THERE were no obvious signs, when he was a player, that James Michael Smith would go on to become one of our game's top managers - apart maybe from the leadership qualities he possessed, and his undoubted strength of character.

The young Yorkshireman had been a trainee at Sheffield United, but was unable to break into the first team, and he would embark on a path that would take him through the lower divisions, as a wing-half with Aldershot, Halifax Town and Lincoln City before eventually taking charge of a team for the first time at Boston United.

But he was in love with football, and listening to those who knew the game undoubtedly rubbed off on him, with a passion.

"I was pretty often the captain," he recalled.

"At school and then Sheffield United's youth team, and although I never captained Aldershot, I did at Lincoln and obviously Boston where I became player-manager."

There were many early influences in sharpening up Jim's mind about what made a good football team.

"I don't think there were many tactics in those days," he said. "It was all about players, and fitness. We were part-time, so we did it Tuesdays and Thursdays in the evenings - and the guy who took us was part-time.

"I didn't think then that's what I'm going to be - a manager - but obviously you start going out on courses and it sticks with you.

"It was a different era then. My first manager was Joe Mercer who was very influential, very smart, very correct, and very, very enthusiastic.

"After that I played under Vic Metcalfe and Willie Watson (at Halifax) - they were two of the nicest men you could ever meet.

"Jimmy Sirrel was another influence (at Aldershot) with his ideas and enthusiasm.

"I went to Lilleshall to get my coaching badges and that's when you learned things.

"You pick up bits and pieces, but you do it yourself mainly. It's always been in my blood."

After a year at Lincoln in which he made 54 appearances, Smith signed for non-League Boston United as player-manager, and made a good start, with his team invariably near the top of the very competitive Northern Premier League.

One of the players Jim signed at Boston was Howard Wilkinson, who would himself go on to become a leading coach. He is the last Englishman to have managed a top-flight-winning team when his Leeds side won the title in 1991-2.

"Howard was always very interested in the coaching side of the game," Smith added.

"He was doing his badges at college and then I left, and he took over from me."

Smith left Boston because his good record there led to Colchester United offering him the position of player- manager at Layer Road in 1972.

Success came quickly as Smith guided Colchester to the Fourth Division title in 1974.

His performance attracted the attention of bigger clubs, and in 1975 he quit, and hung up his boots, to join Blackburn Rovers as manager.

"That was my big break, yes," Smith admitted.

"As much as I loved Colchester and wanted to do well there, when a club like Blackburn Rovers come along - it may have been run-down - but it's a big club, a real football club.

"I got a really good team at Blackburn, probably as good a team as I've had. We just couldn't get a goalscorer and so missed out on promotion."

"After that I thought we ain't going anywhere here', and Birmingham approached me.

"It's the first time I've ever walked out really and the chairman, Mr Bancroft, never spoke to me for about two years!"

Smith took over from Sir Alf Ramsey at St Andrews, a hard act to follow anyway, but then injury problems conspired against him and Birmingham were relegated from the old First Division the next year.

However, Smith guided the Blues back into the top flight the following season.

These days, there aren't many managers who last after relegation from the top flight.

"Most don't survive ten games if they're losing", Jim laughed. "Ten or 11 and you've gone . . ."

In 1982, Smith parted company with Birmingham and joined Oxford United as manager.

He led them to the Third Division championship and the Second Division championship the following season, a feat never achieved before.

"They were some of my happiest times," he says.

"Of course, it's always happier when you're winning, ain't it?

"It was one of those things that happens very occasionally. It doesn't happen to every manager, that's for sure.

"Ian Greaves had done a great job before and I took it on.

"But to go on and win back-to-back promotions and championships was very special."

Despite the Bald Eagle's spectacular success at the Manor, in leading Oxford into the top flight for the first time, United chairman Robert Maxwell refused to improve his contract, which led to Smith's resignation and then being offered the job of manager at QPR, which he accepted.

In his first year at Loftus Road, Smith took Rangers to the League Cup final, but they lost 3-0 to his former club Oxford.

He continued to manage QPR until 1981 when he left to become manager of that perennial sleeping giant, Newcastle United.

However, the following year Newcastle were relegated and although they almost bounced back, finishing third and then losing to rivals Sunderland, who had finished sixth, in the play-offs, spelled the end for him at St James' Park.

"Newcastle was a nightmare time, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world," he said.

"That is the biggest club I've ever been involved with. If you could just get that right . . .

"When I was there - though I didn't get involved in it - there was an unbelievable battle for the club with Sir John Hall and Gordon McKeag. It was evil really.

"My job was impossible really and I resigned."

