‘Scale of tributes show Smith’s greatness’

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October 28, 2021
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    Warning: contains strong language

    Even now, seven or eight years later, the look on Stuart McCall's face is as vivid as it was when the bombshell descended that day in the radio studio by the Clyde.

    McCall was speaking about the anniversary of one of the finest days for his Rangers team under the management of Walter Smith, one of many such days. He was going through the gears in how much he rated and loved his old mentor.

    "Sir Walter was the most inspirational person I ever played for," began the former Ibrox midfielder before delivering a powerful and, at times, moving speech about what "Sir Walter" had done for him. It was cracking stuff, a real insight into what made Smith so special.

    "That was brilliant, Stuart," said the host once the show ended. "But you do know that he hasn't been knighted…"

    "Sir Walter?" replied a bemused McCall.

    "Yes, he's not been knighted."

    There was a momentary pause. After registering his outrage that the gong had never gone the way of his ex-boss, he threw his hands to the heavens at the injustice of it all and said: "Well, he'll always be Sir Walter to me."

    • Rangers great Smith dies at age 73
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    • 'No Rangers manager comes close to Smith'
    • The games that defined Smith's career

    Tuesday was a profoundly sad day for the Smith family and for all those footballers and friends the great man influenced in an epic life in the game.

    There was a vast scale to the eulogies. Big name after big name after big name. Those were the lucky ones, the ones who knew him, who played for him, who managed with or against him, who got to spend time with him and learn from him. If you were in that group then you were truly fortunate. Others only have snapshots.

    It can be cringemaking when people on the periphery insert themselves into the narrative of a tragic loss like this by recounting their own tales from yesteryear that show what a tremendous person X or Y was (tales that are really a self aggrandisement dressed up as tribute). We run that risk here, but it's a story we'll tell none the less.

    In early 1993, this writer was in his early months in Glasgow, an alien city in an alien country; early 20s and unfamiliar in the ways of Scottish football. Perhaps he saw the vaguely bewildered look, but Smith showed a kindness that was appreciated then and is still appreciated now.

    He talked warmly for half an hour in his office at the top of the stairs at Ibrox. Even in my naive state it was obvious this was unusual and special. "If you want an interview with anybody then fax the club on a Tuesday and I'll make sure it happens."

    I did – and it happened. Again and again. It was a very big deal. He had no need to help. Nothing that I wrote would have registered with him or mattered in any sense, but he did it anyway.

    If that's a self-indulgent story, then apologies, but I've always that felt it was a glimpse not of the football man, but of the man, the thoughtful character those closest to him would have known and loved.

    That decency was one side of him, the personal side. Of course, there was another side, that of the operator. At a media conference weeks later, he walked into the room and confronted some poor misfortune whose newspaper columns had annoyed him. A senior writer. Actually, it was a friend of his. "You've been writing some amount of shite lately…"

    On his way out of this verbal evisceration there was a definite trace of a smile on the manager's face. I'd wondered why everybody – even the most gnarled pros in the writing game – seemed to sit up straight when Smith appeared. Now I knew.

    'If we name a stand after him, he'll always be with us'

    This was one formidable manager, not just in the way he coached footballers but in the way he dealt with journalists. Respectful, insightful, funny and kind with his time – but when the mood struck, boy, was he tough. If there was a world staring championships, Walter Smith would not have been stopped at nine-in-a-row.

    His connection with Rangers was life-long, since his days as a schoolkid going along to matches with his grandfather. There's a story about him breaking his leg in a game when he was 14. His father wrote to the club and asked for permission for young Walter to sit pitchside so he could stretch out his wounded limb.

    The written reply from then manager Scot Symon stayed in the family until the letter was donated to the club. Sympathy was expressed and support offered, but the answer, in short, was no. The snub never put him off. He was, from top to toe, a Rangers man, steeped in its history.

