David Smallman: Everton & Wales
What might have been
I remember being excited as a 13-year-old when I heard about Everton’s latest acquisition, 22-year-old David Smallman. Prolific striker for 3rd division Wrexham, Smallman made the leap into what was eventually a doomed title chase. The gap between the first and third divisions of the Football League seemed more bridgeable in those days. Most people I speak to who watched the blues at that time still speak of a title thrown away and of the potential of an exciting new partnership between David Smallman and the best centre-forward of his generation, Bob Latchford. By the end of the ultimately disappointing 1974/75 season, the future looked bright and great things were expected from both Smallman and Everton.
Five lean years after Everton had last won the Championship, any new acquisition that offered excitement and flair was welcomed with open arms. That David Smallman’s career slid away was an immense disappointment to all those who saw his promise. Everton’s inexact title as the “Mersey millionaires” meant that they were able to replace him quite easily. Ultimately, he sadly slipped from First Division football consciousness quite quickly.
Born in March 1953 in Connah’s Quay, North Wales, Smallman was spotted on a scouting mission whilst playing for Shotton Westminster FC aged 15 years by then manager of Wrexham, John Neale. Neale had been there to look at another player but instead, was impressed with Smallman. He duly joined Wrexham and broke into the first team in the 1972/73 season. Within three seasons had scored 38 goals in 104 appearances and broken into the Welsh national side.
Wrexham the giant-killers
In those days, Wrexham were known for their FA Cup giant-killing exploits and Smallman played his part. Beating 2nd Division Crystal Palace in the 3rd round was followed by a fourth round beating of 2nd Division runaway leaders – Jack Charlton led Middlesborough. Smallman scoring the only goal as he did again in the fifth round as Wrexham beat 1st Division Southampton at the Dell. Only 1st Division high flyers Burnley could halt their progress in the 6th round. His partnership with close friend Billy Ashcroft took Wrexham into the 3rd division promotion race.
David Smallman signs for Everton
His displays and promise were enough for Everton manager, Billy Bingham to add him to his championship chasers. A skilful, mobile 5’10” striker, he was the subject of interest by Manchester City as well as Everton although the former apparently only wanted him on loan. It turns out that the previous Everton manager, Harry Catterick had enquired about him in 1972. The prospect of a couple of years in the reserves waiting for a first-team opportunity meant that David decided to stay and play first-team football. His patience had now paid off and a first-team place for Everton awaited.
He scored and impressed in his first game for the reserves. It seems the hardest part that day was getting into the ground though as apparently, security on the entrance to the ground wouldn’t let him in until some of the players came to his rescue and verified him to the commissioner. He made his first team debut away to Luton and typical of Everton’s performances that season, dominated before giving away a lead to lose 2-1. Having signed for the blues with Everton top of the league, the team had dropped off the top having won only once in their last seven games. His second game was away to Newcastle who they beat 1-0 with a goal by Martin Dobson. Still within touching distance of top spot, David Smallman was about to make his home debut against Sheffield United.
Home debut of highs and lows
The twin spearhead of Bob Latchford and David Smallman showed for the first time at Goodison Park on 19th April 1975. The sun was shining and the Bay City Rollers were at Number one in the charts. I remember taking my usual place in the Gwaldys Street stand, near to Bullens road. I was employed by the club hiring cushions out to fans and took my seat early, which was usual when there was a big attendance. Cushions were in demand that day. With lessons learned from throwing away a lead to lowly Luton, we were confident. What could possibly go wrong? Everton raced to a 2-0 lead with David Smallman’s spectacular screw kick into the top corner. The partnership looked promising and Everton looked like taking the Championship race to the wire.
Looking back, this first half could almost have been a high point of Smallman’s career as Everton contrived to throw the lead away with a combination of complacency and defensive mistakes. No mistake starker than goalkeeper Dai “the drop” Davies who duly dropped a cross for the equalising goal. A goal five minutes from time sealing Everton’s fate. Only one victory in the six games against the three relegated sides cost Everton the title.
The 1975/76 season
The following season started off well with the forward combination of Smallman and Latchford sharing eight goals in the opening eight games. It was then that his injury curse took over. He played only 14 league games that season scoring four goals. In a season that promised so much for both Everton and Smallman, the blues could only finish 11th and Smallman on the treatment table. The following season he made just two appearances, scoring one goal and never played for Everton again.
Do you remember the old days of Shoot magazine when professional footballers bared their soul to the magazine? When professional footballers had the blandest taste in music and their favourite meal always seemed to be steak and chips. David Smallman was the focus in 1975 and two of his answers made for interesting and quite sad reading. His professional ambition “to play in the First Division as long as possible” came to a stuttering halt in the 1975/76 season. His personal ambition “to make lots of money” also sadly didn’t happen due to his short injury-ravaged career. Nowadays it’s a different world. I wonder how many of today’s top division players would admit their personal ambition would be to accumulate as much money as possible or for that matter, be driving a mini.
Injuries take their toll
Smallman stayed at Everton until 1980 when having spent a total of fifty months in five years having treatment and out of the first team he decided to move on. In those five years, he suffered two broken legs, a dislocated shoulder, torn hamstring, Knee ligament damage and phlebitis of the calf amongst other things. Such a promising career was stalled almost as quickly as it started. He quickly drifted away from the consciousness of Evertonians and hardly caused a ripple when he left the club.
He joined Bangor City on leaving Everton playing four games, scoring four goals but injuries again cursed him. After he retired from English football he went to live in Australia where he played for Green Gully Soccer Club in Melbourne scoring 21 goals in 39 appearances. He then closed his football career in 1986 with 8 games for Western Suburbs, Melbourne, scoring 7 goals. He later returned to Wales where he took up a role with his local council. This year he celebrated his 65th birthday.
In these days of mega money Premier League players who will never have to go looking for exposure or financial security, it’s interesting to look back at players whose careers took place over 40 years ago. Especially those whose careers promised so much but delivered so little due to no fault of their own. For every Welsh Gareth Bale, there’s a Welsh David Smallman who showed such promise and had years of potential success as a professional footballer in front of him. Having said that, how many people can say they played football in the top division and scored for their country? The first time I saw him, I was genuinely excited that Everton had found someone who you would nowadays call “the real deal”. His hooked screw kick into the top corner of the Gwladys Street goal has genuinely lived with me since that day in 1975. For 45 minutes he was one of our finest. That it was coupled with such disappointment on the same day and the awful injury record he sustained represents the fine line between success and failure in life as well as football.