Walter Smith – Just Wonderful

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By Alistair Aird

On Saturday 25 May 2024, Rangers will unveil a bronze statue of Walter Smith at Ibrox. It is a fitting, and long overdue, tribute to Smith, who passed away at the age of 73 in 2021. He is quite rightly regarded as one of the greatest ever managers the club has had.

This is his Rangers story.

Route to Rangers

When Graeme Souness became Rangers Football Club’s first-ever player-manager in April 1986, the revolution that saw a dormant giant of the Scottish game revitalised and reborn started in earnest.

Over the course of the summer, Souness set about bucking a trend at that time that saw the cream of Scottish talent crossing Hadrian’s wall to play in England. Helped by the fact that English clubs were banned from playing in European competition, Souness was able to lure the England captain, Terry Butcher, and their number two goalkeeper, Chris Woods, to Glasgow. Later in the season he persuaded Graham Roberts to move north too.

But as pivotal as those protagonists were in laying the foundations for the success that followed, neither of them tops the list when it comes to identifying Souness’s best signing. And as vital as the likes of Richard Gough, Ray Wilkins, and Mark Hateley would prove to be as the Souness era progressed, they’re not in the number one slot either. In fact, the man at the top of the list isn’t even a player. That’s because the best signing Graeme Souness made when he was the manager of Rangers was his first one, Walter Ferguson Smith.

Born and raised as a Ranger in Carmyle, Smith trained as an electrician and had what he himself admitted was a rather ordinary playing career. The highlights from two spells at Dundee United that sandwiched a stint with Dumbarton were a boot-kissing celebration when he scored for United in a Dundee derby in September 1973, and a spectacular own goal in the Scottish Cup semi-final replay at Hampden in 1976 when the Sons went down 3-0 against Hearts.

A pelvic injury hastened the end of Smith’s playing career, but paved the way for him to start what would be an illustrious career as a coach and manager. The nascent days of that journey were at Dundee United under Jim McLean.

United were emerging alongside Aberdeen as genuine contenders for silverware in Scotland, going toe-to-toe with the two heavyweights, Rangers and Celtic. A League Cup win in season 1979/80 was just the beginning for the Tangerines, with United shocking many when they topped the Scottish Premier Division table at the end of season 1982/83. A controversial defeat in the semi-finals of the European Cup against AS Roma the following season denied United the chance to face a Liverpool side captained by Souness in the Final.

But earlier in that season, 1983/84, Smith looked to be on the verge of moving to his boyhood heroes when McLean was offered the manager’s job at Rangers after John Greig resigned. McLean would have a late change of heart, electing to stay in the hotseat at Tannadice. Good things come to those who wait, though, and Smith would eventually make his way down the A9 in 1986.

As box office as Graeme Souness was – he had the stellar playing CV, medals galore, and was captain of Scotland – Smith had something he didn’t have; a thorough working knowledge of Scottish Football. And although Souness is rightly given a lot of credit for the revolution at Rangers, the role that Smith played was arguably just as significant, if not more so. Indeed, Smith was so highly thought of by Souness that when Graeme left to become manager of Liverpool in April 1991, he wanted his trusty lieutenant to come to Merseyside with him. But Smith declined. He had a date with destiny.

The Walter Smith Era – Part 1

I spoke to Sir David Murray for one of the books I was working on, and he told me that he sought counsel from his senior players when it came to deciding who would replace Souness. Among that group were Mark Hateley and Richard Gough. They could have put forward the name of someone who had managerial experience, but they were unanimous when it came to the name of the man they wanted to be the next manager of Rangers Football Club. It was the proverbial ‘no-brainer’; it had to be Walter Smith.

But talk about thrown in at the deep end.

Rangers were trying to fend off the challenge of Alex Smith’s Aberdeen as the title race entered its final furlong. When Smith took over, Rangers were top of the pile, although their advantage was just two points which made the margin for error extremely slight.

Single goal victories over St Mirren at Love Street courtesy of a Sandy Robertson goal, and Dundee United at Ibrox thanks to an Ian Ferguson diving header kickstarted the Smith era, but a trip to Fir Park in the penultimate league fixture seemed set to deliver a fatal blow in the title chase.

Mark Walters blazed a penalty kick over the bar, and Rangers, minus their captain, Richard Gough, succumbed to a late double from Dougie Arnott, a scourge of the Light Blues in that era, to lose 3-0. Arnott’s first goal still gave Rangers the advantage going into the final day, but his second handed the initiative to the Dons. They now travelled to Ibrox for a final day showdown needing just a draw to secure their first title since season 1984/85.

