Walter Smith: The quiet man performing an international rescue act

Brian Viner Interviews: At club level with Rangers his record was peerless but moving to Everton was 'right place, wrong time'. Then his country called and Walter Smith is in his element making Scotland brave again
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Waiting for Walter Smith in the lounge of the Holiday Inn at Glasgow International Airport, I reflect that if Scotland had won in Ukraine earlier this month, having just dispatched France at Hampden Park to top Euro 2008's killer qualifying Group B with nine points out of nine, then I might be waiting in the Walter Smith Lounge at the Holiday Inn, or perhaps in the lounge at the Walter Smith Holiday Inn, or even in the lounge of the Holiday Inn at Walter Smith International Airport. "Aye, we do tend to go a bit over the top when we win," says Smith, with a smile.

We have met before, in the dog days of his three and a half years at Everton, but even then, even with his job hanging by a thread, he struck me as an unusually kind and obliging man. Most football managers wear the pressures on their sleeves. But he did not appear to, and the intervening years have done nothing to diminish that impression. How many international football managers would ask if it might be more convenient for him to come out to the airport to meet you?

Of course, as an international manager, he has more time on his hands, especially with the next qualifiers - against Georgia at home on 24 March - so far away. It is for that reason that he thinks Gordon Strachan, reportedly his keenest rival in the race to succeed the hapless Berti Vogts, is better off in the dug-out at Parkhead. "Gordon's too young for this job," he says. "Even at 58 I feel the frustration of not having enough to do, of not being involved with the players more, and he's 10 years younger. He has plenty of time to experience it."

As for the Vogts era, I invite him to reflect on the widespread belief in Scotland that it was, in the carefully chosen words of one Glaswegian pal of mine, "an unmitigated disaster". After a high of 20-odd in the Fifa rankings under Craig Brown, the Scots plummeted more than 40 places under Vogts, looking up at Burkina Faso. But Smith is too gentlemanly to apply his brogue to the German's reputation.

"It was a very, very difficult time to take the job," he says. "Craig had a very settled Scotland team, but a lot of them were getting older, and those of us involved in football in Scotland knew that there were not a lot of players around to take their place. Coming from another country, maybe Berti didn't realise those difficulties. And there is a different mentality in British football, I think he maybe found that hard to encompass as well.

"The thing is, when Scotland had players like Denis Law, Billy Bremner, Graeme Souness, Kenny Dalglish, the team pretty much picked itself. When you don't have players of that calibre, the mentality of the players you pick comes more into it, and that's difficult for a foreign manager to take on board. It's maybe why you don't see many foreign managers taking over at places like Coventry, Southampton. When they come, they come to top clubs, with top players."

For the beleaguered Scottish Football Association, Smith ticked all the boxes. He had even been involved in international football before, as an assistant to Alex Ferguson at the 1986 World Cup. And after seven glorious years at Rangers, he knew better than almost anyone else the demands peculiar to a top job in Scottish football.

"Media-wise, you need experience," he says. "We have a population of only five million in Scotland, yet we have more newsprint than England, more national dailies than England. So part of handling any situation in Scotland is handling the media. Martin O'Neill did that brilliantly when he was here.

"Now, when I took over, the Scotland players had been threatening a boycott of the media because of the level of criticism they'd been getting. That's not the way to go. As an experienced manager I was able to come in and point that out to them."

The way to go, Smith decided, was to recreate a club environment. In the early 1980s, when he was assistant to Jim McLean at Dundee United, the club had punched massively above its weight. The likes of Paul Sturrock, David Narey, Ralph Milne, Davie Dods, were good players, but by no means great.

Yet they reached a Uefa Cup final, a European Cup semi-final, and briefly even threatened the Old Firm duopoly. That was done through rigid organisation and a strong team spirit, and Smith, recognising that in an international sense he perhaps had similar personnel, resolved to do things the same way.

"Yes, and the reaction from each and every one of them has been fantastic," he says. "We only have them for a short period of time, but we work hard to create a good atmosphere, and the back-room staff are a big part of that. I got Ally McCoist in, because I'd had him as a player, and I know he's one of those lads with a personality that can lift any room, any body of people.

"Everyone is happy to join up with the Scotland squad now, which was maybe not always the case in the past couple of years. There was a lot of despondency. Now, we have a decent level of intensity about training, and I've done away with a few friendly games. Friendly games are the bane of a club manager's life, so that helps in terms of co-operation with the clubs. But more importantly, we now have get-togethers instead, where we talk, play golf, and have a couple of drinks, those who drink. It's worked very well."

The culmination of Smith's new approach, the subsequent defeat by Ukraine notwithstanding, was the extraordinary 1-0 victory over the French. "That was great because it showed what we could do in terms of togetherness. It wasn't my greatest moment in football, but it was up there... France had lost one in 40-odd qualifiers going back to 1994 or something."

I ask Smith to share with me the story of the post-match celebrations, not that he's ever been the sort of man to lead a conga down Sauchiehall Street, but expecting at the very least to hear that alcohol was taken. "Actually, I drove straight to Gleneagles," he says. "The Scottish Premier League managers were having a get-together, and the three main guests were Sir Alex Ferguson, Gérard Houllier and Arsène Wenger. Paul Le Guen was there as well, of course, so there was a French contingent." To tease? To rub Gallic noses in a rare defeat? Smith is far too nice to say, and far too nice to do. But one can only imagine how nice it must have been to lay his head on a plump Gleneagles pillow that night.

Nice, too, must be that feeling of validation he is getting from his progress as Scotland manager. His time at Everton did little to enhance his managerial reputation, and his staggering haul of trophies at Rangers was never quite accorded the credit it deserved. The fat chequebook of chairman David Murray, rather than the sure hand of Walter Smith, was usually cited as the main ingredient in Rangers' success.

