Solent Stars - Memories

by Steve Fitzsimons

Some time ago an article appeared in a local newspaper that reviewed Solent's past history. My name was never mentioned! In fact I was involved with the club longer than any other individual and played a pivotal role in not only keeping the club alive but also in its huge success between 1980 and 1989.


I had been playing National League at Guildford in the '78 - '79 season and was asked to consider coaching with a new team in Southampton. I met Harry Smith for the first time and it soon became apparent that bigger things were planned than had first been suggested. It was also obvious that I had not got the experience necessary to coach the sort of team Harry was planning and after one of the early practice sessions he asked me how I would feel about working with Tom Wisman as his assistant. At this time Tom was the most gifted, successful and notorious coach ever to work in this country. It was too good an opportunity to miss! I was a relative unknown to the likes of Saiers, Wisman, Walton and Guymon.

It wasn't so much a steep learning curve as a mountaineering course- the way the 'Wis' used psychology with his players and the Officials - he was a master of the coach technical; the way Harry dealt with the delicate politics of local league support for the venture; the enormous ego's of the players, (they were the best in the country and possibly amongst the best in Europe, after all) I learnt an awful lot in a very short space of time. As that first season came to a close, I was beginning to feel that I was making a contribution and that the players were appreciating my efforts.

The Wis was always in trouble with the authorities and one such an occasion gave me the opportunity to coach my first game. I got my instructions from Tom, but there was some disagreement about tactics. Dare I follow my own line? Wisman retired to the balcony like some great vulture, watching my every move. Ten minutes into the game things were not going well and so I gambled, possibly my whole coaching career, (at least as Tom's assistant), and changed strategy. We won comfortably but the Wis said nothing, nothing at all!

I remember one radio interview during this time with Mike Smith. He asked me what I hoped to gain from working with such a team. "His job" I replied pointing at Wisman doing the TV interview. Within 3 months Harry offered me Tom's job as he departed the club in typical controversial style.

My first season as Head Coach was full of incident with the team beginning to show a trade mark that became associated with my Coaching throughout my National league career - this was simply not playing in the first half (and then coming back to win in the second). We did this so many times it began to wear everyone's nerves down, including Harry's. Another memory - The game was at Hemel Hempstead and was being televised on Channel 4. We were leaving it late again - this time VERY late. Harry came down to the bench, reached over and put his hand on my microphone and asked "is this on Steve?" - "Yes Harry" I replied. So he continued to voice his opinion about some of the players performances with his hand firmly grasping the mic attached to my shirt, so that we were the only ones to share these views. Harry's language was colourful and he asked me to mention the words "plane tickets" in my next time out. I didn't, but the players knew the Owner was not happy and produced the Performance necessary to win, yet again!

After the game the press and TV only wanted to ask me one thing - how could I allow Harry Smith to grab me by the lapel - half throttle me - and still look so happy about it? I tried to explain what really happened, but to this day I don't think they believed me. Harry and I never had a cross word and I shall remain eternally grateful to him for having confidence in my ability and giving me a chance to coach at the highest level.

Of course the highlight of my first season was coaching the team and winning the National Cup Final at Leicester against Birmingham. It all came down to the last three minutes. First, I chose what I, and I'm sure the Wis, thought was the right time to put pressure on the Officials after a couple of crucial calls had gone against us - and got a "T" for my troubles. Some people thought this had given the game to Birmingham as they sunk the free throws. However, as all who were there know, this was then followed by a decision that went our way - the infamous Mark Saiers shot and free throws. This put us three points clear and won us the game. Exactly the outcome predicted by my mentor, Tom Wisman.

At the end of that season Harry once again asked me to step down to assist Jim Kelly - my coach education was about to receive another huge boost.

The main difference between the Coaching styles of Wisman and Kelly can be summed up simply as follows; if something was not working well, Tom's response would be "we'll damn-well make it work, or else!" Kelly's reply would be - "OK guys, that's not working, try this!" Two entirely different approaches that both brought rewards.

One major lesson I learned from Jim Kelly was to never underestimate how much your players can learn and remember. In his first season we used something like 20+ different offences and 33 different combinations of defence.

Jim remains a great friend of my family and I, living with us for a number of months. Two more memories;

Each morning I left for work at my college, Jim would be preparing for his physical workout - a run followed by some exercises on the back lawn. My wife became most embarrassed when the new neighbours said how impressed they were with her husband's fitness regime!

To and from practice Jim and I drove past a sweetcorn field. One day we stopped and Jim bought some 40 corns, which he presented to my wife. Celi cooked 6 with the evening meal - but when Jim went into the kitchen he exclaimed "Aren't you guys having any?"

Apparently Jim would go to 'Corn parties in the States where eating 6 each was commonplace!

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