Thus, Smith faced a fourth match in charge, the outcome of which would likely shape his managerial future. Had that majestic header from Mark Hateley not hit the net, had the Englishman not shown his predatory instincts to snaffle the rebound from Mo Johnston’s shot, would Rangers have gone on to embark on one of the most successful eras in their history under the guidance of their rookie manager?

Although we will never definitively know the answer to that question, the significance of that match was massive. Hateley’s goals sealed three-in-a-row and provided a strong foundation for the Smith era to be built upon.

And what an era that would prove to be. Champions of Scotland for the next six years, annexing the coveted nine-in-a-row in the process, Rangers also won a trio of League Cups and were Scottish Cup winners three times, the first of which ended an 11-year wait for the trophy. And in season 1992/93, Smith’s side won the domestic Treble and were a single goal away from making the first-ever final of the European Champions League.

There were some glorious moments like the 44-match unbeaten run in season 1992/93 – that side of Smith’s often triumphed in the face of adversity – and the sensational Scottish Cup Final in 1996 when Brian Laudrup tore Hearts apart. Paul Gascoigne’s virtuoso performance against Aberdeen to seal eight-in-a-row springs to mind too.

Laudrup and Gascoigne. Two of the finest players ever to don a Rangers shirt, yet I don’t think they would have been persuaded to ply their trade in Scotland had it not been for Walter Smith. Both have admitted that Smith’s sales pitch was superb, but how he handled both players was exceptional too.

Laudrup, shackled while playing in Italy for AC Milan and Fiorentina, was given a free role which he used to wreak havoc on defences the length and breadth of the country. And Gascoigne? Perhaps Terry Venables was the only other manager that knew how to handle him. Smith’s man-management of the eccentric Englishman was key, and it is no surprise that Gascoigne enjoyed the best years of his career while he was at Rangers.

But let’s not kid ourselves. There were some depressing and disappointing times during that first epoch.

Performances in Europe were dismal the majority of the time. After coming so close to the Champions League Final in 1993, Smith’s sides never came close again. There were back-to-back batterings by Juventus, and maulings in Athens, Zurich, and Gothenburg. Masters of all they surveyed in Scotland, Rangers were also-rans on the European stage. The manager was criticised for his tactical approach, although at that time the rich were starting to get richer and the yawning chasm that now exists between Rangers and the crème de la crème of Champions League football was starting to develop.

There were crisis points domestically too. In season 1994/95, Rangers lost THREE home games in a week. And one of them was against Celtic. Can you imagine the meltdown on social media and fans forums had they been a thing back then? Smith, arguably our greatest manager in the post-war era, would have been subjected to torrents of abuse no doubt, and the keyboard warriors would be bashing away and suggesting in no uncertain terms that the board relieved Smith of his duties.

But Smith rode out most of the storms he faced before he left for Everton in the summer of 1998. Some may argue that he stayed a season too long and that he should have gone at the end of season 1996/97, but having delivered nine, it was only right that Smith should have been given the opportunity to guide his players to an unprecedented ten. It was unfortunately a bridge too far.

Walter Smith’s domestic record during his first spell as the Rangers manager was as follows:

That gave Smith a win percentage of 65.71%.

In European competition:

This equates to a win percentage of 38.89%.

It won’t come as a surprise that Ally McCoist top scored during Smith’s first spell in charge. Out of favour and benched by Graeme Souness for the majority of season 1990/91, McCoist scored his first league goal under Smith when he came on as sub in a 4-0 win over Dunfermline Athletic in late August 1991.

Shortly afterwards, there was a fine volleyed finish with his right foot in a League Cup tie against Hearts at Tynecastle. That opened the floodgates. McCoist ended season 1991/92 with 39 goals and went 10 better the following season. A broken leg sustained while playing for Scotland against Portugal in Lisbon denied McCoist a half century of goals and probably the opportunity to beat Sam English’s total of 44 league goals in one season (McCoist had 34 when his season ended). Jim Forrest’s total of 57 notched up in season 1964/65 would also have been under threat.

After a couple of seasons blighted by injury, McCoist was among the goals again in season 1995/96, scoring 20 in all competitions. And although he was used somewhat sparingly during seasons 1996/97 and 1997/98, he still managed to do what he did best when called upon. His goal against Hearts in the 1998 Scottish Cup Final, the last of Smith’ first spell in charge, was his 156th in 239 appearances.

