Scottish football once again finds itself in mourning. The very sad news of Walter Smith’s passing broke this morning to a great deal of shock. Those closest to him knew this was coming, but it doesn’t make it any easier and even at an age of 73 it seems all too young these days.
Obviously, Water Smith was never a hero of mine. I’m a Celtic fan, he was Rangers manager when I was growing up. It’s the whole point of football. In great rivalries there are always winners and losers and more often than not it was his Rangers that came out on top.
Smith was assistant manager at Rangers when I was coming of football age and him taking over from Graeme Souness is probably one of my earliest memories. Admittedly, my memory of that particular time was that I really hoped Souness leaving for Liverpool would be enough disruption for Aberdeen to clinch the title but actually Smith was able to keep the ship steady and ensure that the last day of the season victory over Aberdeen kept the title at Ibrox for a third season running.
He only kicked on from there.
Until recently, Smith’s Rangers held the record for consecutive domestic trophies as they won the league and Scottish Cup in 1991/92, the domestic treble in 1992/93, and lost out on back to back trebles in 1993/94 as Dundee United finally ended the run at seven by winning the Scottish Cup for the first time in their history.
It had to be United, didn’t it? The team where Smith had spent most of his playing career in the 1960s and 1970s. It was there with the reserves that his coaching career started as he helped bring through the younger players and then he made the step up to be Jim McLean’s assistant. He was there along side McLean as Dundee United won the Scottish league for the first time, and he was there when they lost out to Roma in the European Cup semi finals.
It wouldn’t be the last time Smith would narrowly miss out on European glory either.
While Rangers were conquering all domestically in the 1992/93 treble winning season, they were also making great strides in the newly rechristened Champions League. The first group stages of the European Cup had been introduced the previous year, but with a new name the competition was on the road to becoming what we now know it to be today. Rangers were a big part of that, defeating Leeds United in the “Battle of Britain” to get to that group stage. Rangers were undefeated throughout the six games, but drew one too many games and missed out on the top spot by a single point to Marseille. The French side would go on to defeat AC Milan in the final.
Rangers never quite achieved those heights in the Champions League again, but domestically Rangers were almost unstoppable. Yes, they didn’t win any more trebles under Smith, but the league titles kept coming until 1997 saw Rangers equal the nine-in-a-row record of Jock Stein’s Celtic. In a period where Celtic were playing great to watch football under Tommy Burns, Rangers were just better at grinding out the results to get them over the line. That’s not to say they didn’t also have talent to entertain – Paul Gascoigne and Brian Laudrup certainly did that.
Admittedly, having someone like Andy Goram in goal to deny great Celtic chances in big matches played a big part in that too. All too often the derby matches would end in a single goal victory to Rangers when Celtic had apparently been the dominant team. Smith just seemed to have the knack of getting those crucial wins.
Unfortunately for Smith, and by contrast fortunately for me and everyone else on the green and white side of Glasgow, Rangers failed to get that tenth title in a row. Some suggested that Smith announcing that this would be his last season played a big part in Rangers letting it slip away, and certainly the winning points tally for Celtic in 1997/98 was a few points lower than the previous two seasons – indeed Celtic had a point more in 1996/97!
It would be remise of me to pass over this point without noting just how bad a week it has been already in Scottish football. Just yesterday it was revealed that Wim Jansen, the man who denied Walter Smith’s Rangers ten in a row and led Celtic to the title that season, is suffering from dementia. Such sad news, and sadly he’s not the first nor will he be the last to suffer from that particular illness. I wish him and his family all the best.
Smith’s reign at Rangers came to an unusually trophyless end as Celtic won the League Cup and the league title, while Hearts beat Rangers in the Scottish Cup final. Despite the lack of a fairytale ending, anecdotes exist about Smith applauding the Hearts team and the Hearts fans and even sending cases of champagne onto the Hearts bus for the trip back to Edinburgh.
If that doesn’t tell you the class of the man, just think forward a few years. Walter Smith and Tommy Burns were rivals in the dugout through some of the most tense times in the history of both clubs. Yet when it came time for Smith to take the Scotland job, he kept Burns in the dugout with him after Burns had worked as assistant to Smith’s predecessor, Bertie Vogts. They worked together with Ally McCoist in one of Scotland’s toughest qualifying campaigns but produced some great results including the first of two wins over France.
I’ll admit, it still annoys me that Smith jumped ship and went back to Rangers in the middle of that campaign. Had he been in charge, would Scotland have lost in Georgia? Who knows. Would we have won in France though? Who knows. It’s one of the great “what if” moments of Scottish football.
You can’t really fault Smith for going back to Rangers though. The chance came up, and it proved to be as successful as the first time. Although the title was already all but gone by the time he returned at the start of 2007, and Rangers were already out of both cups, it gave him time to get things moving at Rangers. Rangers won both remaining games against runaway champions Celtic that season to set down a marker for the following season.
2007/08 saw Rangers win both the League Cup and the Scottish Cup, but miss out on the title on the final day of the season. A final day of the season that took place on a Thursday night.
A combination of bad weather, games being postponed to help both Rangers in the Champions League and Scotland in Euro 2008 qualifying, the horrible death of Phil O’Donnell, and Rangers own on-field success saw the league season extended just so it was possible to fit all the games into the calendar!
