“I’m extremely grateful for this award, but I really think it should have gone to the big man there,” Darren Smith mumbled awkwardly, gripping the Stirling Albion Supporters' Player of the Year award. The “big man there” in question was goalkeeper Chris Smith, who showed little reaction to namesake Darren’s humble acceptance speech. Instead he chose to avoid eye contact with onlookers as an awkward atmosphere threatened to engulf those congregated in the Supporters' Bar after the final league game of the season.
It had been a disappointing campaign for Stirling Albion. A sixth place finish and a points total of 47, one fewer than amassed the previous season, meant the Binos would again be plying their trade in the bottom division of the Scottish Professional Football League. However, the safety of sixth place is something many Albion fans would have bitten your hand off for at the end of last year. Bottom of the league on the 10th of December 2016 following defeat at League 2 new boys Edinburgh City and facing the very distinct possibility of a relegation play-off against either the Highland League or Lowland League champions to retain their place in the professional ranks.
Dave Mackay, the former St Johnstone stalwart and the third man to take on managerial duties at Forthbank last season, did eventually guide the Albion clear of the abyss in what was a campaign of few highlights. Little-known French striker Dylan Nguene Bikey’s heroics in a short spell at the club and Sean Dickson’s stoppage time equaliser against Arbroath provided rare moments of solace. Darren Smith’s 12 goals in 38 appearances could hardly be described as prolific, yet it was enough to see him share the club’s top scorer award. Arguably Stirling Albion’s most consistent performer across the 2016/17 campaign was goalkeeper Chris Smith. A point of view echoed by opposition players as they voted him into the League 2 Team of the Year for the second time in a row. Three penalty saves and countless other top-class stops throughout the season earned Smith the adulation of opponents.
However, respect for Smith’s performances did not extend to all, with a minority of the club’s own fans regularly berating him. Choosing to overlook Wallace Christopher Smith, to give him his full name, for the Supporter’s Player of the Year award further highlighted a core of the Supporters Club’s dissatisfaction with him. While some of the comments on the Stirling Albion forum regarding his departure, which was announced this week, confirmed any doubts observers may have had of the ill will held toward him by some fans.
Smith, whose full-time job is a policeman, joined the Binos in the summer of 2015. A solid, if unspectacular, start to life between the sticks for Stirling quickly developed into one in which he was regularly pulling off stunning saves to bail out a shaky defence, while at times leaving a bit to be desired with his distribution. Although not being overly convincing under cross balls, Smith was widely considered to be a very capable keeper by those in the stands at Forthbank. However, all goodwill toward him was to come to an end for a small section of supporters one afternoon in Annan. A vocal minority replaced congratulating and clapping the ex-Stenhousemuir goalie with jibes about his appearance, or more specifically his midriff, and questions about his agility.
And Smith’s crime? Responding to the abuse he and his teammates were receiving from supporters. It had been bubbling under for a while. Headshakes and mutters as criticism came the team’s way from the terraces. Before one day he finally exercised his right of reply. Not with a torrent of abuse or a challenge to a fight, but instead with a question. Albeit a rhetorical one. “Aren’t you supposed to be supporting the team?” Dropping a cross or conceding a soft goal were just about forgivable, but to answer back the fans was seen by some supporters as crossing the line to the point of no return.
Smith is unquestionably one of the better goalkeepers Stirling have had in recent times. His performances in his two-year spell with the Albion have saved and won the team more points than they have lost. If judging Smith purely on goalkeeping ability, one would have to say that he is one of the best goalies in the league, if not the best, as evidenced by his Team of the Year induction two years running. Furthermore, it’s evident from teammate Darren Smith’s comments that Chris is not unpopular in the dressing room. Yet ability and dressing room popularity were clearly not enough for Smith whom some fans said they were glad to see go.
All of this raises a very awkward question for the supporters who took a disliking to Smith and, in particular, his audacity to answer them back. What is more important; your feelings toward an individual player, or, the performance of your team? It is only natural for those who are so emotionally, and financially, invested in their football club to vent their frustration when a mistake is made or an opportunity missed. But Smith was constantly singled out for criticism when the chips were down. At times, it felt like those who were not fond of him were just waiting for a mistake to be made. Inevitably goals would be conceded, and with that the perfect opportunity to criticise the last line of defence; the goalkeeper. With that, a small section of fans would seize their chance to air their personal feelings of dislike toward Smith whether at fault or not.
And it is these personal feelings that have effected some fans’ support of Chris Smith, and in turn, it could be argued, the team. Given the infectiousness of negativity, it is impossible to repeatedly single out Smith for criticism without realising it will have a knock-on effect on those around him. Namely his teammates. The performances and results on the park are ultimately what matter to supporters. Yet the, at times unjustified, barraging of the goalkeeper would undoubtedly have had a detrimental effect on those. The fans involved will be quick to point out that jibes and shouts of derision happen across the country every week and as professional footballers, players should be able to deal with the criticism. Also, fans have paid their money and are entitled to their opinions. Both of which are valid points. But at what stage do personal feelings that manifest themselves as constant criticism surpass doing what is best for the team you support?
Reactions and shows of frustration are natural and should not be removed from the game. Far from it. These responses are born of passion and show supporters care about their club. Shows of emotion from fans can often act as a reminder to players that part-time, League 2, last game of the season or not – fans want their team to win.
Chris Smith left Stirling Albion this week and will have gone with goodwill wishes from some and bids of good riddance from others. Smith did not leave the Binos solely because of his poor relationship with a small section of fans, but it will have no doubt been factored in. Cammy Binnie, a very competent young goalkeeper, will step in to take his place. Binnie’s very presence may well have been a factor in Smith’s departure, as such were the level of his displays when deputising for Smith it is hard to imagine he would be happy playing second fiddle for another season.
What is clear is that Stirling Albion are losing a very good goalkeeper. Everyone associated with the club will be hoping Cammy Binnie can fill Chris Smith’s gloves, while the fans will be hoping to enjoy a better relationship with their new number one.