Incidentally, McCoist also played in the two matches when Walter Smith took charge of Rangers on a caretaker basis before Souness officially arrived on 1 May 1986. Rangers drew 1-1 at Pittodrie and lost 2-1 against Clydebank at Kilbowie in what was a drab end to a dire season.

In the Interim

Walter Smith became Everton manager after he left Rangers. He found himself in a sticky situation as the Toffees, one of the leading lights in the English game in the 1980s, were struggling to stave off relegation. That would be symptomatic of Smith’s time on Merseyside, with Everton battling for survival in each of the three seasons he spent there. He did, however, nurture a talented kid called Wayne Rooney, and although he was eventually sacked, Smith is highly thought of by Evertonians.

A spell as assistant manager to Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford followed before Scotland came calling. The Berti Vogts era ended with a miserable 1-1 draw in Moldova, and Smith took over in the midst of the qualifying campaign for the 2006 World Cup. Aided and abetted by Ally McCoist, Tommy Burns, and Jim Stewart, Smith restored pride in the nation, masterminding a famous 1-0 win over France at Hampden.

Scotland looked set to do something they hadn’t done for a decade – qualify for the finals of a major tournament – and many of the Tartan Army reckon they would have done had Smith not been lured back to rescue Rangers in January 2007.

Smith’s record as manager of Scotland is as follows:

The Walter Smith Era – Part 2

Rangers needed someone to rescue them from the wreckage of the Paul Le Guen era. There was only one man for the job. Walter Smith followed in the footsteps of Jock Wallace by having a second stint as manager of Rangers. But unlike Wallace whose second spell didn’t replicate the achievements he had enjoyed in his first, Smith’s would be laden with silverware and success.

Smith steadied the listing ship between January and May 2007, his side scoring a couple of morale-boosting wins over Celtic in the process, and he fortified a leaky defence by bringing in the veteran Davie Weir. That proved to be an inspired piece of business.

In season 2007/08, Smith should have emulated Jock Wallace and added a second domestic Treble to his CV but was denied by bureaucracy and steadfast resistance. With his side stoically shutting out Panathinaikos, Werder Bremen, Sporting Lisbon, and Fiorentina to reach the UEFA Cup Final, an extension to the season was denied. As a result, Celtic took full advantage of a couple of tired performances in the run-in to win the title. Defeat by Zenit St Petersburg meant that a domestic cup double was all that Rangers had to show at the end of a marathon 68-game season.

But Smith’s Rangers got their revenge in the shape of three successive league titles, a couple of League Cups, and a solitary Scottish Cup.

Once again, the foundation of that success was a rock-solid defence, one that was superbly marshalled by the veteran Davie Weir. Smith had worked with Weir at Everton, but when Weir joined Rangers in January 2007, I don’t think either party would have expected him to make over 200 appearances for the club. In that time, Weir became the oldest-ever recipient of the Scottish Football Writers’ Association’s Player of the Year, and currently ranks third on the list of ‘Golden Oldies’ to play for Rangers. He was 41 years and 77 days old when he made his last appearance for the club against Malmo, a record that has only been surpassed by Dougie Gray and Allan McGregor.

The signing of Weir was another astute move from Smith – he would later rate the centre-back as one his best ever signings – and recruiting Kenny Miller in the summer of 2008 would also bear fruit over those three successful seasons.

That move was a risk. Miller had a season with Celtic during which he banged his fist against their crest on his shirt after scoring against Rangers at Parkhead. That was treachery in the eyes of some Rangers supporters, but Smith knew that the gamble was a calculated one. And as was so often the case, he was proven correct. Before he left to join Bursaspor in January 2011, Miller netted 53 goals in 104 appearances. He was also credited with 26 assists and forged a potent partnership with Kris Boyd.

Boyd was also revitalised by Smith. Another who fell foul of Paul Le Guen, Boyd scored with breath-taking regularity under Smith’s guiding hand. He netted twice against Dundee United in the 2007/08 League Cup Final and also shot home the winning spot kick in the shoot out to earn Smith the first trophy of his second spell. Another brace helped seal the Scottish Cup in a tight 3-2 win over Queen of the South in the Final. And prior to leaving for Middlesbrough in the summer of 2010, Boyd scored a staggering 76 goals in 108 league appearances for Rangers while Smith was the Rangers manager.

During that second spell, Walter Smith’s domestic record reads:

That equates to a win percentage of 71.26%.