    But he meant other things to other people, too. He was a Dundee United player for 14 years. He made almost 200 appearances, some under Jerry Kerr, some under Jim McLean. He did his coaching badges at 25.

    He was assistant to McLean until 1986 (a 20-year contribution, give or take) when Rangers came calling. He was only 38 at the time. His death comes just 10 months after McLean's passing. The Scottish football team in the sky is not struggling for geniuses to lead it.

    A career as rich as it was varied

    What's been telling in the tributes is the affection in which Smith was held throughout British football. His spell at Everton was a largely turbulent one, played out against a backdrop of money troubles, questionable governance at the top of the club, and a fanbase living in fear of the drop.

    And yet those seasons of constant struggle have done little to reduce Smith in the eyes of the Goodison fans who knew what he was up against.

    Some of the journalists on the beat in Liverpool, like their counterparts in Glasgow, have been practically in tears since the news broke. They remember a man who rose above a boardroom decision to sell Duncan Ferguson behind his back in his first season. "I thought long and hard about leaving many times," Smith once said. "Day after day I reviewed my position and asked myself if there was any future for me."

    They remember the mess the club was in and the lengths that Smith went to in order to wrestle it back up the table. They also remember his mischievous humour in the face of such tumult. The strength of his team was poor across 143 Premier League games, but the strength of his character never lessened, not even after he got the sack.

    He spent some months at Manchester United as Sir Alex Ferguson's assistant. That was from March 2004. Darren Fletcher credits Smith with starting the process that turned Cristiano Ronaldo from a showboating circus act into one of the game's greatest ever footballers.

    Smith went on to manage Scotland in the wake of the farrago that was Berti Vogts' tenure. It was a depressed landscape. You'd have needed a telescope to pick out any sign of life, but when he left the job to go back to Rangers he'd stabilised things and improved performances. Scotland beat World Cup finalists France on his watch. A minor footballing miracle.

    The lure of Rangers was always going to be too much for him, though. Winning those early titles alongside Graeme Souness was one thing, but he came into his own when taking on the manager's job and bringing Rangers to another level.

    At one point, before foreign investment started to crash into English football with a vengeance, Rangers were the best team in Britain and, briefly, one of the best in Europe. For all that, you could easily argue that it was Smith's second spell as manager from 2007 that showed his genius in greater clarity.

    Walter Smith's record

    His nine-in-a-row teams were expensively put together and had class in all corners. The one he inherited second time around wasn't even in the same ballpark – and the financial climate was totally different. The distress flares were visible on the finance front when he returned. The big-money signings had dried up. The squad depth became shallow. The stress factor increased.

    In making it all the way to the Uefa Cup final in 2008 and then winning the league in 2009, 2010 and 2011, Smith showed he didn't need riches to get the job done. His pragmatism and intelligence allowed him to construct a formidable unit even with the gathering sound of financial chaos in the background.

    He never allowed himself to get distracted by a turmoil he knew was inevitable. What is that if not great leadership, brilliance under fire.

    He returned again when the club was at a new low, this time as chairman under the wretched reign of Charles Green. It was an ill-advised move and one he came to regret quite quickly. You could see why he did it, though.

    Angry at what become of his club under Craig Whyte and fearful of what might happen under Green, he re-entered the fray in a role he was totally unsuited to. He did it out of concern. Nobody in the Rangers support would have been happier to see the club win the league last season. He bore some scars from getting them back to where he felt they belonged.

    On a rainy Tuesday night in May 2011, Rangers beat Dundee United, the club that had such a profound impact on his coaching, in the penultimate game of the league season. It was Smith's last game as manager in his spiritual home.

    When club officials asked him to go back out after the game was over to take the acclaim of the supporters he was initially reticent. "I was worried everyone may have gone home as it was such a bad night weather-wise," he said.

    Those images are unforgettable, the lights and the incessant downpour making it all the more poignant. As he walked and waved, 50,000 people in the stadium got to their feet to applaud him. And they're applauding still.


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