Walter Smith was a great Scottish footballer and too modest to cry it out

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Walter Smith was a great Scottish footballer and too modest to cry it out


At the end of the 1994-95 season, Walter Smith acted on a whim. The Rangers manager made his way to the Roman villa of Paul Gascoigne.

” What are you doing here? Gascoigne asked from a quad behind the security barriers. “I’m here to find out if you would sign for Rangers,” Smith said. “Alright,” Gascoigne replied, before informing Smith that because he was about to go on vacation, Jimmy Five Bellies and the guys would take care of him for the evening.

Back in Scotland, Smith had a curious president in the person of David Murray. “Well, he said he would come…” said Smith, still unsure of the brevity of the negotiations.

Sign Gascoigne made Lazio, for a club record of £ 4.3million. Brian Laudrup had moved to Ibrox the previous summer. Rangers were an immovable domestic object. The capture of Gascoigne underlined the power of attraction beyond Scotland. Smith, then four years after his appointment, was still at the helm when the club won a record-breaking ninth consecutive title.

Smith was one of the most important figures in Scottish football history. Obviously, that also applies to Rangers, where he served as manager after winning 21 accolades and assisting for seven more.

As those of Ibrox mourn the loss of Smith, his wider contribution to the game should be celebrated. Smith was integral to Jim McLean’s epic success at Dundee United. After the routine embarrassment of the Berti Vogts era, Smith restored the Scottish national team to respectability. Smith had been an influence in shaping the youngsters of the Scottish Football Association long before putting a smile on the face of the country with a famous win over France at Hampden Park.

When Smith spoke about football, his knowledge, experience and approach as a statesman meant that others were wise to listen. He had presence, a wonderfully dry sense of humor, and an obvious, old-fashioned decency. You didn’t have to support the Rangers to be drawn to Smith, an inherently fair man.

If McLean was a genius, it says a lot about Smith that he was the trusted lieutenant. The local club Dundee United were Scottish champions and a European force in the early 1980s. McLean’s earlier pitch to Smith is the stuff of legend. “He once said to me in 1976-77, ‘At some point in your career you have to face the fact that you’re good,’” Smith said. “And let’s face it Walter, you’re crap. But I think you have real coaching talent, so would you be my coach? ‘ It wasn’t really a proposal.

Made in Heaven, however. Against the backdrop of McLean’s tyranny, even Smith’s disciplinary touch seemed soft. Much later, Smith’s management of Gascoigne – who was rejuvenated with the Rangers – demonstrated his skills in managing men.

Walter Smith (left) with Graeme Souness in March 1989. He was Souness’ assistant with the Rangers before replacing him in 1991. Photographie : Daily Express/SSPL/Getty Images

He now seems curious to think how risky Smith’s Rangers appointment must have been. Rather than hang around for the end of the 1990-91 campaign, Graeme Souness was told he might as well head to Anfield immediately after Liverpool picked him to replace Kenny Dalglish. Not only was the Rangers’ job widely courted, the team had a title up for grabs and four games remained. Stepping forward from the assistant manager, Smith oversaw a 1-0 game at St Mirren. Rangers’ victory over Aberdeen on the final day secured the flag and the rest is trophy-laden history.

Smith was wonderfully modest. In May 2011, even the traditional early starters refused to leave Ibrox towards the end of a mundane game against Dundee United. Smith was at the center of an emotional lap of honor after that, his last home game as a manager. With his grandchildren by his side, Smith looked shy at the – quite legitimate – cheers. His first act was to thank the supporters for dragging through such a bad night in the middle of the week.

A few days later, the title goes to the Rangers. There is symmetry but sadness attached to the fact that the club only recently won their first championship since 2011. Steven Gerrard, now the darling of the Rangers loyalists, quickly developed a bond with Smith, who delighted the latter triumphs as much as anyone else.

While Smith’s first tenure at Ibrox delivered recurring glory – and the humiliation of England champions Leeds in 1992 – his second highlighted managerial versatility. Smith felt uncomfortable leaving Scotland in 2007, but made it clear he would only take one job.

The Rangers, in the rut after Paul Le Guen’s disastrous tenure, turned to what they knew. With the Bankers hovering, the Rangers reached a Uefa Cup final and added eight trophies to their tally. Smith was tactically much smarter than many believed. His great admiration for Marcello Lippi is no accident when it comes to pragmatism.

Walter Smith celebrates with Rangers fans at Ibrox after winning the league title in 2010. Photograph: images Andrew Milligan / PA

Given that he took over from Howard Kendall and immediately preceded David Moyes, Smith’s reputation in the eyes of Everton supporters will not reflect the esteem in which he was held by the Glasgow blue half. Everton, however, was the epitome of dysfunction during Smith’s tenure from 1998 to 2002. There is no further conclusion to be drawn after Duncan Ferguson met his manager on a flight of stairs from the main stand, the striker having duly told the baffled manager that he had just been sold to Newcastle. Smith’s exit came weeks before Wayne Rooney’s first-team breakthrough.

Smith was among the coffin bearers at Tommy Burns’ funeral in 2008. He had retained Burns as part of his Scottish coaching education after admiring the offensive nature of the latter’s Celtic teams. The pair must have got along wonderfully; Smith told the counter-self story of Burns falling asleep in the back row of a pre-game team reunion.

Smith was immersed in the Old Firm, but there had never been the slightest feeling that he carried the rivalry to a disproportionate point. Smith was an electrician supporting the Rangers, raised in east Glasgow, who believed there was no need to shout and bawl about football allegiances. When Souness pitched the idea of ​​breaking away from convention – and a dark, bigoted history – by bringing Mo Johnston to the Rangers, Smith was an enthusiastic advocate.

Smith and Alex Ferguson were longtime and close friends. Smith helped Ferguson at Manchester United to the 2003-04 finals, but their bond lasted for decades. Smith’s eye flash in reaction to half-baked questions gave an idea of ​​how great he could be towards underachieving players, but he had an especially cordial relationship with print journalists. “Hello gentlemen” was the standard greeting before a long – largely unofficial – discussion of the week’s events. Smith was even notorious for calling out and berating sports editors who he believed to be aggressive in their treatment of young reporters.


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Smith’s life was so intrinsically linked to football that it’s hard to imagine his life beyond. But besides being a devoted husband to Ethel, father and grandfather, he had business interests, was a frustrated and self-deprecating golfer, and loved Crosby, Stills & Nash.

After leadership, Smith briefly returned to Ibrox as director and chairman, but never seemed comfortable in either role. Watching games as a supporter attracted the former defender much more than enjoying themselves in the boardrooms.

He will be sadly missed by all associated with the Rangers. Smith’s stature in Scottish football, thankfully underestimated by the man himself, was such that sentiment should be more widespread.

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