However, aside from the memorable run to Manchester, Rangers did not enjoy the best of fortunes in European football:

The win percentage was just 29.17%.

Walter’s second spell therefore seemed to mirror his first: dominant domestically but coming up short in continental competition. There has to be a caveat to the latter, though. The playing field during Smith’s first tenure was much more level. By the time he came back, Scottish Football was akin to a goldfish swimming in a pool with sharks and piranhas. It wasn’t just Rangers that were devoured by the predators at that time.

Stepping Down and Stepping Up

At the end of season 2010/11, Walter Smith decided to call it a day. After guiding the club to nine league titles (10 if you include season 1990/91 when he took over with four games to go), five Scottish Cups, and six League Cups, he announced his retirement. And whilst his achievements don’t match those of Bill Struth (18 league titles, 10 Scottish Cups and two League Cups), there is a compelling argument that Smith ranks as the greatest Rangers manager of the post-war era.

Ally McCoist would succeed his mentor as manager. But the club were soon in disarray, mired in a financial meltdown that saw Rangers demoted to the lowest level on the Scottish Football League pyramid. Many suitors (or maybe more accurately swindlers) tried to resuscitate Rangers, and one of them, Charles Green, was chief executive when Walter came out of retirement to take on the role of non-executive director in November 2012.

Smith succeeded Malcolm Murray as Rangers chairman – once again the role was a non-executive position – in May 2013, but resigned just three months later. Rangers were in disarray, and not even someone as totemic as Smith could stop the carnivorous sharks from feasting themselves on a club that was crippled and in crisis.

Personal Reflection

Walter Ferguson Smith passed away on 26 October 2021. He was 73.

He has a permanent place in the hearts of everyone who played under him and worked with him during his time in football. That’s the same for every Rangers supporter who witnessed his time in charge of the club too. And they will all tell their children and their children’s children about Walter. I know when I talk to my kids about the history of Rangers and the figures who have shaped that history, Walter’s name comes to the fore every single time.

I was lucky enough to speak to Walter on a few occasions. We worked together on the forewords for the Davie Wilson and David Robertson autobiographies.

I still have the email Walter sent me to sign off the foreword for the Robertson book. He wrote:

Hi Alistair, all ok with David’s book foreword.  

You are getting good at this!

Cheers Walter

Getting a wee bit of a pat on the back from Walter Smith made me feel incredible. I was walking on air for days afterwards!

I last spoke to Walter in June 2021 when he shared his memories of Mark Hateley with me for Mark’s book, Hitting the Mark. On every occasion, I found him engaging, accommodating and humble, and I am gutted that COVID-19 scuppered our plans to meet for a coffee. That would have been a special day.

The Greatest Ever?

In October 2023, Philippe Clement became the 19th permanent manager of Rangers Football Club. When Walter Smith began his first spell as manager in 1991, he was manger number nine since our inception in 1872. But is the wily old fox our greatest ever manager?

Debates such as this are subjective, of course, as we are looking at different eras and different competitions being contested. But Rangers managers are measured on success, and only Bill Struth has won more major honours for the club than Walter.

What immediately struck me when I compiled this list was that only nine of our 19 permanent managers have led us to a league title, discounting, of course the lower league titles won by Ally McCoist and Mark Warburton.

Smith is also in a select band of managers that have led Rangers into the final of a major European competition – the others are Scot Symon (1960/61 and 1966/67), Willie Waddell (1971/72) and Giovanni van Bronckhorst (2021/22) – and he’s one of only six that have managed Rangers to the domestic Treble. Joining him in that group are Bill Struth (1948/49), Scot Symon (1963/64), Jock Wallace (1975/76 and 1977/78), Dick Advocaat (1998/99) and Alex McLeish (2002/03).

Greatest-ever manager? You’d be hard pushed to argue Walter Smith isn’t in the top two, perhaps only just edged out of top spot by Bill Struth in terms of silverware and longevity.

But Walter Smith is also one of the greatest-ever Rangers too. He loved the club and must have been immensely proud to manage his boyhood heroes to the level of success he did. But it was never about personal gain for Walter. He was a proud family man, but when he was at work, his focus was ensuring that Rangers Football Club was first and foremost.

As the quote attributed to him attests, ‘Rangers Football Club, do not enter unless you are prepared to put yourself second. This should be the one and only time second best is good enough for you.’

Walter Smith’s legacy is everlasting and his place in the pantheon of Rangers legends is secure.

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