BRANDON — Derek Smethurst didn't 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 newly established 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 you're not fit then it doesn't 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 I'm staying here."
He secured a green card and laid down roots.
After 65 games in a Rowdies uniform from 1975-78, Smethurst scored 57 goals. That was more than notables of his time like Rodney Marsh, Oscar Fabbiani and Steve Wegerle.
It's a record that has stood for 40 years. 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 season's second week. Hristov has played in 149 games since joining Tampa Bay in March of 2013. The record could be tied or broken as soon as Saturday, when the Rowdies host Ottawa.
"It's about time somebody did it and it better be Georgi," Smethurst said. "I've still got a little time and I want to see somebody break it. If he doesn't I don't think I'll be around when it's broken."
Smethurst, 70, said he didn't even know he had the record until about five years ago. That's 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 somebody's 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 doesn't get to many games.
Like Smethurst, Hristov didn't 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.
He was signed by the Rowdies in March 2013. The plan then was to have a good season and move on.
"When I came here I wasn't even sure I was going to stay here after my first year," Hristov said. "I've had some offers throughout the years. But it just turned out that I've been here six years now. I'm happy here. Who knows, I might finish my career here one day."
Georgi Hristov on Saturday's goal. He is now three away from setting the Rowdies all-time scoring record."When you are in the box, you try to be in the right place at the right time." pic.twitter.com/tBg5RkDhMp— Tampa Bay Rowdies (@TampaBayRowdies) March 25, 2018
No current player has been on the roster as long as Hristov. Dating to last season, he has scored a goal in six of his last seven games. He was held scoreless in last week's 1-0 loss to Louisville.
That hot streak has gotten him close enough to the club scoring record that he's starting to get more attention. He never saw Smethurst play, but he knows breaking the mark will be a big accomplishment.
"I've done some research and I've talked to people," he said. "I'm very close to (former player and general manager) Perry Van Der Beck. I know there were some great players that played for those teams. I'm 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 didn't get over the halfway line a whole lot. I think I kicked a 38-yarder once and I thought to myself, that's the closest I'm going to get."