I ask him whether he feels aggrieved that his achievements at Ibrox were rather overlooked? After all, when a clutch of decent young Scottish coaches were emerging in the early 1990s, one of Scottish football's most venerable sages was heard to mutter: "They're none of them fit to lace Walter Smith's boots." Smith says: "I probably do when I look back but my personality was a bit to do with that. I don't actively seek headlines. But 13 trophies in seven years... nobody else in modern times has done it."

Following this rare burst of immodesty he pauses for a sip of strong, sugarless tea. "But you know, I didn't take the Scotland job for that reason[to seek validation as a coach]. I was coming up to 57, I'd been involved before at that level, and I was unemployed."

Without the financial problems that the word "unemployment" generally evokes in the Glasgow area, he insists that he would have stayed unemployed unless the right job came up at the right time. "I had maybe made a slight error in picking Everton in that it was the right club, but not the right time. I wouldn't make that mistake again."

When I last interviewed Smith, my largely sympathetic piece earnt me brickbats from some fellow Evertonians. But I thought then, and think now, that he was cruelly hamstrung by the club's financial predicament.

None the less, he feels his time in the Premiership has helped him as an international manager. "Aye, because it shows the necessity of stability. We had 86 transfers in three and a half years [at Everton]. I never had a team. I signed [Marco] Materazzi and [Olivier] Dacourt when they were young. I signed [Thomas] Gravesen. But when Peter Johnson put the club up for sale, the bank said we had to start selling players. I started my second season with 38- and 39-year-old centre-halves, Dave Watson and Richard Gough. If anyone thinks that was through choice... and it wasn't their choice either. I have to look back and say I made a number of errors but... signing (David) Ginola, Paul Gascoigne, that wasn't the way I wanted it. I was firefighting. And I'm sorry that was the case, because it's a great club with fantastic support."

His own next job in English football was a temporary one: he had three months as Alex Ferguson's assistant while Carlos Queiroz was sweating in Madrid. "Alex asked me to go down and help, and it was the most enjoyable three months I'd had for a long time. I was able to do what I'd done at Dundee United years before, just get on the training pitch and ignore all the things managers have to do at big clubs... the directors, the agents. It was a bit daunting to start with because I was out of practice a bit, but to see some of those players at close quarters... Paul Scholes, a player I'd always admired, to see him in training every day was fantastic. He's a massive loss to the English team."

And what of Ferguson himself? When had they first met? A chuckle. "Well, he says it was when he drifted past me quite easily for Falkirk against Dundee United, but I'm not sure. I think what he's achieved is phenomenal. You could argue that this is the fourth team he's trying to put together, and it's impossible to sustain that level of success without dropping down, but what have they dropped to? Second? Third? And think of the changes that have taken place over 20 years. The Premier League, media attention, money. He's had to handle all that as well."

He shakes his head in admiration, while I pose one last question. On 2 January, 1971, at Ibrox, he was on the infamous staircase 17 when it collapsed, killing 66 people. What are his memories of that dreadful day? "I remember leaving the stadium with my brother. I was a player with Dundee United at the time but because of my lack of ability they'd omitted to pick me for the New Year's game. So I went to Ibrox on the supporters' club bus, and I remember there being a wall at the side of the staircase, if it hadn't been there it would have allowed people to spill over. My brother and I got out, I thought because the fencing had collapsed, but on the 25th anniversary I saw a photograph and the fencing was intact. We must have got over the top of other people, although nobody around us was in any danger; the deaths occurred at the bottom of the stairs. But we didn't know that at the time. We got on the bus, which didn't have a radio or anything, and it was only when I got home that I remember my mother crying, saying people had died."

A sigh. "If we'd left two minutes earlier, it would have been us."

Alas Smith and groans: The ups and downs of the Scotland manager's career

* 1948 Born 24 Feb, Glasgow.

* 1967 Joins Dundee United.

* 1974 Plays in Scottish Cup final but loses to Celtic 3-0. Sold to Dumbarton for £7,000.

* 1979 Becomes coach at Dundee United under manager Jim McLean.

* 1986 Moves to Rangers to become No 2 to Graeme Souness.

* 1991 Takes over from Souness as manager of Rangers.

* 1993: Rangers win treble of Scottish League, Scottish Cup and League Cup.

* 1995: Smith signs Paul Gascoigne from Lazio.

* 1997: Smith leads Rangers to record-equalling ninth successive League title. Smith also awarded OBE in the Queen's birthday honours list.

* 1998: Everton name Smith as new manager.

* 2000: Signs Paul Gascoigne for a second time.

* 2002: After finishing 14th, 13th and 16th in his three seasons, Smith is sacked by Everton.

* 2004: Joins Manchester United in March as Sir Alex Ferguson's assistant. Smith then becomes the Scotland manager in December after the resignation of Berti Vogts.

Tale of tape: Smith v Vogts

Walter Smith (2004-present)

Pld 14 Won 6 Drew 5 Lost 3

Goals for: 26

Goals against: 15

Best result: 1-0 v France (Euro Ch'ship qualifier, Oct 2006)

Worst result: 0-1 v Belarus (World Cup qualifier, Oct 2005)

Fifa world ranking: (Oct 2006) 25th

Berti Vogts (2002-04)

Pld 31 Won 8 Drew 6 Lost 17

Goals for: 30

Goals against: 47

Best result: 1-1 v Germany (EC qualifier, June 2003)

Worst result: 2-2 v Faroes (EC qualifier, Sept 2002)

Fifa world ranking: (Nov 2004) 86th