By The Govanhill Gub
I was actually in The Bear Pit this morning when GS put the post up telling us Walter Smith had passed away. We all knew he had been battling an illness earlier this year but I have to say I never saw this particular hammer blow coming, and for all of us who are part of The Rangers Family, a hammer blow is what it is.
So where do we start in weighing up Walter Smith’s contribution to our club? Well, for me I can only give my own personal recollections.
I was aware of Walter as a half back-cum-central defender at Tannadice in the early to mid 70s and that was all really. I became more aware of him in the early to mid 80s when as assistant to Jim McLean, they made us all sit up and take notice with their exploits both domestically and in Europe.
As you would expect, my overview was very narrow minded and even more one dimensional. How the hell could a club with a fraction of our resources do this, compete tactically with Aberdeen and Timbo, and yet, by and large, we simply weren’t at the races? The irony being: when push came to shove we could be relied on to get the better of Dundee Utd.
So to April 86 and the Moustachioed Revolution came to Ibrox via Sampdoria, we all thought Graeme Souness bringing Walter Smith was an inspired signing. After all, Souness knew nothing about Scottish football and Walter had his finger on as many pulses as you could wish for. What none of us could possibly have known at the time was just how inspired a signing, genius actually, this signing would prove to be?
There’s no use raking over all the highs and lows of those five years between April 86 and April 91, save to say there was plenty of both. I think in the early days some of us thought Walter was a canny buffer between Souness and the players, certainly the players who raised his ire.
Then Walter was thrust into the spotlight, quite spectacularly at that. Again, we all know what happened. Souness announcing he was off but wished to stay till the end of the season and Murray telling him no.
If I recall correctly, Sandy Robertson scored the first goal of the Walter Smith era with a late ‘scissor kick’ in a nervy performance at Love St. Ian Ferguson scored the only goal of the game at Ibrox in another ‘skittery’ performance.
As we all know, at Motherwell, disaster struck and then onto the following week at Ibrox v Aberdeen, two legends were born that day. On the park, Mark Hateley and off the park, Walter Smith. Cometh the hour cometh the man. Although that sunny May day should also be remembered for the heroics of all the walking wounded who rallied to the cause.
So, our first trio of consecutive titles since 1933/34/35 had us all on cloud nine and it was time for Walter to lay down his own managerial marker. One of the big stories during the summer was the saga of bringing Alexi Mikhailichenko to the club from Sampdoria.
But there were also a couple of signings that would prove to be very inspired indeed. One, Andy Goram from Hibs and Davie Robertson from Aberdeen. It’s strange to think we needed Goram as Chris Woods was a top class goalkeeper, but the rest as they say is history.
So Walter started his first season in charge with the team swatting St Johnstone and Motherwell away at Ibrox. (6-2 and 2-0) and then a real dollop of bad news. The club had decided to get rid of our silkiest footballer, Trevor Steven, in a deal that brought in something like £3.5m from Marseilles.
I can’t say I was a fan of that, but with the money Stuart McCall was brought in from Everton and he would be associated with the energy and tenacity that was a feature of Walter’s teams. Dale Gordon and Paul Rideout would be added later in the season to bolster the squad. Walter Smith’s team was slowly taking shape.
There were initial teething problems in that season, notably against Sparta Prague in the EC and Hibs in the League Cup. But it all ended in style with a fourth league title on the trot and our first Scottish Cup win in eleven years. And mention must be made of the passion Walter showed on the touchline the night Waddell red carded Davie Robertson in the SC semi final. Here was a guy who knew his team was being wronged.
So to season 1992/93. Those of us who witnessed it have their own stories to tell. To say we won our fifth treble and reached what was virtually a EC/CL semi final barely scratches the surface. It was the fight, the camaraderie between the players, and the never-say-die attitude that had us enthralled. In many ways, and in hindsight, that season spoiled us, as in we wanted more of the same please all of the time. Well, I did anyway.
As it happens, those first two seasons with Walter at the helm were more light hearted or even innocent if such a concept can exist in football, and especially the goldfish bowl that is Glasgow. I remember the club would bring out quarterly videos and they’d show Walter and Archie sitting down to have a pre match lunch with the chairman. This was their Saturday ritual and it was also new and uncharted territory for all of us, and boy did we lap it up.
Every vibe coming from the club seemed to be positive and then you had the team doing well and in McCoist and Hateley we had the best striking duo since the M&B partnership. What could go wrong? Ally playing for Scotland in Portugal was what went wrong. Goal scoring was never quite as efficient after that.
We struggled and huffed and puffed to grab title #6. There was definitely a hangover from the previous season and when you factor in the amount of injuries, it was obvious new blood was needed.
Season 1993/94 signalled something new in that one player above all others carried the team to victory and that player was Mark Hateley and that would be the case in the subsequent quest for NIAR.
