The cold, hard stats are remarkable. And yet they don’t begin to do justice to the contribution Manny Smith made to Wrexham over his five seasons at the club, or express the magnitude of our loss as we search for players to improve our position.
To my eyes, in the last 15 years Wrexham have only had four genuinely reliable central defenders. Mark Creighton, Nat Knight-Percival, Manny Smith and Shaun Pearson. We prematurely lost two of those four in the most innocuous manner imaginable. It’s beyond frustrating.
Creighton, and now Smith, have been forced into retirement by injury when they still had a lot more to give, as a result of awkward landings, after jumping for the sort of ball they’ll have leaped for a million times throughout their careers.
The loss of Smith is a terrible shame. When he suffered his injury at Solihull 18 months ago, it was immediately apparent that this could be catastrophic. We’ve hoped against hope that he’d be able to return, and at his usual level. But as the time has passed that hope has dwindled. Now the inevitable has happened, and Smith will not perform at a professional level again. It’s terribly sad.
Player of the season in his first season, Smith established himself immediately as a byword for consistency and reliability in a flaky side which had it moments but underperformed. As Kevin Wilkin’s side developed into a rollercoaster ride with nobody’s hand at the controls, Smith remained an admirable constant.
It’s ironic that injury should strike Smith down when in his first spell at The Racecourse he was seen as indestructible, playing every minute of a 61-match season.
Smith was an excellent all-round central defender. Not massive for his position, he was nevertheless aggressive, incredibly reliable and specialised in the heroic penalty area block. Admittedly, Blaine Hudson wasn’t the full package, but when he was in partnership with Manny Smith it was entertaining to see how often the duo would hurl themselves bodily at shots.
Things went wrong when Wilkin, certainly no managerial tyro, was replaced by a man who switched formations more often than a drag act switches costumes. At the end of his first season Gary Mills built his side around a player he’d have offloaded on a free to a lower division in January if it hadn’t have been for an administrative problem. It wasn’t that he didn’t know his mind; it was that he constantly changed it, and Smith’s form suffered. It was inevitable, and not a reflection on Smith. You’ve never seen a more obvious centre back than Smith, a proper specialist who only did one job, but executed it impeccably.
Suddenly a man who was born to be a centre back in a back four was used as often as a right back, or part of a three-man defence, and he suffered for it. It was no surprise that Smith chose to leave in the Summer, and although it should have been shocking that Mills was quite happy to get him off the books, I suppose it wasn’t. After all, he had Hamza Bencherif and Kai Edwards lined up to replace him!
Smith returned a year later when Mills was gone and his former team mate Dean Keates took over. Keates knew what he wanted, and knew what would work: he introduced Smith to Shaun Pearson and let the clean sheets pile up.
The contrast between his style and that of Shaun Pearson made them the ideal combination.
When he returned The Racecourse there was genuine rejoicing and he’d found his ideal partner. The contrast between his style and that of Shaun Pearson made them the ideal combination.
The two central defenders, made a fine pairing, almost impenetrable for National League strikers. Perhaps Smith was not the most vocal central defender, but with Pearson alongside him he didn’t need to be. Smith returned the favour by covering around the back of his skipper, giving him scope to attack the ball without fear of leaving space behind him. They were the perfect duo, often making defending look easy.
On a personal level, Smith was always a humble, unassuming character, who went about things in a very professional manner. In his first spell at the club he was highly reluctant to do video interviews – I think we only got him to do one! – but on his return he was much less shy of appearing before the camera.
His reticence was somewhat charming, as was his appearance outside the changing rooms of the Gateshead International Stadium after our FA Trophy penalty shoot-out win with a broom in his hand. He’d taken it upon himself to tidy up the away changing room before getting on the bus back to North Wales, a gesture which summed up the humility and decency of the man.
It’s impossible to consider the loss of Smith and not consider the impact his injury has had on us. We finished five points short of the title last season: while it must be said that Jake Lawlor and Kieran Kennedy both did well alongside Pearson, might we have made up that deficit if Smith had stayed fit?
That’s up for debate, but there’s no doubt that a fully fit Smith in partnership with Pearson would certainly have assisted us as we sought to avoid relegation this term. Just like Rob Lainton, if their injuries had been avoided we’d clearly have more points. That’s just a fact.
Of course, while we regret Smith’s career ending injury we should also acknowledge his generosity. He could have sat on his contract and continued until it expired, hoping that somehow a miracle would happen. He could have drained our resources despite not really having any great hope of returning to football. As he heart-wrenchingly put it, retiring was the end of his childhood dream. He could easily have held onto it in denial of reality.
But he chose not to. The timing of his announcement was his last selfless act for the club. By retiring now, he releases more money for Keates to use in his renovation of his playing staff. A senior player’s wage has been removed from the budget, and as a result, hopefully we’ll be able to bring in a high quality player.
But that’s typical of Smith. Even in his leaving of professional football, he defends Wrexham.