TWIH: Sep Smith's Debut

In the latest of his ‘The Week in History’ blogs, Club Historian John Hutchinson recalls a conversation with the great Sep Smith about his debut 84 years ago this week.

Eighty-Four years ago this week, on 31 August 1929, a young 17-year-old, who went on to play for England and to become one of Leicester City’s all-time great players, made his debut for the Club.  His name was Septimus Smith

Leicester City started that season as one of the top two teams in England and it said much for Sep’s huge potential that he was included in the starting line up. Not only did Sep go on to have the lengthiest first team career in the Club’s history playing for nearly twenty years, he also became one of the Club’s most skilful and accomplished players. He was initially an inside-left, then a right-half before he ended his career in the post-war years at centre-half.


About ten years ago I had the privilege of listening to Sep (who sadly died in 2006), as he told me about how he became a Leicester City player and how he came to make his debut.

The son of a miner he was born in 1912 in the mining village of Whitburn, in County Durham. He was called Septimus as he was the seventh son born to the family. Four of his brothers, Tom, Joe, Jack and Willie also eventually played League football.

As a boy, he played football in home-made boots which were shoes with corks nailed to them to act as studs. Footballs were the blown-up bladders of slaughtered pigs. He lived next door to a farm. He collected hens’ eggs from their nests for the farmer. He also used to deliver milk to the neighbouring houses, pouring milk into jugs from cans.

When he was 14, he played for the North in an international trial at Filbert Street. As a result, he was picked for England Schoolboys at Roker Park and played front of a crowd of 25,000.


In 1927 he was signed as an amateur for Leicester City by manager Willie Orr. Brother Joe was already at the club. In 1929, after a charity match against Northampton (for whom his brother Tom played), Sep signed professional forms for Leicester.  Sep could have signed for Portsmouth, where brothers Jack and Willie played. Jack, an England international, had played for Portsmouth in the previous Saturday’s Cup Final. Sep however felt that Portsmouth was too far from his native North East.

Officially, Sep received a ten pound signing on fee. In actual fact he received, unofficially, £150.  His wage was £4 a week. His mother took £149 and he kept the rest. Sep’s mother hid the money in a flour jar in the kitchen. Several years later, after Sep’s mother had died, Sep found the wad of notes, still untouched, still in the flour jar.


His debut was at Huddersfield 84 years ago this week. He replaced the injured Arthur Lochhead.  Sep told me that at half time Alex Jackson, Huddersfield’s outside-right, had five half bottles of Guinness. Leicester lost 2-3. It was the only first team game that seventeen year-old Sep played that season.

Like Gary Lineker, another great Leicester City player who made his debut as a youngster, it took some time for Sep to secure a first team place, but by the 1931/32 season he was an established First Division player.

A highlight of his early career was playing against his two brothers in the 1934 FA Cup semi final against Portsmouth.


Leicester were relegated in 1935. Just before the start of the 1935/36 season, Sep appeared as a second half substitute for England in the Jubilee international against Scotland at Hampden Park, 30 years before substitutes were officially sanctioned. Sep was sitting in the stand eating a bag of plums when he was sent for.

On 19 October 1935 Sep was picked for England, to play at right-half against Ireland in Belfast, A press view was that Sep was ‘the best of the middle men.’  Eleven days later, he was selected for the Football League against the Scottish League.

In the 1930s, both Arsenal and Aston Villa offered £10,000 to buy Sep. This wasn’t far short of the recently established British record transfer fee, but Leicester wouldn’t release him. Sep was on the maximum wage of £8 so he was not too disappointed, even though in those days players got a cut of the transfer fee, £120 for each year served.


Sep captained Leicester City back to the top flight in 1937, played for them throughout the War, (when he was instrumental in bringing Don Revie to Filbert Street) and captained the Club in the post-war years. He finally lost his place in the side in 1949, nearly twenty years after his debut, thereby missing out on that season’s FA Cup Final.

The following season he joined the back room staff but despite the promise of a job for life he left the Club in 1950 following the arrival of a new manager.

Seventy three years after Sep’s debut, on 11 May 2002, Leicester City played their last ever game at Filbert Street. The opponents were Tottenham Hotspur. At the end of the game, over 30 great players from Leicester’s past were individually introduced to the crowd. The very last player to be introduced was a tall, slim, 90-year-old man who slowly walked, with the aid of a walking stick, to join the other players in the centre of the pitch. This was Sep Smith. This was to be the last time he walked onto the Filbert Street pitch which he had graced for so many years, finally bringing to an end a journey which began at Huddersfield 84 years ago this week.

Pictures

01.       Sep in the mid 1930s.

02.       Sep’s England cap, 1935.

03.       Sep (third from left) training with his team mates before a Cup-tie at Blackpool in  January 1935.

04.       Sep in action in his last season, 1948/49.

05.       Sep (right) with his protege Don Revie in 1949.


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