Billy Smith’s Corinthian-Casuals team of the 1980s featured a number of names who would go on to play professionally, including Tony Finnigan and Andy Gray. Perhaps the most famous name of all was Alan Pardew, who spoke to Dominic Bliss about the FA Cup run with Casuals that launched his professional football career.
How did you come to join Corinthian-Casuals in late 1982?
I joined because I was feeling I wanted to move on in the world a little bit. I’d gone to Epsom and Ewell, and I didn’t enjoy it, I went back to Whyteleafe for a bit, but I felt that I could do better, and Billy Smith – who was manager of Corinthian-Casuals at the time – became aware of me. He was very persuasive in making me come to the club. I didn’t really know too much about the history of Corinthian at that time. All I knew was they were building a good side.
You were a glazier at the time. So how did you balance the day job and the football?
I used to work hard because it was a physical job – from about eight o’clock to about half past three, four o’clock. When I look back on it, that was a hell of a stint really because we were on piecework, which meant you earned as much as you put in. So, you had to really graft to earn your money, and then drive from work straight to training or evening games. Then you’d finish evening games and get up the next morning for work – and that was just a normal routine. It didn’t really bother me, I didn’t really think about it too much.
What was the club like under Billy Smith?
Well, Billy was out of the vegetable market up in Covent Garden, so a few other players – like Bobby Armitt, I seem to remember – were working at the market at that time. It was a real eclectic mix of rough and ready types, lots of banter, and you had to hold your own. It stood me in good stead for later in my career to put up with various jibes that were flying about the dressing room, but we had a good side, and some players who went on to achieve some great success.
Other than the likes of Andy Gray and Tony Finnigan, who both went on to play at Crystal Palace with you, what other players do you remember?
There was Paul Rulton, who worked in the market, and I actually thought he was the best player in the team at the time. Wow, he was like Gazza to me. When I looked at him, technically, and what he could do with a ball – he absolutely could have been a pro, no doubt about it. Even though me, Andy and Tony all went on to have decent pro careers, he was in my mind as our best player.
There was a striker called Bernie Merrin who was banging in goals at that time too.
Bald Bernie! He was a great striker. He was like a Vardy, you know? Running behind, with pace, and usually taking no more than two touches to finish – and yes, got a lot of goals. He was a good outlet for us.
Colin Coldspring was my enforcer in that team. I was very, very skinny – my body didn’t really come until I was 22 or 23. I was just filling out a little bit when I got to Casuals, but if anyone kicked me or got near me, because I was is a bit flirty around it, thought I was a bit of an Eric Cantona-type – well, he would go and smash them, or make it very clear to them to leave me alone. Yeah, it was great! Colin’s still a great friend of mine. He’s suffered a little bit with his health just recently, but I can tell you he is back to form and full fitness again.
That remains the last Corinthian-Casuals team to reach the FA Cup first round proper, in 1983/84. What do you remember about that run?
Well, it was massive for me personally. I can’t remember the early rounds too much. but I mean, we were just used to winning if I’m honest, at that time. And obviously, it was a major achievement. We squeezed through somebody in the fourth qualifying round and all I can remember really is the two encounters against Bristol City in the first round, which stick in my mind. That’s what launched me onto a professional career.
How did it do that?
Well, in the first game, Bristol City were very wary of us, and I know that because Gerry Gow was marking me and he later came to manage Yeovil, and he took me there, which is how my professional career got launched.
So, you know, he had marked me that game, and obviously I was tearing around like I normally did, and he was impressed. Then we had the second leg, in which we got well beat by a professional team, but it kind of stuck in his memory, and I ended up at Yeovil with him.
It’s funny that you don’t remember the final round of qualifying, when we squeezed through, because you scored the only goal of the game against Merthyr Tydfil.
Wow, I actually do remember that game! I seem to remember a lot of market boys were following us at the time, and Merthyr were a tough team, with a tough group of fans, and it was very boisterous and aggressive. I don’t remember the goal, though. It can’t have been any good – probably a scrappy old tap-in or something!
We played that game at Molesey, and apparently some crowd trouble led to the windows of the clubhouse being smashed, which is when your day job as a glazier came in handy!
Well, I did repair the window. I think they smashed up a little bit of the internals, the fruit machines or whatever was inside. But yeah, I got the window job. We had to make do and mend in those days!
Things came to an abrupt end for that side when the season finished, because we missed out in promotion and then we didn’t get permission to build a ground at Wimbledon Park. So we got kicked out of the league because we didn’t have our own home ground, and I think that’s why Billy Smith went to Dulwich Hamlet and took a lot of players with him…
That’s correct. At that time, Billy Smith was a very powerful, and a very good manager at non-league level. I’ve come up against managers in the pro game not as good as Billy, so when he left to go to Dulwich amid that whole league situation, the best part of that team went across to Dulwich as well.
Do you ever get asked about your time with us?
A lot of journalists bring it up because it’s a good story. Of course, Martin Tyler, who you’ve had on your podcast, was a Corinthian-Casual, and he would often mention it when he used to interview me when I was a Premier League manager. He would always say, “Ah, the old Corinthian! Is there any chance of a cup of tea?”
We’d have a cup of tea before the game, and he would wax lyrical about his striking skills, but obviously, I can’t remember them! Yeah, the two old Corinthians in dressing rooms at Old Trafford, and Newcastle, and whatever. We always had a little chat about it – “How are they doing?”
Did you stay in touch with the club at all?
Well, Billy Smith scouted for me when I became a manager, to look out for players at the non-league level – so we kept that connection.
Also, a few years after I left, Ritchie Simpson and a couple of my best pals went and played for Corinthian-Casuals, and I got this rumour about a Brazil trip. I heard that they were going to play the Corinthians in Brazil, and I was like, hold on a minute, I might have to come back for this trip!
They went to Brazil and they still talk about it now as one of the best trips of their lives – the time when Corinthian-Casuals played against Corinthians and Socrates, etc. They had that whole experience out there and I was itching to get back for that trip, but I couldn’t quite wangle it, which is unusual for me. I usually manage to creep into that sort of thing!
Then, after that, when you moved to Tolworth, I had more friends come and play for Corinthian-Casuals. I was a pro at that time, and I would come and meet my friends that were playing for the Casuals – oh yeah, brilliant. So I’ve always had this kind of connection, maybe because I’ve always lived in the area.
I also played for Corinthian-Casuals Vets when I was Reading manager. We played at Bradfield College. We had this iconic game in the most beautiful setting you can imagine – a beautiful sort of Jacobean building, with a football pitch right there. It still sticks in my memory as one of the most beautiful settings for a game of football you could ever have.
Great memories for me.
If I hadn’t played for Casuals against Gerry Gow at Bristol City that day, then I wouldn’t have had the jump to Yeovil, which in turn got me the massive jump to Palace. It wouldn’t have happened, I’m pretty convinced of it. So I owe Casuals a great debt, and I always look out for them.
Listen to Andy Gray, Tony Finnigan and Alan Pardew recall that memorable FA Cup run and the winning mentality fostered by Billy Smith. Find Billy’s Heroes, Series 2 Episode 2 of Broadway to Brazil, on the player below, on our Podcasts page or on all podcast apps.