Sep Smith & Leicester City team-mates

Former Player Remembers: Sep Smith (Part Two)

In this second instalment of a serialisation of recollections from Leicester City legend Sep Smith, the former Foxes star discusses a lengthy trip to eastern Europe, wartime football and the young Don Revie.
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Following relegation in 1935, it took City two seasons to regain their place in the top division. With England international Smith as captain, the side, after a slow start to the season, stormed to the 1937 Second Division title.

Frank Womack was the new manager and new signing Jack Bowers scored 33 goals in the final 27 games. In the close season, Leicester were then invited to tour Eastern Europe.

Sep recalled: “The original team earmarked for this tour was Wolves. However, the FA prevented them from going because of their poor disciplinary record. It was an honour for Leicester to be chosen, albeit at short notice.

“It wasn’t a great tour. We lost all five matches. Eastern European teams were keener to win than us as we had just completed a hard promotion season. Their teams were quite happy to kick our players on their way to their victories. Refereeing standards were very different!

“We played two games in Romania, losing to Venus Bucharest (2-0) and then, the following day, Ripensia Timisoara (2-1). Three days later, we lost 3-4 in Hungary to Hungaria Budapest. I scored Leicester’s first goal. The next day, we lost in Yugoslavia to BSK Belgrade, before being defeated 3-1 in Czechoslovakia in Bratislava.

“We had to travel very large distances between venues. There was too much travelling. We did not have enough time to look around. It was all travelling and playing. We were allowed ten shillings (50p) per day allowance on the tour.

“For four days, I did not collect my money, but when I went to claim my £2 arrears the Club wouldn’t pay it! 

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Frank Womack

Manager Frank Womack speaks from the carriage during Leicester City's tour of eastern Europe.

“The travelling was all on a boat train, which was a sleeper. On one of the long train journeys through eastern Europe, I was having a meal with Sandy McLaren, the goalkeeper. Steak was served. Sandy had had this dish before and told me that the steaks were in fact horsemeat.

“I didn’t eat the meal! Another surprise on the tour was the pitch in Bucharest, which was cinder, and which caused gravel rash injuries to go along with sunburn and mosquito bites.

“In Belgrade, I played my first match under floodlights. They were little more than street lamps. It was okay when the play was near to one of these lamps but away from them, towards the centre of the pitch, you could see very little.” 

City just avoided relegation at the end of their first season back in the top flight, but were relegated a year later in May 1939. 

German Führer Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland was only four months away. When UK Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain broadcast, on 3 September, that Britain was at war with Germany, the new season, with Leicester again in the Second Division, was only three games old.

On the outbreak of war, the whole Football League programme was suspended, which would last for the next seven seasons.

Sep recalled: “On the outbreak of war, all sport in the country stopped because of emergency regulations prevented large crowds gathering. All players’ contracts were suspended. This meant that the £8-per-week maximum wage dried up. I was unemployed.

“A new director of the Club, Alf Pallett, owned the Cascelloid factory on Abbey Lane and he offered me a job. As this firm had some government contracts, I was never called up, although at the start of the war, soldiers came to the Club to get players to volunteer the army. 

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Sep Smith's England cap vs. Ireland

Smith was presented with this cap for his appearance against Ireland in 1935.

“Within a few weeks, however, although the league was suspended, matches were allowed again, in regional wartime leagues. These were subject to police permission and strict crowd limits. Travelling to away matches was restricted to journeys that could be completed on the day of the game.

“The maximum match fee was set at 30 shillings (£1.50). We earned money whenever we could, sometimes turning out for two different teams on the same day. This was possible because guest players were allowed to replace players on National Service. Crowds varied between 850 and 5,000, generally hovering around the 2,000 mark.”

On 14 November, 1940, on the night of a savage air raid which battered Coventry, Filbert Street was also bombed by the Luftwaffe. Five nights later, there was a much heavier bombing raid on Leicester, resulting in 108 deaths. Sep remembered clearly the night that Filbert Street was hit.

He said: “I was walking through the streets when the bombers were flying overhead to bomb Coventry. I could hear the bombs being dropped there. The Main Stand was hit. The dressing rooms were badly damaged, as was the boardroom.

“The bomb also wrecked the two billiard tables that were there, as well as the area where the directors sat on matchday.  The rest of the ground wasn’t damaged. About 20 German prisoners of war were brought in to patch up the damage at the ground. I used to talk to them while they were working.”

Taking the seven wartime seasons as a whole, Sep made 213 appearances for the Club. Only Billy Frame (who featured 220 times) played more wartime games. Sep’s tally of 48 wartime goals was considerably more than any other player’s tally, other than George Dewis, who scored 62 goals in 81 games.

Sep was involved in a significant development at the Club off the field during the war as he was instrumental in the signing of and the nurturing of a 17-year-old from the North East, the young Don Revie, who later went on to become one of the biggest names in English football as a player and a manager.

Sep recalled: “Don arrived for a trial before the end of the war. He played in a practice match and in two wartime matches, against Wolves at the beginning of the 1944/1945 season. Alf Pallet, the chairman, asked me whether or not Leicester should sign him.

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Leicester City 1937/38

The Foxes' squad in 1937/38 after winning the Second Division title.

“I recommended that the Club made the signing. He was found a job as a bricklayer at Sherriffs, which enabled him to play on Saturdays, train in the evening and work during the week.” 

In later years, at the height of his fame, Don Revie wrote: ‘At Leicester City, I met Sep Smith, one of the greatest passers of a football I have ever seen. Sep spent hours teaching me the importance of placing passes for the man running through. He guided me at a critical point of my career. When I went into Leicester City’s side as a teenager, all I had to do was listen to Sep’s instructions on the field of play. It made it so much easier for me, particularly when I came up against old stagers who could quite easily have made me look a fool.’

When the war ended, Sep decided he would like to resume as a full-time professional at Leicester City. 

He explained: “I went to see Alf Pallett and gave two weeks’ notice from Cascelloids, even though at that stage, there was no guarantee that the Club would re-sign me. Pallett suggested that I kept my job at Cascelloids, where I was working shifts, and continue to play for Leicester on that basis.

“But I wasn’t too keen on this idea as it meant that I would not be able to train properly. In the event, I was re-signed by Leicester, whose manager was now Johnny Duncan. I was earning £9-per-week.”

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