Sep had never really talked at length about his career before, so when his reminiscences were compiled into a 30,000-word memoir for the Smith family, this became a unique document. In this three part feature for LCFC.com, we have included extracts from this memoir.
In this first edition, Sep recalls his upbringing in the mining village of Whitburn, near Sunderland, how he came to join Leicester City, his early years in the Club's first team, an FA Cup Semi-Final and playing for England.
Born in 1912, Sep was the seventh son (hence his name Septimus) of a coal mining family. Recalling his childhood in Whitburn, Sep remembered: “Times were hard. In those days, we played in home-made football boots. These were just shoes with corks nailed to them to act as studs. Footballs were the blown-up bladders of slaughtered pigs.
“We lived next door to a farm. For 2/6 (12 ½ p) a week, I collected hens’ eggs from their nests for the farmer. I kept some nests secret from the farmer so I could give some eggs to mother. I also delivered milk to neighbouring houses, pouring milk into jugs from cans. I kept some of this back secretly for mother too!
“When I was 14, I had an England schoolboy trial at Leicester. It was my first game at Filbert Street. The Double Decker Stand had not been built then. I was then selected to play for England schoolboys at Roker Park against Scotland in front of a crowd of 25,000.
“In 1929, when I was 17, I signed for City, where my brother Joe, played. Leicester’s manager, Willie Orr, had arranged a charity match with Northampton, where my other brother, Tom, played. After the game, Willie gave me a form, and I signed for Leicester. I could have joined Portsmouth, where my brothers Jack and Willie played. Jack, an England international, had played in the previous Saturday’s FA Cup Final. Portsmouth was too far from home for me though.”
In the first match of the 1929/30 season, Sep made his debut for Leicester, who had finished runners up in the old First Division at the end of the previous year. He became a regular in the first team in the 1931/32 season and soon began to make a name for himself as a skilful inside forward and half-back.
During Peter Hodge’s second spell as manager, from 1932 to 1934, Sep was beginning to attract a national reputation. This resulted in several top First Division sides making big money offers to sign him.
My mother thought I would be on the winning side, but she wished that the two sides had met in the final, and not the semi-final. She said she wouldn’t go to the game because it would be far too exciting.Sep Smith
Sep explained: “Within the space of two weeks, there were offers for me from Arsenal and Aston Villa. Arsenal were the top side at that time. They offered Leicester £10,000 for me.”
To put this in perspective, the first transfer fee to break the £10,000 barrier had been four seasons earlier, when the Gunners had paid that sum for Bolton Wanderers’ David Jack.
Sep continued: “When the manager called me into his office to inform me of the offer, I thought he was going to have a go at me. I was not that keen to go to Arsenal. London was getting further away from my roots in Whitburn. My wife was not too keen either as she was worried about living in London.”
Sep nevertheless agreed to the transfer to Arsenal. This would have put him in the same team as George Male, David Jack, Charlie Buchan, Eddie Hapgood, Jack Lambert, Alex James and Cliff Bastin. It also meant that he would have been managed by the legendary Herbert Chapman, who was to die prematurely and suddenly of pneumonia in January 1934.
“Leicester then changed their minds about letting me go to Arsenal,” he recalled. “This did not worry me too much because I was on the [national] maximum wage at Leicester. I couldn’t have earned more at Arsenal. The maximum wage was £8-a-week, with a £2 win bonus and a £1 draw bonus.
“In the summer, the pay was £6 per week. Two weeks later, Aston Villa made an offer of £10,000 for me. They had finished runners up to Arsenal in 1931 and again in 1933. Only Arsenal and Spurs were drawing bigger average crowds. I was interested in this offer.
“I could still live in Leicester and travel to Birmingham. However, three weeks later, the Leicester board decided not to release me. Again, I was not too bothered. I was well looked after at Leicester.
“It was about this time that Huddersfield Town, another one of England’s top sides, made an offer for me. Their manager was Clem Stephenson, who came from the same mining village as me. He was a professional gambler. Once again, Leicester would not let me go.”
The 1933/34 season saw Sep play in the biggest game in the Club’s history up to that point: the 1934 FA Cup Semi-Final against Portsmouth, in front of a crowd of 66,544 at Birmingham City’s St. Andrew's.
