Smith keeps options open as a loan Ranger

WHEN Labour came up with the New Deal, the intent of the initiative was to get young people into work. Rangers are selling the Loan Deal and the purpose of that is centred on the progress of youth.

This week, Billy Gibson, the Rangers under-21 captain, joined Partick on loan until the end of the season, though he won’t be playing against the Ibrox club today as a result of a clause in the agreement.

Steven MacLean remains on loan at Scunthorpe while Andy Dowie and Darryl Duffy are at Brechin. For Graeme Smith it is Victoria Park.

The 20-year-old Rangers keeper, back-up to the back-up to Stefan Klos at Ibrox, was loaned out to Ross County in December with the blessing of Alex McLeish and is with the Dingwall club until summer.

"I’m happy to be playing first-team football," says Smith, who has impressed at County since hitting the Highlands. "Some clubs think taking a young keeper on loan is a risk but Alex Smith didn’t. Anyway people at Rangers said good things about me."

They certainly have. McLeish terms Smith "an exceptional young keeper with great potential" but still saw the wisdom of allowing him to play football in a competitive first division each weekend.

"At least now I play Saturdays and there are points at stake," says Smith, who has kept a cleansheet in the derby with Inverness and only had his goal breached twice at Parkhead in the Cup. "The games seem to fly past but that’s what I wanted when I came here."

Previously it was the Monday Night Blues. Train Saturday, train Sunday for an under-21 league run-out with some disillusioned out-of- favour internationals.

With Alan McGregor acting as deputy for Klos, this was Smith’s lot. If Jesper Christiansen was around, Smith might even get bumped from the Monday Club.

"That would drive me demented," says Smith, "but I’d have to clear my head and remember that you have to take the good with the bad."

His ideal is eventually to be No.1 for Rangers. This week the man who has been so for five years penned an extension that runs his contract until 2007.

While Klos was committing himself, Christiansen, who managed six matches for the Rangers first team in three years, was finalising his return to Denmark.

Looking down the road, Smith says: "Between now and summer my fate may be sealed and if I go back to Rangers and I’m still third choice I will need to go on loan again. But I believe I can do it at Rangers and that I have a chance."

Smith admits he misses Rangers when not there but knows why he is not there. "Rangers now look at getting boys on loan. I know that when Dick Advocaat was at Rangers he wasn’t so keen on loaning out." Smith is able to see positives in the sea-change.

"We do leave ourselves a bit short in the under-21s with some of the lads who have gone out," says McLeish, "but the positive we take from that is promoting the younger players up a level. It’s an initiative we have all the way down. Some of our under-17s are now in the under-21s. I’ve always felt that playing games against the older experienced players can help to develop youngsters quicker."

When a young Rangers player goes on loan, it is in their best interests to settle down quickly and perform. Dowie, farmed to Brechin, might feel put out by the fact that Rangers had signed another centre half called Frank de Boer, but with his contract up in the summer the youngster still has to show up well in Angus.

"If I had come up here and didn’t perform people would be saying: well what chance does he have with Rangers?" says Smith. "But I’ve done all right." He read a couple of County fans "slagging my kicking" on a website but that he plays before a decent and opinionated Dingwall audience is a plus factor.

Content that "news that I’m doing well will filter back", Smith mentions how, in the first division with Ross County, he is assured television coverage on Sundays. "If I am performing for Alex Smith it will stand me in good stead because who’s to say that my future will be made at Rangers?

"I’m just looking to make a name for myself," says Smith.

Today Ross County, tomorrow the world. He’d settle for Rangers eventually.