At the end of Norwich City’s play-off final triumph at Wembley in May 2015, there was one special moment which stood out among so many indelible incidents.
Up in front of the Royal Box, as the dancing players took turns to hoist the trophy into the air, manager Alex Neil shuffled his way along behind them to reach the City contingent in that prestigious front row. As he arrived at Delia Smith, she drew his attention to an animated figure in the row behind her.
Delia’s mum, Etty, her face contorted with exultation, exchanged waves with Neil, then gave him a thumbs-up. She said one phrase to him twice: “We did it! We did it!”
Etty Smith, 95 by then, had not been sure she could cope with Wembley. Delia encouraged her to go and Tom Smith, Etty’s grandson, sat next to her as the unforgettable drama unfolded. Like many families, the Smiths wanted to be together on that special day and made sure they were.
Family. For many people, that is what football is about. And now the Norwich City family is mourning Etty’s passing, aged 100.
That thumbs-up for Alex Neil must have seemed like a reprieve from a Roman emperor because Etty was probably City’s worst loser.
She did not go to away games but listened to them on Radio Norfolk. If City lost, Delia dreaded the phone call she always made to her mum because there would be some very sharp criticisms. Home games were a different matter; Etty went to pretty much every one.
Her mood in defeat was just as black though, and successive managers were given her forthright appraisal of the team’s failings. Thank goodness nobody in her tight circle of relatives and friends introduced her to social media!
She had earned the right to say what she thought about things in any sphere of her life, though.
Etty Jones Lewis was born in rural mid-Wales. Her father, David, died of pneumonia when she was five. The family could not afford a doctor in that pre-NHS era. Etty believed that her father might well have lived with proper, but expensive treatment.
She carried the pain of the death and the injustice of the circumstances with her for the rest of her long life. It was the kernel of indignant hurt, deep in her soul, which made her a fervent Labour supporter.
Etty married at 20 to Harold Smith, who was serving as a RAF radio operator, stationed in Berkshire. It was war time, and it seems likely to me that Harold, a sergeant, was involved in tracking German bombers. After the war, now with toddler Delia, the Smith family set up home in Bexleyheath in Kent (just as it was becoming subsumed into the sprawling conurbation of London).
Delia inherited a passion for social justice from her mother, and there are other traits which I think can be attributed to the remarkable Etty: a quiet steeliness, a strident need to speak up for her beliefs and a refusal to accept lowered personal standards in her life or her work.
By all accounts, Delia first learned cooking by watching Etty, although it is utterly typical of Etty that when interviewed for a documentary about her globally famous daughter she chose an anecdote about failure – a rice pudding from which Delia had omitted the sugar.
For the last three decades of her life, Etty lived alone but near Delia and Michael Wynn Jones and, as we all know, took up her position in the front row of the directors’ box at Carrow Road for youth team games as well as for the senior team.
In her 80s she often wore a stylised biker-girl leather jacket. Somehow it looked exactly right for football, when teamed with her immaculately arranged coiffure and a City scarf.
She treasured the success of youth team graduates with special fondness but had her favourites among other players too: Gary Holt was one and Christophe Zimmermann the most recent. It cannot be coincidence that the former had that “three-lungs” work ethic and the latter an unadorned honesty about his graft and craft.
I cannot claim any special friendship with Etty, but like all who knew her, however tangentially, I have some lovely memories.
The second time I was in her company twenty-something years ago, I went over to say hello and she said: “I am sorry but I have no idea who you are.”
“There’s no reason why you should,” I said. “I’m Mick Dennis, a journalist.”
“Oh yes!” she said. “Sit down here and tell me what you know.”
In 2004, as City closed in on the Football League title under Nigel Worthington, Delia treated the entire non-football staff to a day out: to the away game at Watford. Arrangements were made for Watford’s Pizza Express to close for the lunchtime session so that it could host a coach-load from the Fine City. My wife (Sarah) and I were invited and placed on a table with Etty.
As ever, she was delightfully indiscreet company. She happily confided a dozen completely confidential details about Delia, MWJ and their relationship with Norwich City.
Etty used to compliment me on columns I wrote for the Daily Mirror, but once I moved to the Daily Express, she wouldn’t allow that newspaper in her home and never again talked about anything I had written.
