A Class Act In His Own Right
Intriguing Story Of Understudy Winger
Charles Bamforth delves into the career and life of Les Smith, a winger who had to be patient for his first-team opportunities in the shadow of Johnny Hancocks, Jimmy Mullen and others.
Time-travel to the early 1950s and ask a knowledgeable football supporter who Leslie Smith is. They would probably nominate the London-born left-winger Aston Villa signed from Brentford in 1945 and who played more than 180 games in claret and blue before returning to Griffin Park.
This was a player who was given a solitary cap for England – against Rumania in 1939 alongside Wolves duo Bill Morris and Stan Cullis.
But those who really knew their stuff would quickly add that there was another wide man of that name to be found just up the road, at Wolverhampton. That was Leslie Joseph Smith.
He, too, graced the wing at Villa Park, although on the right, but first he was a wonderfully loyal Wolves man.
Les was born in Halesowen on Christmas Eve in 1927 and spotted by Wolves while playing for Halesowen County Senior Boys School. He signed for the club under Major Frank Buckley when he left school in 1941.
When not learning the game, he worked at Staffordshire Power on tyre remould work alongside Billy Wright, Jimmy Mullen and a man best known at Molineux for his wartime football, Jim Alderton. But unlike his mates, who lived around Wolverhampton, he had the tiresome commute from Halesowen and drifted away into a job with Gaskell and Chambers, who were bar fitters and manufacturers of beer engines.
Smith carried on playing in the West Midlands alongside brothers Eddie and Reg Lowe, who both went on to play for Villa and Fulham. Eddie was the man who signed another former Wolves right-winger, Vic Povey, when he managed Notts County.
Les Smith came to Ted Vizard’s attention when playing in a local cup final in 1944. Wolves signed him for the second time and, three days later, he played away to Albion in a War League game.
He played three times (one goal) that season and ten matches (three goals) in 1945-46.
He signed as a full-time professional in April, 1946 but was obliged to head off in service of The Army for two and a half years. And just a month after Smith signed at Molineux, Wolves swooped on Walsall to bring in Johnny Hancocks. Les’s preferred right-wing posting was in jeopardy.
Imagine his frustration on April 2, 1948 when he landed in Harwich from Germany to hear an announcement that he should report for first-team duty with Wolves at Portsmouth because Hancocks was injured.
Unfortunately, Smith had to head to York to be demobbed. He went home to Halesowen that night and was too late to join the first team, so he played for the reserves against Preston at Molineux instead.
The 20-year-old did not have long to wait, though. A fortnight later, he got the nod in the no 7 shirt for the game at Stoke, having featured at the same ground for the reserves the previous week in a 1-0 win. On a snowy pitch for the First Division game, Smith was part of this side, who won 3-2: Bert WILLIAMS, Laurie KELLY, Terry SPRINGTHORPE, Bill CROOK, Alex SIMPSON, Billy WRIGHT, Les SMITH, Jimmy DUNN, Jesse PYE, Sammy SMYTH, Jimmy MULLEN. It was Glaswegian Simpson’s debut as well.
After missing out against Bolton in the final home game of the season, Smith played at Liverpool on the last day and found himself on the club’s tour of Holland and France a few days later, Hancocks’ fear of flying meaning that the no 7 shirt was Smith’s for any games that involved air travel.
Opportunities therefore came during the tour of Ireland in 1949, South Africa in 1951, Scandinavia in 1954 and the Soviet Union in 1955, as well as for games in Antwerp in successive years and in Rotterdam in 1952.
In Blighty, though, Smith played second fiddle to the diminutive Hancocks, who was unequivocally Stan Cullis’s preferred right flanker. In 1948-49, in fact, the younger man had to wait until February 19 to get a first-team game. He played seven in total that season and four and five respectively in the next two.
Not until April 14, 1951 did he hit his first goal for Wolves, in a 3-2 defeat against Stoke at Molineux. Things might have been different, though.
