you but even in a fairly short spell you are well remembered and you had some great times?
Oh without a doubt it really was, it felt like I crammed four or five seasons into a couple of years there.
(laughs) I started to realise that, yeah. It was fantastic you take away the negative bits and it's a great club, great fanbase and I love Loftus Road it's a such a good place to play football in. I met some really good people there, it was a really happy time in my career and not just for me, for my family too as they loved coming down and watching there. So I'm always looking out for their results and I always want them to do well.
You are working in property now?
Yeah that's right, I invested in a property consultancy business which has its core income from residential sales and lettings. I bought it with my brother who played football as well and retired around the same time. So that's the next step for the Smith brothers really, the property industry and working hard to be a success at that. It’s not easy I have to say, it's got its own challenges but it's going well.
Did staying in football appeal to you?
Yeah it's a really tough decision, firstly working out if you want to stay in and then if you do what kind of role you want to go in to. I had a few friends that retired and went into managing and coaching.... for me I just wanted a bit of a fresh start and do something different. Never say never, I love football and I'd love to come back into it at some point but I quite like this fresh challenge doing something different in a different industry.
Ron first started interviewing figures from the QPR present and past for QPRnet back in 2001. Across the next 13 years he racked up more than 50 chats with players, managers and officials — you can access the archive here. With the site now mothballed, LFW is more than delighted to be hosting Ron’s fresh interviews here, even though he brought us Richard Thompson to start with. Read his recent chats with Kaspars Gorkss, Tony Roberts and Andy Sinton here.
The Twitter @qprnet, @richardnorris75, @loftforwords
Pictures — Action Images
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