Sunday, October 21, 2018
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Georgi Hristov closing in on Derek Smethurst’s Rowdies record

BRANDON ó Derek Smethurst didnít expect to be a Rowdie for long.

As an established player in the English Premier League, he signed a contract to play for the 1975 expansion team in Tampa Bay in the new North American Soccer League. His plan was to spend the summer training so he could go back to playing in England.

"I came here to get fit," said Smethurst, a native of South Africa who now lives in Valrico. "At that time Nottingham Forest was interested in me but if youíre not fit, then it doesnít matter. When I got here it reminded me of Durban (South Africa) as opposed to the damp, cold, miserable weather I was in. It was the beach bum, surfer-type thing. It took me five minutes to decide Iím staying here."

He secured a green card and laid down roots.

In 65 games with the Rowdies from 1975-78, Smethurst scored 57 goals. That was more than Rowdies notables of his time such as Rodney Marsh, Oscar Fabbiani or Steve Wegerle.

Itís a record that still stands. And it is about to be broken.

Forward Georgi Hristov, a 33-year-old Bulgarian, notched his 55th career goal as a Rowdie in a 2-0 win over Bethlehem in the seasonís second week. Hristov has played in 149 games since joining Tampa Bay in March of 2013. The record could be tied or broken tonight, when the Rowdies host Ottawa.

"Itís about time somebody did it, and it better be Georgi," Smethurst said. "Iíve still got a little time, and I want to see somebody break it. If he doesnít, I donít think Iíll be around when itís broken."

Smethurst, 70, said he didnít even know he had the record until about five years ago. Thatís when some friends saw it online and asked him about it.

"I just knew at that time that I was way out in front of the others," he said. "I had no idea. I just thought that somebodyís got to beat this thing."

And barring something unforeseen, that somebody is Hristov. Smethurst said he has not met Hristov and has not seen him play for the Rowdies. Now retired from running soccer clubs in the Brandon area, Smethurst said he tries to keep up with the Rowdies but doesnít get to many games.

Like Smethurst, Hristov didnít think he would play very long for Tampa Bay. He started his professional career in 2002 in the Bulgarian second division. In 2008-09 his club, Levski Sofia, won the Bulgarian first division.

When he signed with the Rowdies, the plan was to have a good season and move on.

"When I came here, I wasnít even sure I was going to stay after my first year," Hristov said. "Iíve had some offers throughout the years. But it just turned out that Iíve been here six years now. Iím happy here. Who knows, I might finish my career here one day."

No current player has been on the roster as long as Hristov. Dating to last season, he has a goal in six of his past seven games. He was scoreless in last weekís 1-0 loss to Louisville.

That hot streak has gotten him close enough to the club scoring record that heís starting to get more attention. He never saw Smethurst play, but he knows breaking the mark will be a big accomplishment.

"Iíve done some research, and Iíve talked to people," he said. "Iím very close to (former player and general manager) Perry Van Der Beck. I know there were some great players that played for those teams. Iím happy and proud to play for the Rowdies."

One thing Smethurst will always have over any other Rowdies player is that he once kicked field goals for the Bucs. He was brought in for the 1977 preseason, but a leg injury cut his football career short after only a few games. He never played in a regular-season NFL game.

"I earned a lot of money for nothing, kind of weird," Smethurst said. "We didnít get over the halfway line a whole lot. I think I kicked a 38-yarder once and I thought to myself, ĎThatís the closest Iím going to get.í?"

     
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Published: 10/22/18