Denis Smith is 70 now but there is still a glint in his eyes. “People think you’re absolutely bonkers to enjoy football management but I did it for a long time and I loved it,” he says.
He has been retired for 11 years, since leaving Wrexham in 2007, but his enthusiasm for football has not waned. There is a sense that Smith, returning to the Racecourse for Saturday’s derby against Tranmere, relishes the opportunity to immerse himself in occasions like this.
“Oh yeah, desperately,” he says when asked if he misses management. “My wife decided [after Wrexham] that was enough: I’d done over 1,000 games.
“But I still work. Next week I’m down at Wembley twice: Monday for disciplinary, Wednesday for work permits. And I still work for the Premier League: next Saturday I’m at Man United. So I’m still busy within football, I’m just not doing the job I loved which was management.
“Was my wife right? Possibly, yes.”
A six year spell with the Reds was Smith’s final job of an impressively long managerial career. It ended in disappointment – he was dismissed with Wrexham 18th in League two – but he still holds fond memories of his time in North Wales.
“We had new owners at the time and I knew them,” he says. “But when new owners come in they always look at things differently. If you talk to those owners now they would come to a different decision. They’ve already said it was possibly the worst decision they made in releasing me. But these things happen within football. If you’ve been in it as long as I have, you say ‘okay, you got it wrong, let’s get on with it’.
“I enjoyed my time here. It was nearly six years and it was a place that I enjoyed. I liked the people. Once they realised they could put up with me we got on well.”
Before his controversial dismissal, Smith was forced to navigate the tumultuary of administration. He guided Wrexham to a promotion and Football League Trophy success despite the financial difficulties, but the club soon slipped into an inexorable decline.
“It was difficult times. We got taken over at one stage by people that I didn’t get on with, so I was determined to stay to see that change which I was fortunate to do. I was sorry to leave; I didn’t want to leave. But we got the club and that was the main thing.”
Things off the pitch have, thankfully, significantly improved since. Wrexham remain in non-league after relegation in 2008 – a year after Smith’s exit – but there is a growing positivity around the club, encapsulated by the sell-out crowd at the Racecourse on Saturday.
“I’m delighted that Wrexham are where they are at the moment,” Smith says. “They’re up there and you need to be there in January at this level, because the teams below will drop away very quickly. They’ve been on a good run and started scoring goals which is good.
“There’s a passion about the football as we see today with the crowd. This is a club that should be getting big gates regularly. I believe it’s a bottom of the Championship, top of League One sort of standard club which should be able to get gates up to 12,000 plus.”
Fan ownership has allowed Wrexham to reach a level of financial stability that could only have been dreamed of during Smith’s time at the club, and he is aware of the importance of using it as a platform to return to the football league.
“What they’ve done is they’ve got it stable, and that’s pleasing when you look at what they’re doing behind the scenes,” he says.
“What they need is a promotion. The difference in the money in the football league is massive. We’ve been close a couple of times with Andy Morrell and fallen at the final hurdle. Hopefully that won’t happen this year.”
The performance against Tranmere suggested that Wrexham are very much amongst the contenders in this season’s National League promotion race.
Should Wrexham successfully escape non-league, Smith is optimistic that further progression will follow. “I’m hoping they’ll do even better and get up as far as the Championship where they’ve been in the past,” he says. “It’ll take time, it’ll take energy, and unfortunately, whether you like it or not, it takes money.
“But I think they’re capable of doing that.”