Walter Smith: Rangers will never see like again - managerial great, exceptional coach and outstanding human being

If there is such a thing as predetermination in football, then Walter Smith was unquestionably born to be the manager of Rangers.

A banner held aloft by Rangers fans at Rugby Park in May 2011 detailing Walter Smith's trophy haul over two spells in charge of the Ibrox club. (Photo by Craig Williamson/SNS Group).
A banner held aloft by Rangers fans at Rugby Park in May 2011 detailing Walter Smith's trophy haul over two spells in charge of the Ibrox club. (Photo by Craig Williamson/SNS Group).

By his own self-deprecating admission, Smith’s abilities were never sufficient to fulfil his boyhood dreams of playing for the club he adored. But when the opportunity presented itself to take charge of Rangers, he fitted the role like a glove.

The outpouring of clearly heartfelt tributes to Smith from all corners of Scottish football and beyond in the wake of his death at the age of 73 are testament to both the success he enjoyed and the respect in which he was universally held.

As his former player, assistant and – more pertinently – close friend Ally McCoist so eloquently and movingly put it, while Smith’s haul of 21 major honours as Rangers manager speaks for itself, his legacy is so much more than that.

Walter Smith is inducted into the Scottish Football Hall of Fame in 2007. (Photo by Craig Watson/SNS Group).

It was Smith’s innate decency and humanity which will be uppermost in the thoughts of all who were fortunate enough to encounter him throughout his remarkable career.

For those of us who make our living chronicling Scottish football, Smith was a man who commanded respect but who also reciprocated it with courtesy and helpfulness.

Like his fellow managerial titans of the post-war era, Jock Stein and Alex Ferguson, Smith recognised the mutually beneficial value of positive media relations.

Which, of course, is not to say that he was a man averse to letting reporters know when a particular story or line of questioning had irked him. The legendary YouTube outtake of Chick Young’s interview with Smith the day after a Champions League exit to AEK Athens in 1994 provides memorable evidence of that.

Walter Smith holds the League Cup aloft after nine-man Rangers' 1-0 win over St Mirren at Hampden in 2010. (Photo by Steve Welsh/SNS Group).

Most Scottish football writers were on the receiving end of what became known amongst us as ‘The Walter stare’.

This correspondent’s first experience of that withering look came in the departure lounge of Glasgow Airport in the summer of 1991 as I arrived to fly out with Rangers to a training camp in Italy ahead of Smith’s first full season as manager.

Working for the Scottish Daily Express at the time, I’d written an article suggesting that the draw for the first round of the European Cup, which had just been made, could have been tougher for Rangers who were paired with Sparta Prague but avoided other potential opponents such as Barcelona, Arsenal and Marseille.

Unfortunately for me, a sub-editor had extrapolated that line to produce a screaming back page headline of ‘Easy Pickings!’. Smith’s anger was compounded by the fact his Rangers-supporting father was an Express reader and now felt his son had a straightforward first European game in charge of the club.

Walter Smith took charge of Scotland in December 2004.

Having been left in no doubt Smith held me fully responsible, I spent the next 24 hours fretting that my punishment would be to be frozen out of his dealings with the press on the trip.

But having made his point, Smith was soon extending a conciliatory invitation to an impromptu gathering with the rest of the travelling reporters where he tipped us off that Rangers were poised to sell Trevor Steven to Marseille for a then record British transfer fee.

Smith’s prescience in reacting to that Sparta Prague article, of course, duly manifested itself in an away goals defeat for Rangers.

But the following season he led them on a remarkable run in the inaugural edition of the rebranded Champions League which saw them remain undefeated in narrowly missing out on a place in the final.

Walter Smith was a player and coach at Dundee United. Picture: SNS

Along with clinching a record equalling ninth consecutive league title in 1997, it was the high water mark of his exceptional first period at Rangers which began as assistant-manager to Graeme Souness in 1986.

Smith was a calming yin to Souness’ often combustible yang, an inspired combination put together by visionary chief executive David Holmes as the Ibrox club emerged from an era of mediocrity to alter the landscape of Scottish football.

Had Smith’s Rangers career been over when he left in 1998, his status as one of the greatest figures in the club’s history was already assured.

But after a challenging tenure at Everton, where he delivered stability but saw higher ambitions hamstrung by the sale of key players, and then a brief but impressive stint as Scotland manager in which he restored pride and credibility to a then beleaguered and often ridiculed national team, Smith answered the call to return to Ibrox in 2007.

Against a backdrop of developing financial uncertainty, which would ultimately lead to the financial collapse of 2012, Smith cemented his reputation as a true managerial great with three more league titles.

He also underlined his exceptional qualities as a coach, his aptitude as a tactical thinker which had first been utilised at Dundee United where he assisted the brilliant Jim McLean during the Tannadice club’s glory era of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Smith’s understanding of the game and ability to react to changing situations within a match were never better illustrated than during the League Cup Final against St Mirren in 2010 when Rangers were reduced to nine men. He was a mesmerising presence in the technical area at Hampden that afternoon, constantly passing instructions to his players who conjured up a near-miraculous 1-0 win with a late Kenny Miller goal.

Smith celebrated victory that day as he did every trophy Rangers won, as the supporter he had always been and would always remain.

He would have cherished watching Steven Gerrard’s team end a decade of despair at Ibrox by lifting the Premiership title last May, happy that Rangers are once again a club equipped for silverware.

Rangers supporters can anticipate seeing more trophies come their way in the years ahead. They will never see another manager like Walter Smith.

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