By Dan Brennan
In November last year, Colorado Rapids – the US club with whom Arsenal have forged a strategic partnership – defied all expectations, first by becoming MLS Eastern Conference champions and then by going on to defeat FC Dallas to clinch the country’s most important trophy, the MLS Cup. The man who guided them to the biggest achievement in their history is Gary Smith.
The 42 year-old Englishman, who is largely unheralded in his native country, once worked as a scout for Arsenal, but as he tells Dan Brennan, his Gunners roots go back much further than that.
|Colorado Rapids coach Gary Smith celebrates his MLS Cup win
Last year you guided the Rapids to the MLS Cup. Can you put that achievement in context for us?
It’s been the most successful season in the club’s history and definitely, by a country mile, the most successful in my career to date. It certainly hasn’t been easy to get to this point. There’s been lots of hard work. All in all, we’ve fulfilled something that not a lot of people thought we could achieve. Winning the MLS Cup – which is the USA’s equivalent of the Premier League title, the most important title in the country, was a real feat. The Rapids have never done it before, so we’re of course extremely excited to have done that. Over the season many question marks were flagged up as to what could be achieved. But when you’ve got a good group of players who are ready to work hard for each other, between them they come up with solutions based on spirit and character.
Clubs like LA Galaxy and NY Red Bulls have hit the international headlines due to big marquis signings such as David Beckham and Thierry Henry. How difficult is it to compete with these teams?
The main thing is that the big franchises such as LA Galaxy and NY Red Bulls have designated players – their ownership groups have paid for designated players outside the salary cap. NY Red Bulls must be paying around $12 million for three designated players Juan Pablo Angel, Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez – a sum that far exceeds the salary cap for my whole squad. Some of the big city clubs can do that. But we are a club that are on the fringes of the Midwest, and we have some other very big sporting franchises in Denver – the Broncos and Nuggets to name two – so we’re pretty much the poor relations here. That makes it all the more of an achievement to reach the heights that we have. When you look at clubs like the Rapids and Dallas – who were our opponents in the MLS Cup Final and who run their group entirely within the salary cap – it supports the argument that you don’t need designated players. But then again, when you bring in a big name, it does help to generate the kind of support and publicity which are good for the growth of the league overall.
Quite a number of Arsenal Academy graduates have gone on to enjoy success in the MLS: Paulinho, Steve Zakuani, Rohan Ricketts and now Ryan Smith and Kerrea Gilbert...
All of the young players from Arsenal that you mention have been very good additions to the league, and I’m sure Kerrea who has just moved to Portland will be too. The MLS has done a very good job in elevating the standard, quality and perception to a level where it is now taken more seriously. The competitive nature of this league is extremely undervalued in a lot of parts of the world. The question always facing a young player is: what direction is my future going in? A player coming out of Arsenal, even if he doesn’t make it in the first team there, will generally have a lot of clubs interested in taking him, and they might be forgiven for thinking twice about heading over to the States. Five years ago the likes of Gilbert and Ryan Smith would never have considered USA. It’s a measure of the progress being made here. And the fact that you have players such as Thierry Henry and Beckham coming over gives the league extra exposure. Hopefully, young players no longer regard it as a dead end, but somewhere that they can come and develop their careers.
How did you end up in the States yourself?
Originally it was part of the relationship between Arsenal and Rapids, part of which was to establish an academy here. My initial job was to set those foundations in place. Subsequently my role took on a different nature. I spent more time supporting the first team itself as assistant coach. Unexpectedly, when the team found itself at the bottom of the league, I found myself being asked to take the reins for the last 11 games of the season. It was a big challenge but one that I felt was well worth taking on board. I could see the potential of the club had not been achieved. The 11 games went well, we went on a very good run and went from being at the foot of the table to missing out, by a matter of two minutes, on the play-offs, in our final game against Real Salt Lake. There has been a positive progression since then, culminating in winning the MLS Cup last season.
Your assistant coach, Steve Guppy is a name that will be familiar to English fans... is he someone that you brought to the club?
Steve’s a good friend of mine – we were together at Wycombe Wanderers when Martin O’Neill was in charge. He came out to the States to become coach at Rochester Rhinos, who are in the league below us. When I got the Rapids job full-time I asked him to come on board here.
|Smith gives advice to U.S. international Pablo Mastroeni
You never made it as a top-level player, at what stage did you decide that you would embark on a career in coaching and management?
After a couple of rejections, at Fulham and Colchester, I played in non-League football at Wycombe. I then got a second stab at league football with Barnet, but suffered a very bad compound fracture in my leg when I was 22 or 23. At that stage the realisation dawned that I probably wasn’t going to achieve my dream. I retired as a professional player when I was 24, but what it did mean was that I got into my coaching early. I was coaching at the Wimbledon academy when I was 28 and already had my A licence by the time I was 30.
