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Georgi Hristov closing in on Derek Smethurst's Rowdies record

Derek Smethurst, who holds the Rowdies' all-time scoring record with 57 goals set from 1975-78, poses in Brandon. [ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times]
Published Apr. 7, 2018

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 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 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.

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.

It's 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 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 tonight, 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.

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

"When I came here, I wasn't even sure I was going to stay 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."

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 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.'?"

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