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Innovation, simulation and ultimately frustration as Smith decides to call time

For a man who campaigned so vehemently against diving in football, it seems somewhat poetic that Gordon Smith should tumble out of Hampden under his own steam.

A fuller explanation for his surprise departure from the position of chief executive at the Scottish FA should arrive later today, with a short statement last night only revealing that he had resigned “for personal reasons”.

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He will leave undoubtedly burdened by a frustrating sense of underachievement and of what might have been. His appointment in 2007 as successor to Uefa-bound David Taylor had been welcomed as innovative and a sign that those in the corridors of power at Hampden were willing to accommodate the thoughts of “a football man”.

Smith arrived with grand ambitions to revolutionise Scottish football and beyond, but in the end was left frustrated as one idea after another failed to be realised, his proposals often smothered by bureaucracy. His lobbying for the European Championship finals to be extended from 16 to 24 countries will be seen as his biggest success from three years in office but even then it was something of a double-edged sword, the expansion ending any chance Scotland had of one day hosting the competition.

There was little of the statesman’s touch to Smith, perhaps unsurprising given his previous career as an outspoken media pundit and savvy footballer’s agent. His views tended to be delivered with all the subtlety of a caveman clubbing his dinner over the head.

Simulation was his major bugbear. It seemed a curious cause celebre to adopt given how rarely diving influences the Scottish game but Smith pursued the matter with relentless enthusiasm. He was heavily critical of Saulius Mikoliunas when the Lithuanian tumbled in Scotland’s penalty box during a European Championship qualifier at Hampden, the then Hearts winger later handed a two-match ban by Uefa.

Smith seized the opportunity to call for diving to be punished retrospectively in incidents missed by the referee and for Fifa to introduce video evidence to help catch the culprits. Not for the first or last time, his pleas went unheard.

That did not deter the former Kilmarnock, Rangers and Brighton forward. Two years on and Smith waded into the row surrounding Arsenal’s Eduardo and his dive in the Champions League qualifying tie against Celtic. The naturalised Croat was banned for two matches – a decision that was later overturned – prompting Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, to grumble about a “witchhunt” against his player while complaining that Scots in the media, the SFA and at Uefa had acted “emotionally” rather than rationally.

Unwittingly, Wenger had described Smith to a tee, a man forever acting on his feelings. Just like Larry David in the American comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm, Smith has never been one to let a situation pass if he has felt irked or wronged in any way. Thus we had the sight of a clearly pumped-up chief executive using the occasion of George Burley’s unveiling as national coach to berate media men for their coverage of the interview process, his outburst broadcast live to the nation on satellite television.

Burley’s unsuccessful reign will go down as a black mark against him. Smith clearly wanted to give his appointment as long as possible to turn things around. When it became clear that that wasn’t going to happen, he acted decisively to bring the period to an end. There was also clarity in the appointment of Craig Levein, widely regarded as the best available candidate for the job, and Smith must take credit for that should Levein go on to be a success in the post.

Smith did not escape blame, however, following the Boozegate scandal that forever tarnished the reputations of Allan McGregor and Barry Ferguson. Smith flip-flopped on whether the pair would be selected for Scotland again after their late-night drinking session at the team hotel, the SFA initially banning them sine die before Smith later suggested that such a decision would rest with the next international manager. Levein has subsequently made clear that he wants both McGregor and Ferguson to play for him.

During Smith’s time in charge, there was also repeated talk about the introduction of summer football, a proposed revamping of disciplinary appeals procedures, and a determination to improve refereeing standards, none of which had come to pass by the time he unexpectedly fell on his sword. As he discovered to his cost, nothing ever happens quickly whenever an SFA committee is involved.

Coincidentally or otherwise, his departure comes just days before the recommendations of Henry McLeish, the former first minister, on how to overhaul the game are finally made public. Smith, forever pushing for the need for change in almost every aspect of the game, would surely have welcomed whatever McLeish suggests although perhaps the pressure to implement every proposal was in his thoughts as he contemplated his resignation.

The end of his time in charge was marked by another diving scandal, this one of Smith’s own making. The chief executive took in a third division game between Livingston and East Stirlingshire in Februrary and reportedly took matters into his own hands when he perceived the hosts’ Robbie Winters to have taken a dive.

Winters was cleared of the charge last week, prompting a furious Gordon McDougall, the Livingston chairman, to reveal he would be writing a stern letter to George Peat, the SFA president, to complain, while criticising Smith for “overstepping his authority”.

Smith, in making the decision to intervene, had no doubt been well-intentioned but ultimately took the wrong course of action. In many ways it succinctly summed up his time as chief executive.

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