Farewell to Walter Smith, the humble legend who led Rangers during golden era

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Farewell to Walter Smith, the legendary Rangers manager who led club during golden era - PA
Farewell to Walter Smith, the legendary Rangers manager who led club during golden era - PA

A "devastated" Sir Alex Ferguson led tributes to Walter Smith, praising his fellow Scot's immense contribution to football following his former assistant's death at the age of 73.

Smith worked under Ferguson with Scotland and Manchester United, where they won the FA Cup together after teaming up at Old Trafford in 2004. Ferguson told United's website: "I'm absolutely devastated at the loss of a great friend. In all that time you were dealing with a man with great moral compass in how he lived his life and the friendship he offered so many people.

"His contribution to football was immense. He was only at United a short time, but he was fantastic."

Liverpool and Celtic legend Sir Kenny Dalglish said: "Though we were on opposing sides on the pitch, he was a real footballing friend off it."

Ally McCoist, who played under Smith for 12 years and served as his assistant with Scotland and Rangers, told talkSPORT: "The loss is absolutely incredible. He was my boss, my coach, he was my second father and then he turned into one of my best friends."

In a joint statement, former Rangers manager Graeme Souness and ex-Ibrox chairman Sir David Murray said: "Even in the proud history of Glasgow Rangers, Walter stands out as a colossus. He will never be forgotten.

"He had a profound effect on both of our lives - as a manager and a leader and a wise and trusted adviser but always as a close and treasured friend."

The loss was also felt at Goodison Park, where Smith served as manager for almost four years from 1998. Everton chairman Bill Kenwright told his club's website: "He was one of the very best people I was lucky enough to meet in my lifetime in football.

Walter Smith's Rangers won the Scottish Premier League in 2011 - REUTERS
Walter Smith's Rangers won the Scottish Premier League in 2011 - REUTERS

"A man of loyalty, integrity and great talent. Strong when he needed to be but with a mischievous sense of humour that could ease even the most tense situations."

Smith retired in 2011, but his influence continued. Pep Guardiola knew the Scot through his role with the League Managers Association, and the Manchester City boss said: "I've had the opportunity over the past five years to get to know him and see what a humble, insightful and very genuine man he was."

West Ham boss David Moyes, who succeeded Smith at Everton, said: "I looked up to Walter with so much respect. He was such a great Scottish manager but to me he was an even better man.

"He was honourable, he showed great dignity and always demonstrated such class."

'Wattie' led Rangers to stunning success - but always remained modest

By Roddy Forsyth

Tact, every bit as much as tactics, defined Walter Smith’s career in football management, which began in 1977 when a severe pelvic injury truncated his spell as a player with Dundee United, where he made 183 senior appearances as a defender.

He became a coach under Jim McLean and thus played a part in United’s legendary spell as a force in Scottish football, during which time they won their only domestic title in 1983 and reached the European Cup semi-finals a year later.

McLean – who died on Boxing Day last year - was a gifted strategist but almost devoid of man-management skills, a deficiency which he attempted to remedy by appointing Smith as his assistant.

Smith – Wattie to his colleagues and friends, many of whom were to be found in the media – found himself acting as a diplomatic conduit between United’s players and their manager, who had a notorious hair-trigger temper.

Smith had many tales of his time as assistant at Tannadice, one of which will give some flavour of the volatility of McLean’s regime. Wattie, who had been engaged in a vigorous session with the reserves, had just come out of the shower when he was told that McLean wanted to see him about a player who was not performing to the manager’s liking.

Smith went straight upstairs, with a towel around his waist, to find that McLean had pinned the errant player on his back over the manager’s desk and was attempting to punch his face.

Smith threw one arm around McLean’s chest and attempted to pull him away and during the melee, the towel fell off, at which point the mother of a bright young prospect appeared at the door, to find manager, player and a naked assistant coach all writhing on the desk.

'Losing him was worse than losing any player'

“She went straight across to Dens Park and the lad signed for Dundee,” was Wattie’s punchline. Smith’s spell as assistant at Tannadice coincided with the pre-knighthood tenure of Alex Ferguson at Aberdeen and, when Jock Stein died in September 1985, Ferguson was appointed interim Scotland manager. He asked Smith to be his assistant as the Scots went on to the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico.

Smith had already coached the Scottish under-17 and under-21 squads and had impressed Graeme Souness, who became Rangers’ manager in April 1986.

Souness had never played for a Scottish club and needed someone who knew the lie of the land. Smith was his first choice and agreed to move to Ibrox. Years later, McLean said: “Losing him was worse than losing any player.”

The Souness/Smith combination inaugurated a golden era for Rangers, who embarked upon a run of nine successive Scottish title triumphs to match the achievement of Stein’s Celtic side between 1966 and 1974. It was Smith, though, who supervised six of the league wins after Souness left for Liverpool in April 1991, including a domestic treble in 1992/93.

Aside from the championships, Smith was in charge for three Scottish Cup wins and three in the Scottish League Cup and also steered Rangers through 10 games without defeat in the 1992/93 Champions League only to be edged out of the final by Marseille team whose owner, Bernard Tapie, was alleged to have bribed CSKA Moscow players to throw a crucial tie.

Smith handled many star players during his first spell at Ibrox, including the mercurial Paul Gascoigne. Gazza prompted many of his manager’s personal touches, including an invitation to spend one Christmas Day at the Smith family home, because Walter was worried what the England star might get up to if left isolated in a hotel room.

Smith’s first spell at Ibrox eventually foundered on failure to win 10 in a row, with the title moving back to Celtic on the final day of the 1997/98 league season, followed by defeat by Hearts in the Scottish Cup final a week later. It took only a month for Smith to be appointed manager at Everton, having been led to believe that he would be granted significant funds to rebuild a side who had come close to relegation.

This turned out not to be true and when striker Duncan Ferguson was sold without any consultation with him, Smith knew that he would have to operate in crisis management mode, a situation which came to a head after a defeat by Middlesbrough in the FA Cup which cost him his job at Goodison in March 2002.

After a spell as assistant to Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford, Smith was asked to succeed Berti Vogts as Scotland manager in December 2004. He oversaw a revival of fortunes, including a rise of 70 places in the Fifa rankings, and home and away victories in the 2008 Euro qualifiers against France, runners-up in the previous World Cup tournament.

Walter Smith led Scotland from 2004 to 2007 - GETTY IMAGES
Walter Smith led Scotland from 2004 to 2007 - GETTY IMAGES

Rangers, meanwhile, were faring poorly under Paul Le Guen, and persuaded Smith to return to Ibrox in January 2007. Some Scotland fans were slow to forgive him for his departure, but most accepted that, if any club was supreme in Smith’s affections, it was Rangers.

In 2008 he guided Rangers to their first European final in 36 years, against Zenit St Petersburg in Manchester, where they lost 2-0 to Zenit St Petersburg.

By the end of his final season in charge in 2010/11, Smith was the second most successful Rangers manager, after Bill Struth, with 21 trophies to his credit.

After the financial implosion of Craig Whyte’s holding company in 2012, Rangers went through a depressing spell in the lower leagues before their return to the top flight in 2016, but Smith was a regular attender at Ibrox, watching the club he had been taken to see as a boy by his grandfather.

To the end of his life, though, Walter Smith refused to claim a place alongside Stein, Ferguson and McLean in the pantheon of great Scottish managers. “I have done OK, but these guys were incredible,” he said in 2009.

He did more than OK, though, and before Rangers meet Aberdeen at Ibrox on Wednesday night, it will be a deeply emotional and grateful crowd who will salute the memory of Walter Smith - their one and only Wattie.

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