EVEN Sir Alex Ferguson might blanche at Walter Smith’s idea of retirement. The former Rangers manager has not been persuaded to take over the reins of team affairs again, but he has accepted the high-profile position of non-executive chairman, replacing Malcolm Murray, who will remain a director for the time being.
Given his penchant for a glass of red wine, Smith might well have had a drink to toast his latest development in an extraordinary career at the Ibrox club. He probably didn’t need to double-check whether he was in the company of a sneak with a cameraphone, since it’s hard to imagine anyone taking liberties with Smith, in the way it seems they did with Murray, his occasionally hapless predecessor.
No-one can claim that Smith is better qualified in a fiscal sense than Murray, a respected figure in London business circles. But then Smith has not been recruited as a number-cruncher. Smith’s chief responsibility is as a figurehead, and as an uniting presence. He has already promised to be hands-on. By stepping up from director to chairman, he becomes instantly more conspicuous, and provides Rangers with a north star-like presence, someone who the fans will feel confident they can guide their ships by.
Such things are important, particularly since John Greig has disappeared from view, and Sandy Jardine, sadly, is preoccupied with a more pressing concern, as he continues his bid to fight cancer. Life at the club has to go on, however. Season tickets are on sale, and regular reports of boardroom bust-ups and votes of no-confidence don’t tend to help diffuse supporter anxiety. Now, however, these fans can be assured that there is someone who is speaking for them in the boardroom, someone who now wields some authority. “Unity among the directors is vital,” stressed Smith yesterday.
There will be no one happier at this development than Ally McCoist. The current manager has long considered Smith to be a mentor. He has looked seriously adrift when expected to make a connection with some of the recent characters at the helm of the club, specifically Craig Whyte and Charles Green. It is guaranteed that Smith won’t be set on undermining the manager by describing Rangers as having their “worst-ever team”, such as Green did, while McCoist quietly fumed. Indeed, there are few in football with a better understanding of the ways of the Press than Smith. Rangers’ PR problem could be one of the first things Smith will feel the need to address, following too many in-house blow-ups as club employees pursue different agendas.
Many believe that Smith was too often given an easy ride by reporters during his two spells as Rangers manager. Like his old friend Alex Ferguson, he can indeed cut you down with a steely stare, or one withering, muttered put-down. But he can also be an easy man to engage with, and as well as reassurance for Rangers fans, he brings a sense of familiarity.
In the recent past, the Rangers hierarchy has seemed a remote and unimpressive enterprise. Board meetings that are held in London have only helped strengthen this perception, while there were an insufficient number of “Rangers men” involved to completely erode the suspicions of supporters. Smith’s appointment as a director in November was viewed as a step in the right direction, but it still did not completely allay the fears of jittery Rangers supporters. As chairman, Smith is now invested with a great deal more authority. When he was merely a director, he appeared slightly impotent.
At one press conference, to promote the recent Rangers versus Manchester United Legends game, he was asked about Charles Green’s conduct, from an alleged racist comment to his apparent links with Craig Whyte. “Bearing in mind I am not chairman of the club, I don’t organise meetings, they organise them for me,” he said, in a slightly fractious Press conference, one where it seemed his involvement with Rangers was set to go one of two ways. Either he would sever ties completely or he would be handed a more meaningful role.
When in 2010 he stepped down as manager at Rangers, he said he wasn’t leaving in order to be enticed back into the game. “I wouldn’t leave Rangers if I didn’t have the intention of finishing,” he said. And yet here he is again, pulling on the brown brogues, knotting up his candystripe-patterned tie. To judge by the reaction of Rangers fans, his appointment is the application of a soothing balm after a couple of years where the club has been a mass of festering, running sores.
It is, of course, not unique for a former football manager to graduate to the position of chairman, whether non-executive or not. Jim McLean did so at Dundee United, though with not such successful results as when he was in the dug-out at Tannadice. There were also reports of him being unable to resist meddling with team affairs.
The current European champions, however, are filled with former players in prominent positions of power, those who know what the club is like, and who understands the history, and what it takes to be consistently successful. It has not done Bayern Munich any harm.