Croydon, Surrey born centre forward Gilbert Oswald “G.O.” Smith was educated, from 1886 to 1892, at Charterhouse School, one of the principal nurseries of the Association Football game, and played football for Oxford University, representing the team from his first year, 1893, winning three out of four Varsity matches played against Cambridge, and captaining Oxford in his final year, 1896. On going down from university, he joined the Corinthians, then the best known amateur football club in Britain and one not only renowned for its promotion of the ideals of sportsmanship and fair play, but also fully capable of meeting the best professional teams of the day on equal terms. Smith’s scoring record for the club – 132 goals in 137 matches between 1892 and 1903 – remains one of the best strike rates in the history of the game, equating to one goal for every 93 minutes played. His record for The Casuals was even more impressive scoring 42 goals in 29 appearances.
In the course of his club career, Smith was a runner up in the FA Amateur Cup of 1895 when Middlesbrough beat The Old Carthusians, and won it in 1897 when Old Carthusians beat Stockton. He captained The Corinthians in the first Sheriff of London Charity Shield fixture, a competition created to match the best professional and amateur teams in Britain. The match, played in 1898 against Sheffield United, proved controversial and with the score standing at 1-1 after 90 minutes, the professional side declined to play extra time because they had disagreed with several of the referee’s decisions. Smith also scored the winning goal in Corinthian’s memorable 2-1 Charity Shield win against the professionals of Aston Villa played at Crystal Palace in November 1900. He shared The Corinthians secretaryship with Bill Oakley between 1898 and 1902.
Smith scored on his England debut in a 6-1 victory over Ireland at Wellington Road, Birmingham in February 1893 and won his first seven caps while still at Oxford University. Smith captained the England team on at least 13, and possibly as many as 16, occasions (early records are inexact) between 1896 and 1901, winning at least eight games, possibly as many as ten, and drawing two. His most productive game in an England shirt came in February 1899, when he netted three times in only five minutes and four times in all during the 13-2 demolition of Ireland at Roker Park.
“Fine fellows they were,” the great Welsh player Billy Meredith wrote of the Smith-led, all-amateur England forward line of 1895, “some six feet three in their socks and carrying plenty of weight with their inches. And they were not afraid to use their weight either, as some of us discovered. All in true sporting fashion, of course, for they were just as ready to take as to give hard knocks. Every man of them could run like a deer and before the game was over most of us were crying bellows to mend. Most of them were Corinthian stars and they played the Corinthian game. ‘Twas a grand sight to see their forward line sweeping down the field, though probably our backs didn’t think so.”
Smith made a total of 20 appearances for England (scoring 11 goals), between 1893 and 1901, a record until Steve Bloomer overtook him in 1905. Some authorities, including the author of the article on Smith published in the Dictionary of National Biography, credit him with 21 caps, one of which was won in the unofficial 12-0 victory over Germany in 1901.
G.O. Smith was renowned throughout his playing career for his exceptional balance and timing, and was further noted for his close control of the ball. Unlike the majority of centre forwards of the day, Smith also excelled at passing. “He was,” his obituary in The Times contended, “a maker rather than a scorer of goals. Steve Bloomer, Smith’s professional colleague in several international matches, remarked that it was for this reason that he would rather play alongside Smith than any other centre-forward. The Dictionary of National Biography contends that he “transformed the role of the centre-forward from that of an individual striker into a unifier of the forward line, indeed the whole team.”
Physically, Smith seemed unprepossessing. Though standing nearly 5 feet 11 inches, a good height for the day, he was of slight build, suffered from asthma and lacked the obvious brawn that had characterised predecessors in the England team such as W.N. “Nuts” Cobbold in a period in which body-checking and other rough tactics were considered fair play. He was also noted for his reluctance to head the ball, stating that he would be happy to see the practice banned. “G.O.” atoned for these deficiencies by positioning himself intelligently and by shooting accurately, and – so his obituary observed – “invariably low”, though opponents testified that he was also “hard as a whipcord” and by no means easy to shake off the ball.
By the time of his retirement, Smith was perhaps the most admired figure in the English game, familiarly known to several generations of schoolboys simply by his initials at a time when only one other sportsman – the cricketer W.G. Grace – was so recognised. Despite the emergence of later of equally capable centre forwards in a more recognisably modern mould, most notably Vivian Woodward (Smith’s successor in the England team), his abilities were recalled and praised well into the 1940’s. The International Federation of Football History & Statistics, a scholarly group based in Wiesbaden, describes him as “the most brilliant, indeed perfect, footballer in the world around the turn of the century”.
“G.O.” was, according to contemporaries, unusually popular among professional footballers who were generally wary of the leading amateurs. Sir Frederick Wall, the long-serving Secretary of the Football Association wrote that he was “a man without petty pride”. Steve Bloomer, Wall recalled, “had an intense admiration” for his England striking partner, and Bloomer himself remarked that, unlike the majority of amateurs of the day, Smith was invariably courteous to his professional teammates (and social inferiors): “He was the finest type of amateur, one who would always shake hands with us professionals in a manner which said plainly he was pleased to meet them.”
In his youth, G.O. Smith was also a noted cricketer, representing Oxford University and scoring a match-winning 132 runs in the fourth innings of the 1896 Varsity Match to win the game against Cambridge. He batted right-handed. showing excellent timing with his drives and cutting beautifully, bowled reasonably well, and fielded at cover point. In the field he moved – his obituary in Wisden noted – “gracefully with quickness in all he did.” He played 3 county matches for Surrey in 1896, as well as playing minor counties cricket for Hertfordshire.