Football: Smith in his element with Everton

Football: Former Rangers manager confident he has made the right choice in taking the reins at Goodison Park
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The Independent Online
FOR A MAN who walked out of one of the biggest jobs in European football because he felt he was growing stale, Walter Smith comes across as a surprisingly rejuvenated figure now that he can be found in charge of Everton FC.

The oak-panelled offices of Ibrox, almost reeking of tradition, may have been replaced by a more modest offering at the Bellefield training ground, but the man who won everything in Scottish football, over and over again, could not be happier.

"The juices are definitely flowing again," he admitted, with a satisfied glint in his eye. "I'm full of emotions again, like nerves, hope and determination. I know I face a real challenge here, and that is exactly what I needed."

Just three months ago he seemed a slightly sad and solitary figure as he watched his beloved Rangers team lose a grip on both the Scottish League and Cup trophies, a proud, football man who, at that precise moment, had no idea how his future would pan out.

Seven months previous to that, Smith had taken everyone aback by his sudden announcement that the season would be his last with Rangers. At first he felt it would also be his last in football. David Murray, the Rangers chairman, had offered him a job in sports promotion with his Carnegie Group, and Smith was set to turn his back on a game that has dominated his life.

"At first the plan was to stay with Rangers in some kind of role, but I soon realised that this would not work. I felt I shouldn't be a remnant of a past era. A change of direction for me at the age of 50 suddenly seemed appealing.

"But as the season went on it occurred to me that it wasn't me who was growing stale, but just the fact that I'd been involved coaching and managing in Scottish football for 18 years. I was watching the same teams, going to the same grounds and finding myself in the same situations. That's when I faced a stark choice: football, or no football."

As he trudged off the Celtic Park turf having lost to Hearts in the Scottish Cup final, Smith's mood was therefore disappointed and confused.

"We'd got ourselves into a position where we could, and possibly should have won the double, so to end up with nothing was a major frustration. On top of that, I had no idea what I was going to do. It took a couple of days after actually leaving the club for the real disappointment to set in."

Despite his credentials, and the assumption by all and sundry that Smith would become an English Premiership manager, the man himself was not so sure.

"I know everybody was saying I'd end up here, but I never saw it as an automatic move down south. The Premiership's definitely the place to be, but before Sheffield Wednesday came in for me after the World Cup, I'd had one offer from Turkey, and David Murray's opportunity at the Carnegie Group."

You get a strong feeling that Smith would have taken the job at Wednesday had Everton not approached him. "Well, there was an instant appeal," he admits. "I've gone from one big club to another, and I know what it takes to build a big club up. Everton have a strong, working-class supporter base, which I like, and a good tradition.

"I'm under no illusions about the job. The difference between this job and my previous one is that Rangers were used to winning, Everton are not. They've fought relegation four times in the last five seasons, and it's my job to turn things round."

But how? What can Smith do that the likes of Howard Kendall and Joe Royle could not? Everton's latest manager is full of admiration for his predecessors: "I'd have been proud of having their records if I'd been working in England," Smith said. "Yet I see some similarities between them and me at Rangers. Joe and Howard and others were Everton people.

"The club had a traditional way of doing things, and they didn't want to change much. What I helped to create at Rangers, the Rangers way of doing things, was possibly inhibiting the club towards the end. They needed a change, and maybe it's the same here at Everton. That's not a criticism of my predecessors. I just feel that maybe Everton needed an outsider, with a fresh and different approach to what's gone on before. It's the same at Rangers."

Mind you, money helps, and here Smith has already won a significant battle. Unlike his predecessors, the new man has persuaded the chairman, Peter Johnson, to dip into his pocket.

"Whatever other reasons there may well be, it is a fact of 1990s football that the best clubs are the ones prepared to buy the best players, and they cost money. Every club which sees itself as a big club has to do it. So I've told the chairman this has to be done. But it's not an instant remedy. We need to build a platform first to create stability. You can't spend pounds 20m on two fantastic players and expect the club to start winning cups instantly. The Coventrys and Southamptons of the world improved last year because they raised their overall standard of player. Their next step is to buy the exceptional player. This is how we must progress, too."

With the new signings John Collins and Oliver Dacourt already under his belt, and a willingness still to buy David Unsworth - "I still want him, but we've reached a stalemate and the ball's in Villa's court." Smith has already begun the transformation. After one game, last Saturday's goalless draw against Villa, Smith's appetite has been whetted.

"My interest level has been aroused. I'm intrigued to find out how much different it's going to be. I'm still nervous, of course, because a lot can happen over the next few months, but I'm relishing the opportunity to face such a challenge, a challenge that hasn't presented itself to me for a long time."

And what of Rangers? Has the divorce been amicable and, if so, is the love affair over? Smith smiles and shakes his head. "Oh no," he says. "The relationship with Rangers will never be over. I supported them as a kid, and I always will. I still have a huge affinity with the club."

If he can bring even a little of the success he gained north of the border to Goodison Park, then one half of Merseyside will be eternally grateful. For sure, Smith has not come down to the English Premiership just to graze.

"No way," he insists, as he strolls out of the Bellefield offices to watch some of his youngsters at work on the training ground. "I'm just not the kind of person to sit back. Don't forget, I very nearly walked out of football completely.

"It was a huge decision for me and my family to make. Now that I'm back, and facing an exciting, new and big challenge, I fully intend to throw everything I've got into making it work. I won't be faulted for effort."

Indeed, he most probably will not. And as he walked off, with a noticeable spring in his step, you got the feeling that Walter Smith was already in his own element.

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