At Newcastle, though, they consider Smith was sacked. But it didn't take long for him to bounce back and he was appointed manager of Portsmouth the same year.

Jim had a successful four years at Portsmouth, which included reaching the FA Cup semi-finals in 1992 where they agonisingly lost on penalties to Liverpool.

They missed out on automatic promotion on goal difference, by just one goal, their Premiership dream ended by defeat in the play-offs, and Smith was sacked two years later after a gradual decline in the team's fortunes.

"We should have won the bloody FA Cup that year," he said.

"We lost in the semi-final to Liverpool, and the year after we lost in the play-offs. I've never won a play-off."

Smith then went into semi-retirement and became chief executive of the League Managers' Association in 1995.

But it wasn't really his cup of tea.

"I didn't find it very interesting," he admitted."We had no teeth then. I attended meetings at the FA on disciplinary or whatever, and we were asked for observations, but couldn't comment unless asked to.

Smith was offered the manager's position at Derby County and in his first full season in charge, the Rams came second in Division 1, gaining promotion to the Premier League.

And for three seasons Derby showed impressive improvements in the Premiership, finishing 12th, 9th and 8th.

"I took Steve McClaren from Oxford to be my assistant and it was a great combination," Jim said.

"I was talking to Paul Simpson the other day. He said he'd been around a bit, but the best two he'd ever seen were me and Steve, a good mix of age and youth, and it was good.

"Steve's a top coach and we had good times together.

"For obvious reasons we gelled and it was a bitter blow," he said with a chuckle, "when Alex (Ferguson) stole him off me!"

In the next two seasons Derby narrowly avoided relegation and Smith resigned in 2001 after refusing an offer to become director of football.

The next year, Smith was appointed assistant manager at Coventry, working alongside Roland Nilsson.

But after failing to clinch a play-off place, Coventry's entire management team was dismissed.

Later in 2002, his old club Portsmouth invited him back as assistant manager to Harry Redknapp and he accepted.

Smith helped Redknapp win the Division One title at the first attempt and went on to become a major part of Pompey's consolidation process in the Premier League.

In November 2004, both Smith and Redknapp resigned from Portsmouth after the appointment of a director of football which they felt threatened their authority and control in team matters.

Redknapp soon became boss at Southampton and Smith was appointed his assistant a few weeks later, having turned down the role of chief scout.

Going back to Fratton Park with Southampton that season necessitated some heavy-handed police protection for both men. Or so it was felt.

"Typical police, they thought we were going to get shot or something!" Jim said.

"They let all the burglars run around and spent a fortune on protecting us' at the game, but there was no problem."

Being No 2 is never the same as No 1, though.

"Assistant manager is a totally different role," he says.

"Only someone who's been a manager can understand that. The manager's the one who has to make the decisions. As an assistant, you've just got to support him and help him.

"But we had a great team at Portsmouth - Harry likes to play the game the same way.

"But it was a nightmare with the chairman, Milan Mandaric.

"For whatever reasons, I don't know why, it was just always confrontational.

"He hated the fans' song of Harry and Jim'. He wanted to be thought of as the reason for the success."

Smith's contract at St Mary's was not renewed in the summer of 2005 due to cost-cutting, but he returned to front-line management when he was appointed Oxford United boss again in March 2006, becoming a director of the club at the same time.

"It's a big disappointment to me that it didn't work out the second time at Oxford," he said.

"The biggest disappointment was not keeping them up, in all honesty.

"Looking back over those six or eight games, or whatever it was, and seeing the goals that we missed - that was been the story throughout.

"And I can see it now, in the play-off second leg here, all Rob Duffy has to do is put it in the back of the net, which he's been doing all season, but he tries to go around the goalkeeper and fell over."

But over 35 years of managing in the Premier and Football League, and nearly 40 years of management if non-League is also included, the Bald Eagle has many, many more good memories than bad.

And so he should, because it isn't just the promotions and titles that he's won, but the style of football he has tried to get his teams to play.

"I'm pleased that, wherever I've been, the football we've played has been good," he said.

"Everywhere I've been, at some given time, the punters will have said wow, that was some performance'.

"I remember going to watch the FA Cup final replay at Wembley between Man City and Tottenham when Tottenham won and it was quite exciting.

"I was in the stand and Tottenham fans afterwards were saying never mind that performance, the best game of the season was at Birmingham when you beat us 1-0'.

"Ossie Ardiles also said: That was such a game.' "I remember going into the press box for the interviews afterwards and I was still shaking. It was only 1-0 but it was some game.

"That's what I'd want to be remembered for . . . (he started chuckling because he knew, as I did, that it sounded like he was talking as though he was about to snuff it!).

"At some given time in that period that I was the manager, they would have had good football."