Nick Harris: Smith's faith in Scots has returned Rangers to victorious ways

Click to follow
The Independent Football

A year to the week since Paul Le Guen's ill-fated reign as the Rangers manager croaked its last, Walter Smith's revitalised side beat Dundee United 2-0 on Saturday to leapfrog Celtic to the SPL summit. It could prove a pivotal bound, and it happened because Smith, who has seen it and done it all before at Ibrox, has stayed true to Old Firm orthodoxy. Winning is everything.

Le Guen's error was to ignore this simplicity. A year ago Rangers were 20 points off championship pace, had lost in the CIS Cup to a lower-division side, and then, in the immediate shambolic wake of his departure (days before Smith arrived), got knocked out of the Scottish Cup.

Le Guen's main aim was change, from which he assumed success would come. But the man who sculpted a hat-trick of French titles with Lyons failed to make an impression. He doubled training, brought in a string of unsuitable players, axed the club's revered captain, Barry Ferguson, and, unsurprisingly, failed to find consistency. He was shown the door on 4 January.

Smith, Rangers' title-winning manager every year from 1991 to 1997, was appointed on 10 January, oversaw his first game three days later a 5-0 win against a then-ailing, pre-Craig Levein Dundee United and has spent the year leaping forward. Rangers could be seven points clear before Celtic next play a league game.

Le Guen bought badly, and inappropriately. Jeremy Clement, a gifted midfielder, was the best of his bunch. But Le Guen's fancy formations and so-so imports goalkeeper Lionel Letizi, defender Karl Svensson and striker Filip Sebo among them foundered. Most are gone. Smith has gone back to basics, and a core of Scots, mostly young.

Rangers' starting XI on Saturday had eight Scots, including the veteran defender David Weir, the first man Smith hired. He is 37 but one rock on which the new Rangers have been built. Making them hard to beat was Smith's phase one. Another newcomer, Carlos Cuellar, has helped.

Smith's Scottish buys include Kevin Thomson and Steven Whittaker from Hibernian, Steven Naismith from Kilmarnock (he scored on Saturday), and Lee McCulloch, lured from the Premiership. The mix is enriched by club-reared players such as Ferguson, Chris Burke and Alan Hutton.

Hutton's rejection of an 8m transfer to Tottenham Hotspur last week the richer clubs are, the more arbitrary the fees? was a shot in the arm. On one level it was a no-brainer. If he wants a big club, silverware, Champions' League football, and the best platform for his ascendant international career, the choice is clear: Rangers. Why move to White Hart Lane to play in front of only 36,000 each week, keep your medal shelf empty and relegate Europe's top table to a distant dream?

Money is not Hutton's driving force. He could have trebled his basic 11,000-a-week pay. As for "profile"? Isn't that just another way of saying money? And anyway, Hutton was voted last month as No8 in World Soccer's top young players of 2007, one place below Manchester United's Wayne Rooney and one above Real Madrid's Robinho.

Hutton will leave Rangers, and sooner rather than later. The club acknowledged its selling status by accepting Spurs' offer. That is the reality of a Premier League which is drenched in the sort of cash that the SPL clubs need. But why not wait for a genuinely bigger club, like Manchester United? If Hutton thrives as Rangers win two or three trophies this season, his price should dizzy yet higher.

Rangers would welcome the windfall. Long-term, a mooted 70,000-seat stadium revamp will help. But long gone are the 1990s when Rangers could compete with English giants for big-price star names.

For now, Hutton, like Smith, is driven by winning. Rangers are favourites for the league, the CIS Cup, co-favourites with Celtic for the Scottish Cup and more likely of a run in Europe (33-1 for the Uefa Cup) than Celtic (100-1 for the Champions League). "It's all very simple. If we don't win trophies, none of us will be here," Smith says. "That is a prerequisite."

Comments