I can’t say I blame her.
Yet Sarah and I were thrilled and honoured to be guests at Etty’s 100th birthday party last January at Carrow Road. It was a celebration of two of her passions: Welshness and Norwich City youth players. All guests were forbidden from taking gifts but encouraged instead to make donations to the club’s academy.
Star turn of the entertainment was the London Welsh Male Voice Choir and definitely her most treasured guest was Gareth Thomas, the former Wales and British Lions rugby union star. He’d been Delia’s guest at a City game and had clearly won Etty’s affection.
Of course the Murphy twins – no longer Norwich players but both immovably established in Etty’s heart – were there too. And I imagine every guest will bring that joyous afternoon to the forefront of the memory amid the current sadness.
Etty had major operations well into what others would regard as great old age. The surgeons were sure her innate resilience would ensure success, but her refusal to see any reason to “take things easy” was a tad problematic. And of course, eventually, the years took their toll.
But, as things became difficult for her, she would brighten again on days which included going to watch Norwich play.
It is one of Covid-19’s cruellest tricks that it took that away from her and it is so difficult to believe that none of us will see Etty in her seat again.
What a lady. What a life.
Tim Ball says
Lovely reminiscing Mick on a very sad day.
Both my parents lived into their early nineties and although like Etty it was a wonderfully lived lives, it was still so hard to say goodbye and I still miss them so much to this day.
So heartfelt condolences to Delia and all her family.
I loved how the television cameras often caught Delia and therefore Etty’s absolute joy at a Norwich goal. To be such an active supporter at her age was incredible.
The Wembley playoff was one of my best ever days supporting The Great Team and I am so pleased that the family persuaded Etty to go.
What a day that was, one I will never forget and I am sure it will be a lovely memory that Delia and all her family have of her mother forever. R.I.P Etty
Thank you Mick. A wonderful piece.
Ed C-L says
Moving and very heartfelt piece Mick, a lovely tribute to a special lady. Met her just the once when a friend and I were invited to a pre-season friendly by one of the directors, this included hospitality before and after the match. Etty radiated energy and good humour throughout and was, as the evening wore down, still the liveliest person in the room, Have so much respect for her generation, so hard working and modest and with that ‘…just get on with it’ attitude to life. Much respect to, and for her, and deepest sympathies to the Smiths.
martin penney says
My own mother and father were very much of Etty’s generation and both as tough as old boots but neither made anywhere close to the remarkable age of 100 themselves.
I only knew the detail of about 10% of your tribute, no, let’s make it 5% if I’m really honest.
A fine article.
Stewart Lewis says
My wife and I were lucky enough to see Etty at close quarters, our season tickets being just outside the corner of the Directors’ Box where she sat. Even as she became more frail over time, she’d always distribute team-sheets to us, together with some animated words and a radiant smile.
If anyone wonders where Delia’s spirit comes from, they should have met Etty. One day we’ll return to games to Carrow Road, but it won’t be quite the same without her.
Gary Field says
A wonderful and genuinely heartwarming tribute, Mick.
Rob Kirk says
Lovely words, Mick. I didn’t know her at all, but enjoyed seeing her from a distance in the directors’ box at every home game. I can only imagine what a hole she will leave in Delia’s life.
Jason M says
Lovely article Mick.
I was so sorry to read of the passing of Delia’s dear Mum Etty, I first became an NCFC supporter in 1958/9 that wonderful FA Cup run, I have followed them ever since & have been to a few matches around the Country when I lived in Swansea, but now I follow them via Sky. I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting Delia or Etty but must admit it was great to see her at Carrow Road when the TV cameras panned on her. She will be sadly missed. I wish Delia, Michael & family my sincere condolences.
Much love, God Bless. Rosemary (Baugh)
John Asher says
Lovely piece. 💔💔
Colin M says
Firstly Delia is 79, that’s a long time to know your Mum, so very much thoughts with her, MWJ and extended family.
Isn’t it great to live long and enjoy footy to the end.
I hope the club mark Delia’s 80th next Summer, I know she’s not popular with everyone but I wouldn’t swap her, its mostly been good, very good or flipping amazing.
RIP Mrs Etty Smith