It’s hard to do, but I’m going to try and skip over the majesty of Brian Laudrup and the cheek, impudence and outrageous skills of Paul Gascoigne. We all have our stories to tell and we know that we got a happy ending of sorts.
By now, and probably because of 92/93 in some ways, Europe was proving to be year on year a crushing disappointment. Sofia, Athens, the pastings at the hands of Juventus and Ajax and then Gothenburg and Strasbourg. Rightly or wrongly, Walter was being judged on these results, not domestically. Looking back, no manager ever in this country and never before or since at Ibrox has been held to such a stringent set of measures. And I was one of many among the support doing so.
Again, and this is not making an excuse for myself, I was of the opinion we had three genuine world class talents in Goram, Gascoigne and Laudrup, three world class talents in three different areas of the pitch. Add in Gough, who many believe is the best Rangers centre half in the modern era, then we had the nucleus of a side that should have performed so much better.
But there you go. That’s why I’m working on building sites and don’t make money out of football.
Season 97/98 would end in heartbreak and we thought that was Walter Smith’s trophy-laden time at Ibrox over and done with, consigned to history as it were. But fate would have one last wee surprise in store for us.
We fast forward to 2006 and lo and behold we, or David Murray, lands something of a coup by coaxing Frenchman Paul Le Guen to Ibrox. Remember, PLG was supposed to be all the things an old dinosaur like Walter was not. That certainly worked out well for us, didn’t it?
The fact is PLG, was simply unprepared for Scottish football. And before you could say; ”I’ll have two packets of cheese ‘n’ onion Monster Munch please” he was gone. Although not before senior players ratting him out to Radio Clyde in the New Year. Given the brazenly open bias of that sham of a station towards the yahoos it was shameful, utterly shameful. As was a LC defeat to St Johnstone at Ibrox, mind you.
So that was us completely in doo-doo once again, when Murray had the last brainwave of his time at Ibrox. Let’s bring back Walter Smith. I honestly can’t remember my thoughts on it at the time other than that he would steady the ship. Cometh another hour and cometh the same man.
Walter had his own ideas in who to bring in and when Davie Weir came to Ibrox, the old hand to steady the defence, that was as inspired a signing as any. Ehiogu was brought in as a stop gap and he scored a corker at Parkhead to win a game the home team were very much expected to win. Walter strikes again.
Lee McCulloch I’m sure was brought in, as was Kenny Miller for the following season, and what a roller coaster ride that would be. For me though, the sense I will always have of that season is of being cheated. Cheated by the anti-Rangers hatred that did the game a disservice and which, if anything, has spread comfortably through society.
The way I was told it regards the postponed Ne’erday encounter was that Strachan was asked, or told, to approach Walter with a view to getting the game cancelled. I put the feelers out as it were. If that is true, you can only wonder what he thought of him subsequently? Talk about being put in a horrible position?
As I said, that was what I was told and have stuck to that version. But no matter, it remains, even by the standards of that rancid organisation, one of the more disgusting and unseemly actions they have ever come up with.
Again, there is no use me retelling all the highs and ultimate lows of season 2007/08. We all lived through it and have our own stories to tell.
History will show we went on to record another three-titles-in-a-row under Walter. And how wonderful they tasted. In many ways – and again it shows how unjust the standards Walter Smith was held to during his managerial career at Ibrox – I believe he showed just how truly great a manager was in his second period in charge. When circumstance were far from as favourable to him as they were first time around.
Maybe it says more about us, that we simply expected to turn up and win the title in Walter’s first term in charge? Although I’m guilty as charged with that one and make no apologies for it.
So there’s only one question left. Where does Walter Smith stand in the hierarchy and Pantheon of Rangers managers? Given that William Wilton had a disaster and a full squad of players transfer listed in 1902 and that he always came back with great teams (and more importantly laid the foundations for Bill Struth) then he sits at the top table.
There’s not really much to add where Struth sits. In this table for three, Messrs Wilton and Struth are joined by Walter Smith. There can be no doubts about this. It’s not just his achievements. It’s the way he conducted himself. A gentleman to the last, but I get the feeling you wouldn’t have wanted to cross him as a player.
Off on a slight tangent here. Isn’t it strange how the initials W and S are synonymous with the managerial berth at Ibrox? Wilton, Struth, Symon, White, Waddell, Wallace, Souness, Smith and we can even throw in a Steven in the present day.
So that’s my short, and probably hurried take on Walter Smith. The greatest Rangers manager since Bill Struth. A Ranger to the very end. A Ranger we should all be grateful served our club. A man we should all be proud served our club.
Walter Smith’s Rangers Honours.
League titles – 9 – 1992, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 2009, 10, 11 # – Some people may want to include 1990/91.
Scottish Cup – 5 – 1992, 93, 96, 2008, 09
League Cup – 6 – 1992, 93, 96 2008, 10, 11
UEFA Cup Final – 2007/08