The Worst Groundskeeper in England
Once upon a time in English football, there existed an era when the security guard wouldn’t bat an eye if you stood up, when tickets didn’t cost half a paycheck, when stadiums weren’t quite as secure and pristine, and matches often turned into mud-slinging battles. In such a stadium, a match took place in April 1977, at Baseball Ground, the historic home of Derby County – a pitch that looked as plowed field. It’s a field that makes our local playgrounds and parks look like palaces. The Derby venue was riddled with potholes, causing the ball to bounce incessantly. The grass was bald in many places, and mud was its drowning companion. This was a football of raw power, born from the streets.
Derby was facing off against City and putting on an impressive show, leading 3-0, when the legendary Archie Gemill launched an attack in the penalty area and got brought down. Penalty awarded. The ball was taken up by Daley to set it up. But there was a slight glitch – he didn’t know where to set it up. The penalty spot had vanished beneath the mud. It was like playing in our neighborhood. City’s goalkeeper, Joe Corrigan, began taking steps (fortunately, he didn’t put two rocks as goalposts), yet failed to convince the referee.
In this bygone era of English football, the pitch was an untamed beast, the players danced with mud, and every goal kick was a leap of faith. A time when the beautiful game embraced the gritty struggle, where the passion of the fans was undiluted, and the echoes of history still linger in the cracks of the forgotten fields.
Just as in an ancient Greek theatrical performance, a deus ex machina emerged at Baseball Ground. Bob Smith, the historic groundskeeper who tended to the field from 1964 to 1984, entered dressed in trousers, a jacket, and a tie, as if he had just come from lunch with the queen. In his hands, he wielded his magical tools: a measuring tape, a bucket of paint, and a substantial brush. The penalty spot was measured once more, anointed with a sense of reverence, and the 4-0 became a tangible reality.
In a scene reminiscent of the classics, where gods would intervene in human affairs, the unexpected appearance of Bob Smith added a touch of the divine to the gritty pitch. With the precision of a craftsman and the determination of a warrior, he marked the stage for an unfolding drama. The meticulous act of redefining the penalty spot was a ritual that turned the mundane into the extraordinary. Just as ancient Greek theater blurred the lines between mortals and gods, here at Baseball Ground, the ordinary gardener became a maestro of the soccer stage, leaving an indelible mark on the history of the sport.
Naturally, one might ponder, “Well, mate, what’s the deal with this ‘historic groundskeeper’? Couldn’t he manage to lay down some grass in twenty years?” The truth unfolds as follows: Bob Smith was one of Brian Clough’s most trusted allies, someone Clough deemed a crucial pillar of Derby. The field was indeed a predicament. Smith himself once quipped that if you sprinkled a bit of water on the ground, it would thicken up like flour. He was even told that if he could maintain the grass for a month, he’d be considered successful. Yet, the crafty Clough saw something different: the damp pitch suited his team’s style, and he had no inclination to improve it. The poor pitch transformed from a drawback into Derby’s advantage, a turf adapted to its unique conditions, a fortress rarely conquered.
“Before the big games, we always flooded the pitch. Nobody could fathom why it was like that for the first team matches while remaining dry for the reserves,” recalls Smith, who adds, “Clough awarded me a champion’s medal, told me I’d contributed more than Roy McFarland and Kevin Hector.” In this narrative of football lore, Bob Smith emerges as an unsung hero whose artistry lay in nurturing a pitch that danced to the rhythm of Derby’s tactics.
Clough’s words aren’t all that exaggerated, to be honest. Ahead of a match against Benfica, Clough and his associates informed Smith that the pitch was rather soft and needed flooding. Smith replied that it wasn’t possible, as he had just installed a new drainage system to prevent water retention. His pleas fell on deaf ears; they told him to find a solution. Eventually, he was compelled to manually seal off the brand-new drainage system. The pitch achieved its ideal condition, and Derby triumphed 3-0 against Eusébio’s team. Benfica protested the state of the pitch, a sentiment echoed a few months later by Juventus, which even lodged a formal complaint with UEFA regarding the playing surface.
Bob Smith parted ways with Derby in 1984, as financial troubles led to his dismissal alongside other staff members. Nevertheless, his achievements became enshrined in history, alongside the now-defunct stadium – a relic that’s part of Derby’s myth from those years.