The postponement of a league game to help Rangers in the Champions League didn’t work as hoped and they lost at home to Lyon. But Rangers dropped into the UEFA Cup, and there Smith guided Rangers all the way to the final in Manchester – Rangers first European final appearance since Barcelona in 1972. In the end though, Zenit St Petersburg ran out 2-0 winners.
Perhaps the bigger loss however came the following day when news came through that Tommy Burns had passed away. On their way back up the road from Manchester, Walter Smith and Ally McCoist stopped off to pay their respects at the ever growing shrine at the doors of Celtic Park. I actually walked past them that day as I was there paying my own respects.
At the funeral, both Smith and McCoist carried the coffin. If ever there was a better picture of class in Scottish football, or a better indication of the respect and friendship these rivals had for each other, I’ve yet to see it. This wasn’t an old rivalry either. Tommy Burns had started the season as a coach under Celtic manager Gordon Strachan, so if anything the rivalry was just like old times. The funeral itself came just days prior to that final league day showdown.
Rangers might have missed out on the title that season, but they would go on to win the next three titles under Smith. Indeed, Smith remains the last Scottish manager to win the title that has since been won by two Irishmen, a Norwegian and an Englishman. Rangers also won a further two League Cups and two Scottish Cups, although by 2010/11 Smith was letting McCoist manage the team for cup games as he prepared to hand over the reigns and step down a second time.
As events off the field started to overtake events on the field at Rangers, Smith was still involved in the club. At one point in the summer of 2012 he was reported to be part of a consortium that was trying to be a late buyer for the assets of Rangers following the failed CVA, but despite the Smith consortium having a slightly higher bid those assets went to Charles Green as had been previously agreed by the administrators.
But that wasn’t the end of Walter Smith at Ibrox as a few months later Charles Green brought him in as a non-executive director of the new company. A few months after that, Smith was appointed non-executive chairman, but that lasted just three months before he resigned.
Walter Smith was never far from the thoughts of Rangers fans and Scotland fans. When Gordon Strachan left the national side in 2018, some suggested Smith would be a good choice to return. He even spoke with the SFA, but withdrew his name for consideration thereafter. Similarly, a few months earlier after the failure of Pedro Caixinha, and with a new Rangers board in place since his last involvement, there was some suggestion of a third spell at Ibrox to try and stop Celtic’s seemingly inevitable march to ten-in-a-row.
Although he did not return at that time, when Steven Gerrard did eventually “stop the ten” he paid tribute to the behind the scenes advice that Walter Smith had given him. Unfortunately Smith was not able to see the fruits of those labours first hand. When Rangers were presented with the trophy, Smith was still at home recovering from surgery he had undergone a couple of months earlier. Gerrard did promise he would take the trophy to him later, and I’m sure he was able to do just that in the months since that day.
With 21 major honours as a manager, Walter Smith is unquestionably one of the most successful managers in Scottish football history. Many will point to the budget he was allowed to use to achieve that, and that’s valid, but you still have to use it correctly and Smith did that. Yes, he brought wonderfully entertaining players like Paul Gascoigne and Brian Laudrup to Ibrox. But equally he brought stalwarts like David Weir in for free who did just as much to win those honours as anyone.
Actually, perhaps his biggest miracle is he took a player like Kirk Broadfoot and made him a UEFA Cup finalist!
This being a Scottish football website, I’ve mostly skipped over his time in England. His time at Everton was mixed, neither getting them relegated nor getting them away from the threat of relegation. But that owed more to the false promises he was made when taking the job than anything else. Promises that tempted him away from the Sheffield Wednesday job. Another “what if” moment in the long career of Walter Smith.
But one other remarkable note is that he did end up as assistant manager to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United for a short spell. It may not have been for long, but it was still enough time to win yet more silverware as United beat Milwall in the FA Cup final.
There are, of course, plenty of Walter Smith moments to acknowledge over the years. There’s the infamous interview with Chick Young which never fails to raise a smile.
There’s his love of wearing a cardigan, which became stuff of “legned”.
Sorry, legend. Obviously, particularly, in the present moment, I must have copied that from an infamous fan made banner. And now I’m just parodying Only An Excuse, so perhaps I’ll start bringing this to a conclusion.
As a Celtic fan, there are two types of Rangers men who get under my skin. There are those who cheat and kick their way to victory or are known more for their off field antics than their on-field antics. You know the kind. El Hadji Diouf, Terry Hurlock, Peter Lovenkrands, Nacho Novo, Kyle Lafferty… that kind. Some of them had talent and actually that just annoyed me more because they’d resort to other tactics instead.
Then there’s the other kind. The kind that got under my skin because of all the good they did for Rangers. Andy Goram and his remarkable saves, Ally McCoist and his ridiculous goalscoring record, Brian Laudrup and just being “so good”… Walter Smith not only worked with all of them but he is in that class himself too.
He got those crucial results, even if I couldn’t stand the tactics at times there was no doubt they worked. I always wanted him to fail, and you can imagine how much I enjoyed Celtic stopping ten-in-a-row and then there being that added bonus of him finishing up with no trophies. But then he just came back a decade later and stuck a few more metaphorical daggers in my heart.
The truth is that Walter Smith is probably responsible for more heartbreaks in my life than anyone else. As a fan of his rivals, I’m not sure there can be any better tribute from me than that.
My thoughts are with his friends and family at this sad time.
RIP Walter Smith.