Operation saved Smith from being crippled for life Feb 23 2003

By Chris Moore, Wales On Sunday

AS ONE of the more uncompromising defenders of his time, Denis Smith knows all about flying boots.

But there's absolutely no chance of Wrexham's Darren Ferguson suffering the sort of freak dressing-room injury his father, Sir Alex, inflicted on David Beckham last week.

Not since Smith realised how fortunate he is not to be paralysed and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

That was the prognosis the Dragons manager was faced with two years ago after a crumbling vertebra in his neck collapsed, trapping the spinal cord in his back.

"As soon as it was scanned the specialist told me he wanted to operate straight away," said the former Stoke and Sunderland defender.

"I had an important appointment I wanted to keep a few days later and asked if the surgery could wait.

"But I was told that any delay could result in me being paralysed from the neck down and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of my life.

"That's how serious it was." During the operation, a piece of bone from his hip was transplanted into his neck and is still held in place by a metal plate.

So it's hardly surprising that Smith admitted to Wales on Sunday this week that when he took over from Brian Flynn 18 months ago, he really didn't know whether he could do the job.

"I was also having a lot of trouble with my ankle, which needed fusing, and was under pressure from my wife, Kate, to retire from football altogether, rather than put myself at further risk," he said.

"I was struggling to walk for a time, and am still taking drugs to ease the pain in my arms and legs.

"I don't go running every day any more like I used to. But I work out every day and now feel I can go on for a good few years yet."

But he admits the threat to his wellbeing concentrated his mind and put life into perspective.

"That's why you won't see me kicking over any cups of tea or losing my cool in the dressing room," he said.

"I don't panic or worry any more if we don't get the right result."

Yet, deep down, Smith admits that football remains a real drug in his body - coupled with the burning desire to fashion another promotion campaign with Wrexham.

"If we go up this season everything will have been worthwhile," he said.

"Brian Flynn left me a fantastic legacy here, especially our training facilities at Colliers Park.

"They're better than anything I had when I was manager of Sunderland, West Brom and Bristol City, never mind Oxford and York.

"But that is the sort of thing that happens when a manager stays with a club as long as Brian did.

"I used to have fights in the boardroom about the training set-ups at West Brom and Sunderland, where the directors would rather spend the money on another player."

Despite operating on a shoestring budget - even fearing the telephone could be cut off any minute - Smith has still got Wrexham perfectly placed for the end of season run-in.

If the Robins beat Darlington at the Racecourse today, the chances are they'll climb back into the top six in the Third Division promotion race.

So you can understand his disappointment that only 3,019 fans turned up for last week's 3-0 home win over Southend.

"We simply cannot afford to survive on the gates we are getting," he said.

"When I've been in this situation before I have sold a player to get by.

"But now the transfer market is dead.

"Steve Morrell has scored 22 goals this season and is the top scorer in the division. A couple of years ago we could have cashed him in for £250,000. But today he's worth nothing, because there's no market.

"When you're scoring goals, it's disappointing when only 3,000 turn up. Even Swansea are getting 5,000 at the other end of the table."

Considering all Smith has been through, you can understand his frustration. But there's still no fear of his players having to duck and dive in the dressing room!



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