Football: Smith the devout European

Phil Gordon talks to the manager looking further afield than home comforts
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The Independent Online
RANGERS have scaled the summit, now they are scanning the horizon. Only this time, Europe, not Scotland, is the view that Walter Smith wants to admire.

The Ibrox manager earned himself a spot in the record books last Wednesday night by securing a ninth successive Scottish Premier League title thanks to a 1-0 win over Dundee United at Tannadice. For a man whose passion for the game stems from childhood trips with his grandfather to watch Rangers, Smith's pride in hauling the club on to the same plateau which Celtic have occupied since Jock Stein first put "nine-in-a-row" into Scottish football's dictionary, will be undiluted.

So too, though, is his pragmatism. Smith is unlikely to dwell on the triumph and the dismantling of his team is more of a priority than the celebration of it. The 49-year-old has a hunger to take Rangers on to a different level in European club football, where, so far, even the foothills have proved too much of a hurdle.

Equalling Celtic - a feat the Rangers supporters declared was a greater priority than a decent run in the Champions' League - has been something of a millstone around the manager's neck. He has been unable to break up an ageing side and experiment with one which may bring greater European reward because of the unforgiving demands for success in Glasgow's myopic world: any doubts about tolerance of failure would have been removed last week by the sacking of his counterpart across the city, Tommy Burns.

Smith, though, has never been parochial, as befits a man whose time as assistant to Jim McLean at Dundee United took him to within 90 minutes of the 1984 European Cup final. The peak of nine domestic championships now allows him to try and re-shape Rangers' pursuit of the continent's greatest trophy.

The captain, Richard Gough, has already departed for a new life in America's MLS with Kansas City Wizards and a number of his erstwhile team-mates will be following him out of the door this summer. At least six new players will be passing them on the way in, all foreign.

Sweden's captain, Jonas Thern, has already agreed his move from AS Roma and the Australian full- back Tony Vidmar joins from NAC Breda in Holland. Up to pounds 5.5m may be laid out in persuading Internazionale to part with the defenders Massimo Paganin and Alessandro Pistone, while Rangers have also faxed Rosenborg to register their interest in Erik Hoftun and Staale Stensaas.

"I have always said I would like to keep the Scottish element strong but that is becoming an increasingly difficult task as the seasons go on," explains Smith. "I have the highest regard for each and everyone of the players who have been through this with me and it will be difficult to make decisions which will end an era of a successful team."

However, Smith will make them, such is his desire to give Rangers a respectability in the continental arena. "In six years, we have qualified for the Champions' League group stage three times but have not acquitted ourselves well there. I do believe, though, that we will be able to compete on a better and more regular basis now that the three-foreigner limitation has been abolished."

Rangers' lack of success in Europe, and that of Scottish clubs generally, means that they have to go through the pre-qualifying stage on 23 and 30 July.

The European Cup, won exactly 30 years ago this month by Celtic, is now the only other legacy left by Jock Stein which remains out of reach of their Old Firm rivals. Smith hopes the new campaign will see his side edge close enough to at least catch a glimpse of it.