“Of course, my brothers, Jack and Willie, played for Portsmouth,” Sep continued. “My mother thought I would be on the winning side, but she wished that the two sides had met in the final, and not the semi-final. She said she wouldn’t go to the game because it would be far too exciting.
Leicester’s mascot for the day was a lamb, brought to the ground in a wicker basket. We soon went 2-0 down, but we pulled a goal back by half-time. However, Portsmouth scored two more goals in the first five minutes of the second half.Sep Smith
“She would hate to see any of her boys hurt. My father didn’t go to the game either. He was unemployed and couldn’t afford the long journey.
“In the game before the semi-final, at Everton, I had a groin injury. On the train back to Leicester, I walked up and down the carriages to prevent any stiffness. Back in Leicester, everybody was confident about winning the semi-final. At Filbert Street, someone had chalked ‘FA Cup winners: Leicester City’ onto the blackboard which was used for ground announcements.
“Our training for the game concentrated on shooting and climbing up to Old John in Bradgate Park. We relaxed by playing rounds of golf at Kirby Muxloe and by playing table tennis. We had to wear white shirts and black shorts for the game because of a colour clash, and, leaving nothing to chance, we trained in this kit on the Thursday before the match to get us used to it.”
Around 15,000 Leicester supporters travelled on a special fleet of 20 buses. Another 12,000 fans travelled in 12 trains, each with 12 carriages.
“After all this build up, we lost the game 4-1,” Sep said. “Leicester’s mascot for the day was a lamb, brought to the ground in a wicker basket. We soon went 2-0 down, but we pulled a goal back by half-time. However, Portsmouth scored two more goals in the first five minutes of the second half.
“Just before half-time, our full-back Sandy Wood, (who had, incidentally played for the USA in the inaugural World Cup Finals four years earlier,) had broken his nose after running into and falling over a touchline photographer.”
What Sep didn’t mention was that the Leicester Mercury reported that his performance had been ‘second to none’, describing Sep as a ‘polished performer.’
The 60mph wind spoiled that match. Still it was something to have played against such a great player as Peter Doherty.Sep Smith
The following season (1934/35) was City’s Golden Jubilee season. It started badly with the death of manager Hodge and it finished with the Club being relegated from the First Division, after a spell of 10 years in the top flight.
On 21 August, 1935, just before the start of the Club's Second Division campaign, Sep was picked as travelling reserve for an England vs. Scotland international at Hampden Park. This was an unofficial international staged by the King George V Silver Jubilee Trust.
Sep came on as second-half substitute when Jackie Bray of Manchester City was injured. The use of a substitute was unprecedented at the time. Sep’s memory of the occasion was: “I was sitting in the stand and had just eaten a bag of plums when I was sent for to play in the second half. There was such a big crowd at Hampden that not everyone could see properly and many of the crowd didn’t realise that I had come on!”
With Leicester City top of the table in October 1935, Sep was picked to play for England at right-half (midfield) against Northern Ireland in a match scheduled for 19 October, 1935. This made him the fifth Leicester City player in 10 years to be selected for England.
“On the Wednesday before the game, I travelled to Liverpool to join other members of the England team,” he explained. “We took the night ferry to Belfast. This gave us two clear days to regain our land legs. We stayed at Newcastle in County Down, 30 miles from Belfast, where there was an excellent golf course.”
Sep impressed in his first international as England won 3-1. Some of the critics considered Sep to be ‘the best of the middle line men.’ However, it was also a widely held view that a gale imposed conditions which hardly formed a fair test.
Sep, meanwhile, said: “The 60mph wind spoiled that match. Still it was something to have played against such a great player as Peter Doherty.”
Less than a fortnight later, he was selected to play for the Football League against the Scottish League in Glasgow.
“I had to purchase a third-class railway ticket to Glasgow to meet the team,” he added. “The game was a draw. The press said I had a good game.”
Contemporary reports described Sep’s all round performance as 'one of best seen from an English wing half-back for several years'.
In the second part of this feature, Smith will recall a lengthy trip to Eastern Europe, wartime football and the young Don Revie. Check back to LCFC.com over the coming days to read more from the Club's longest serving player of all-time.
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