Gilbert Oswald Smith

Gilbert Oswald Smith was the David Beckham of his day: captain of the England football team, he was the first real public personality to emerge from football and every schoolboy’s idol.

He was born on 25 November 1872 in Croydon, Surrey, son of Robert Smith, a merchant, and his wife, Margaret, and later educated at Charterhouse School and Keble College, Oxford. He excelled at both football and cricket. He captained the Oxford University football team against Cambridge, and scored a match-winning innings of 132 against Cambridge in the 1896 University cricket match at Lords. Sir Pelham Warner, Smith’s contemporary at Oxford commented, “As long as there is a history of Oxford and Cambridge cricket the name of G O Smith will be emblazoned on its rolls”. He also played county cricket for Surrey in 1896.

Smith played football for England and was captain from 1892 until 1901. The number of games he played is uncertain and during this period England played only three international matches each season against Ireland, Scotland and Wales. G O played for England at least 17 times, 13 times as captain and scored at least 11 goals. In the 1898-1899 season although he was the only amateur in the team, he led England to victory in all three international matches. His last appearance was in the first international game between England and Germany in 1901.

Smith was playing at a time when social distinctions in British society were still reflected on the playing fields, when amateurs were ‘Gentlemen’ and professionals were ‘Players’. He was an amateur at the time when the professionals were slowly taking over football. According to his contemporary Sir Frederick Wall, long-serving Secretary of the Football Association, G O was ‘a man without petty pride’.

At club level, he played for the Corinthians, one of the few ‘Gentlemen’ sides which could still give professional sides a run for their money. As captain he led from the front, scoring 132 goals in 137 matches to produce what is still one of the best strike rates in English football history, one goal for every 93 minutes played. Along with his England exploits, this made him a role model for schoolboys for decades to come, and the best-known footballer of his age.

Smith came to be considered one of the greatest centre-forwards in the history of the game. He shared with W G Grace the distinction of being known by his initials only, G O often being rendered as ‘Jo’.

Although fairly tall – 5 feet 11 inches, a good height for that time – he was of slight build, lacking the brawn of earlier England players, and suffered from asthma. Despite this, he transformed the role of the centre forward from that of an individual striker to that of unifying the forward line, and indeed the whole team. He wrote in ‘a late Victorian instructional guide’, “the individual credit of anyone should be subservient to the good of the side. A selfish player, however brilliant, should never be allowed to remain in any team – he seeks for self glorification rather than the good of his side.”

Known for refusing to head the ball he expressed the opinion that he would be happy for heading to be banned.

Smith had become a schoolmaster after graduation from Oxford. In 1902 he retired from international football and became joint headmaster at Ludgrove in Barnet, a preparatory school for Eton, and in 1918 master at Sunningdale preparatory school. He retired to Yaldhurst in Pennington in 1932 and was a great benefactor of Pennington school. He also gave much help and encouragement to the local cricket and football teams, including the Pennington Moonlight Rangers. He died in 1943, aged 71 and was buried in St Mark’s churchyard, Pennington. At his funeral, the village schoolchildren lined the path to the church. Mourners included many of the ‘great and good’ of the local area and representatives of the Football Association.

Yaldhurst in Pennington, painted by Lettiee Erskine in 1921

He merited an obituary in The Times and another in Wisden – the ‘cricketers’ bible’. The Lymington Times obituaryrecalled a match in 1893 between the Corinthians and Bournemouth FC 50 years earlier – at which “his wizardry with the ball was made manifest”. The Corinthians beat the local team by ten goals to nil! The International Federation of Football History and Statistics, describes him as “the most brilliant, indeed perfect, footballer in the world around the turn of the century”.

As a young man, G O also played cricket for Surrey.
G O played for the amateur team The Corinthians, shown here on their Christmas touring party of 1896-7

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