Was the fact that you were not a high-profile or long established manager in England a plus in some ways, in terms of embracing and shaping your role in the MLS, and adapting to the environment?
I think not being so set in my ways, as an established manager in England, has certainly helped me in some ways. The most senior post I had in England was probably reserve team at Watford. I was also part of the coaching staff at Wimbledon under Joe Kinnear. Those roles, and my time at Wycombe were all very useful experiences.
While you were at Wycombe Wanderers you worked with Tony Adams. Was that how the connection with Arsenal was forged? Are you still in touch with Tony?
My ties with Arsenal go back a lot further than that, in fact. I was actually a Schoolboy at Arsenal. I wasn’t the sort of quality they wanted so I ended up joining Fulham instead. My dad, Roger, who is now chief scout at Cardiff City, was a coach at Arsenal at the younger academy level, and went on to be a scout for the Club, working closely with [Arsenal chief scout] Steve Rowley. My roots are very much in North London. I grew up in Cheshunt, just 10 minutes from London Colney, though my family actually hail from Tottenham. As for Tony Adams, the move to Wycombe came about when I was at Wimbledon – the club were about to move to Milton Keynes and there were various difficulties there. I got offered the chance to work with the Wycombe youth team, and the deciding factor was very much the presence of Tony Adams. Unfortunately we only had four months working together as he then moved on. But it was a very positive experience – we built a very good rapport. I’m still in contact with him, though the fact that he’s in Azerbaijan and I’m in the USA makes that rather hard.
How much contact do you have with the coaching team at Arsenal, given the tie-up between the two clubs?
The coaching staff at Arsenal, from top to bottom, have all been a huge help to me out here. Having the chance to play friendlies, and to maintain a dialogue has been a real help. The fact that I’ve got a past with Arsenal helps of course. The likes of Steve Bould, Neil Banfield and Arsène himself have always been extremely helpful, when we’ve been at the training ground during pre-season. Though I would say I am in more regular contact with Steve Rowley and Steve Morrow. They have provided assistance and guidance in all number of situations, and it’s great for me being able to call on them.
Do you get much opportunity to pick Arsène Wenger’s brains?
We don’t have the kind of relationship where I can just pick up the phone to him. But what I do enjoy is the chance to be in his company. I find it enlightening to be around an individual who has achieved so much and who is so intelligent. The environment that Arsène Wenger’s created at Arsenal is truly exceptional. He’s taken his own path at Arsenal, and it’s very helpful and inspiring to be around someone like that. I am always very keen to listen to what he has to say and learn from his experience.
Do you think there is any scope for players from the Rapids, or elsewhere in the MLS moving to Arsenal in the future?
I’ve had a couple of conversations with Arsenal – more specifically with the two Steves – Morrow and Rowley – recently about players in the MLS who could be of interest to them, but the problem is that unless they are fully fledged internationals it’s never easy to get permits for these guys. We’ve also talked about the possibility of players going the other way, from Arsenal to the Rapids.
What can you tell us about Stan Kroenke, who as well as being a major shareholder in Arsenal is also owner of the Rapids?
I don’t have much direct contact with him; my strongest contact came at the final of the MLS Cup, when he was down on the pitch and extremely excited to see the club winning major silverware. His interest in sport is obvious. He’s the owner of our club, the ice hockey team, the Avalanche, and also the St Louis Rams. The stadium we have here cost around $150 million, and is as good as anything in this league. He’s obviously very keen for success in all the ventures that he’s involved with, including Rapids and Arsenal.
Where do you see your managerial career going? Do you have ambitions to work in the Premier League eventually?
This job is so precarious that it’s difficult to make long-term plans. In England, we’ve seen 10-12 managers sacked in the last couple of months alone, a few of which – Allardyce and Hughton come to mind – were right out of the blue. The same thing happens all the way down the scale. What I will say is that I’m excited to be in the job I’m in and there’s more to be achieved here. My contract is up at the end of the year, and I’ve no extension to it at the moment, but I hope I can stay here for a longer period. Of course managing in England at Premier League level would be a dream. I’ve perhaps taken a step towards that by winning silverware here in the USA, and the whole thing has been a wonderful, invaluable experience for me. But there is still plenty more to be achieved here. Somewhere down the line, I wouldn’t be averse to going to somewhere like Holland, Spain or maybe Belgium, to further improve my coaching and management skills. I think it’s very good to experience different cultures, and extend yourself outside your comfort zone. And maybe that will in turn be a stepping stone to working back in England at some point.