Before the 1982/83 season, Brighton completed a swop with arch rivals Crystal Palace. With Sammy Nelson and newcomer Graham Pearce competing for the number three shirt, Gary Williams, Albion’s popular left-back for the previous five years, departed for Selhurst Park, having been out in the cold since November 1981:
In came the speedy, tricky wide man with the curly locks, Neil Smillie:
Despite being a recent buy, Smillie then found himself dropped by Mike Bailey on two occasions. However, he established himself as a first-choice player once Jimmy Melia took over in December 1982. By the time of the FA Cup Final later on in the season, such was the cutting edge he provided, he could be sure of a starting place:
The buzz went up from the Notts County fans as Brighton’s pacy winger exploded down theJine, beating two defenders en route and whipped over a precise cross that turned the penalty-area into a zone of undisguised panic.
Nell Smillie appreciated the generous applause from the home fans as he pounded back to take up a workmanlike position, letting it seep into his body to fuel his growing confidence as a First Division player of considerable note, and one just a dream away from the FA Cup Final.
Last summer he was packing his bags after a football lifetime with Crystal Palace that fizzled and spluttered, threatening to catch alight only to be extinguished repeatedly by managerial changes.
After a spell in the United States, Smillie discovered that his expired contract at Selhurst Park left him with an offer worth not one penny more than he got before. It was all beginning to depress the 24-year-old Barnsley-born winger… until Brighton stepped in.
“The deal was an exchange between me and Gary Williams, one which went through after talks. That was last July and I was glad because I’d begun to feel in a rut at Palace.
“I played in the first two games: of this season, but we lost the second, 5-0 to West Bromwich Albion, and Mike Bailey dropped me. Then it was the bench followed by the reserves until October 26, the Milk Cup replay against Spurs.
“We lost 1-0 and out I went again until November 20 at Watford where we took a 4-1 drubbing. Bailey went soon after that and I found myself back on the outside looking in when Jimmy Melia took over.
“I was sub when we played Newcastle at home in the Third Round of the F.A. Cup and came on at St James’ Park in the replay, on January 12. I’ve kept myself in the side since then and my confidence has grown with every game,” Smiilie probably needed nothing more than that boost to his confidence; and despite Albion’s tough relegation battles, he has continued to provide Melia with just the type of player his style of football requires, a player capable of playing wide.
“Yes, I give the side width. They know I’m out there and when things get too tight in the middle I can take the ball and take men on. I have the confidence to take on any full-back in the League. I give them their due respect, but that’s all.
“In our situation you have to work hard defensively as well. I agree with Steve Coppell who said that a winger is a barometer of his team. When things are going well the winger will get forward, attack the line, get the ball across and make things happen. But when you are up against it the winger is often working back in his own half, covering, tackling and grafting.
“What excites me is that Jimmy Melia has made it clear to us that there will be no change in his attitude for the Final. We will go out to attack with three men up front, going for the win… and United’s throat.
“I anticipate a tremendous battle with Arthur Aibiston, against whom I’ve played twice before. He does a lot on the ball as well as good work defensively, but he holds no fears for me.
“i’m the winger he has to stop, and if he fails then Mike Robinson and the lads will see as much of that ball as I get supply.”
As for Gary Williams, although delighted to rejoin Alan Mullery, he didn’t enjoy his time at Crystal Palace. When I met him in the pub about a year ago, Gary described his playing career there as ‘just a job’, never developing any great feeling for the club. By contrast, he remembers the camaraderie and team spirit of his Albion days with far greater fondness.
His Palace career did not last long either, as injury meant he retired from the professional game with just ten League appearances for the Eagles in 1982/83. Because of his transfer from the Goldstone Ground, he missed the FA Cup Final of 1983, of course. However, he can be proud of the fact he was never in an Albion relegation season.
He played some games with Saltdean in the summer of 1983 before spending the following season with Whitehawk in the Sussex County League. At that time, he also began to explore business opportunities outside the game, as this snippet from a matchday programme from 1983/84 indicates:
Last Wednesday several first team players made a special visit to a TV and video shop in George Street in Brighten, just off St James’ Street.
The lads had a special reason for going along there, as a partner in the firm is former Albion favourite Gary Williams, now playing for Whitehawk. The shop specialises in sales service and rentals of sets, but as Gary points out, they are not a video film library.
Gary is pretty fully occupied these days, because he’s playing regularly for Whitehawk who are involved in Cup games and League matches at the moment at a rate of at least two a week. Our picture shows Steve Foster toasting success to Gary and his partner Pete Renvoize.
In other words, Gary Williams was busy selling TVs enabling football fans to watch Neil Smillie tear Liverpool apart in January 1984.
Nowadays, Gary works for Blakes Wholesale and Catering Butchers. As for Neil Smillie, he left Brighton for Watford in 1985 and later had managerial spells with Gillingham and Wycombe. An article in the Daily Mail in January 2010 suggested that Smillie ‘lives in Reading. Works with Nike on their sponsorship of youngsters.’