In early December, 1948, Hancocks had played for England on the left wing, with Stanley Matthews on the right. England beat Switzerland 6-0 at Highbury and the wee winger scored two. He was again chosen in his country’s no 11 shirt the other side of Wolves’ FA Cup final triumph at Wembley, this time in the 4-1 victory over Wales in Cardiff, with Tom Finney on the other flank.
Johnny decided he fancied the left-wing berth at Molineux, made his case to Cullis and chairman James Baker but was told ‘no way’. A certain Jimmy Mullen was doing perfectly nicely in that position after all. Hancocks asked for a transfer and was dropped for a game with Fulham but then reprieved after Smith managed only two matches.
It was in 1951-52 that Smith finally got into double figures with senior appearances in a season (15), with a couple of those played at inside-right. But he struck seven goals from the right wing.
He had exactly the same statistics in 1952-53 but was back to only four games (one goal) the season after. Three of those outings were his first while standing in for Mullen on the left.
Come December, 1953, it looked like Smith was on his way after he asked for a move, seeing no way past Hancocks. There was interest but Wolves wanted £15,000.
Villa were said to be hottest on his trail – but not at that price. The Birmingham Gazette said: “Like Bill Baxter, Smith has suffered from the excellence of his contemporaries.“
Burnley were also keen and it appears Cullis was prepared to let him go at the right price, the manager being quoted as saying: “I don’t expect to have Smith much longer. He is well worth a First Division place and it is only right that he should get his chance.”
Derby made a bid after watching him in a Central League game against Newcastle but it seems that new Rams boss Jack Barker was quoted an asking price of £25,000.
A newspaper on February 2, 1954, said Smith was almost certain to sign for Villa that morning, pointing out his preference for the right flank.
It was reported to be the third time Villa had attempt to sign him. The first was when he was an amateur during the war and, later, Wolves had supposedly asked too much for him.
But it was fortunate that Wolves hung on to him because he played 34 Division One games in 1954-55 and hit six goals, mostly as a replacement for Mullen in the no 11 shirt. He also played and helped make the winning goal in the famous Molineux victory over Honved in the December.
In September of the following season, Smith and Bert Williams were handed cheques for £750 – their second long-service awards – after bringing up ten years at the club.
Hancocks and Mullen still ruled the roost, though, and with Norman Deeley coming through, it was finally time for Villa to get their man. Smith signed with them on February 2, 1956 for £25,000.
It came as a shock to his new employers to discover that he had a broken little toe on his right foot. But his debut wasn’t delayed and he played all 14 games up to the end of the season, including home and away against Wolves on successive days.
The player married Mavis Taylor at St John’s Church in Halesowen less than two months after his arrival, the couple sticking to their guns despite the club suggesting they put it back. Les compromised, though, and joined up with the Villa party to go to play at Luton the same day.
His new side lost 2-1, with ex-Wolves man Nigel Sims in goal, Bill Baxter at left-half and future Wanderer Peter McParland on the left. Smith was firmly Villa’s right-winger.
And so to May 4, 1957 and the highlight of Smith’s career. With McParland becoming the big bad guy thanks to his shoulder charge on Manchester United’s Ray Wood, Villa beat the Busby Babes 2-1 in the FA Cup final.
Smith also scored twice in a 4-0 home win over Wolves on Easter Monday of that season – two of the 27 goals he netted for the club in 130 appearances. But revenge came for Cullis’s men the next day with a 3-0 victory at Molineux.
Smith was not involved in the FA Cup semi-final meeting of the rival clubs at the end of 1959-60, though. He took a specialist’s advice and called it a day in the February, aged 32, after straining an Achilles tendon against Chesterfield Reserves and being unable to walk properly for several weeks.
Les died at 80 on March 8, 2008 at Mary Stevens Hospice in Stourbridge after many years struggling with throat and bowel cancer. He and Mavis had a son, Nigel, and two grandchildren, Faye and Scott.