Smith's game of managing the mavericks

Deja-vu as the Scottish sorcerer is reunited with his former apprentice - and Big Duncan is on his way back
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It doesn't take much to provoke Walter Smith into a eulogy about one of his idols; the eyes gleam with the fervour of a fanatic as we discuss a legendary player with an everthickening midriff, a character who, we had discovered, is hugely admired by us both. Though this performer is richly talented, his decline through over-indulgence made him a liability to those around him as he descended into a morass of despair, requiring therapy.

It doesn't take much to provoke Walter Smith into a eulogy about one of his idols; the eyes gleam with the fervour of a fanatic as we discuss a legendary player with an everthickening midriff, a character who, we had discovered, is hugely admired by us both. Though this performer is richly talented, his decline through over-indulgence made him a liability to those around him as he descended into a morass of despair, requiring therapy.

Today, rehabilitated, he continues to delight his audiences with virtuoso performances. Yes, indeed; as David Crosby, vocalist and guitarist of the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, Nineties and, remarkably (given the advancing years of some of the members), millennium rock band, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, approaches 60, he still boasts a great repertoire.

Which all leads our conversation, obscurely but somehow inevitably, to the subject of Paul Gascoigne. Smith's "little gamble", as he describes the most celebrated summer addition to his Everton squad, is that at 33, the player can emulate the American rock musician. Both artists, we agree, exemplify the flawed genius. "People with great talent do seem to be off the wall, don't they?" says Smith. "Have you ever met one who wasn't?" You have to bow to Smith's greater knowledge on such matters. He seems to thrive on managing the mavericks, the problem players: the McCoists, the Fergusons, the Gascoignes.

Indeed, where Gascoigne is concerned, his faith surely borders on the masochistic. Not content with successfully coaxing the surviving skills from him at Rangers, Smith is probably the only Premiership manager prepared to imagine that at Goodison he can wring the last few drops of that sublime talent from the wayward Geordie. By Gascoigne's own testimony, you may not find him attempting to down a Hague (14 pints) these days, but liability is still the word most readily associated with him. Acquiring Gascoigne from Middlesbrough, even on a free transfer, still seems like mission impossible. He arrives with the warning, presumably, that this man will self-destruct within the course of any season.

But Smith understands the complex nature of his signing. Like some latter-day Merlin, who combines a disciplinarian nature with one of compassion, the Glaswegian has succeeded where others have thrust their hands to the skies in frustration. "If you read the papers, people think that Gascoigne and I have a father and son relationship," he says, before adding with a laugh: "I can assure you that's not the case. Do you know why? Well, I've got two sons and I've never felt like hitting them; I've certainly felt like smacking Gascoigne a couple of times...!"

In more serious vein, Smith's belief is that you cannot actually change a Gascoigne; merely control the environment in which the player performs by attempting to create a sense of harmony. "People say he's an idiot. But he's not daft. And he's not a boy who's got any badness about him. However, I do think he lets himself down a lot of the time. And I've told him that. Yet he is what he is, and nobody's going to change him. If Terry Venables, Bobby Robson, Bryan Robson and myself really had any great input into his life he might not have had the kind of problems that he got himself into all his career. Yes, I would hope I've got a bit of a rapport there. But none of us can say we've had that great an effect on him."

In truth, Smith does himself a disservice. There is no doubt that he was Gascoigne's salvation when the England midfielder was languishing with Lazio. "I'm in similar circumstances now to where I was when I took Paul to Rangers," says the Scot. "For whatever reasons, he had reached the stage where he was looking at a free transfer from Middlesbrough; now he faces the fact that he is looking at a free transfer from Everton... if he doesn't start recapturing a certain amount of form."

Smith adds: "That's the challenge I've given him. I've told him 'If you can enjoy a good last couple of years, at least people will remember you - possibly - for the right reasons rather than the wrong ones'."

The Everton faithful should be under no illusions, however. Gascoigne will be deployed rather more in a cameo role than as leading man. "People have said that I had signed him because we were desperate," says Smith. "But that wasn't true. It was because I felt that he could give something extra at certain stages of games. That was the bottom line. Last season, for instance, if we were a goal down and I was going to make a substitution, I'd look at the bench and think 'well, there's not really anybody there to create an opportunity for us'. I felt that Paul could, at the very least, give us that. If he takes up the challenge and he can give us more than that then I'm delighted."

He adds: "For anyone to think that, at 33, he's going to recapture his form of 10 years ago, well I find that nonsensical. But the view of Gascoigne is never sensible. When I've bought in [Alex] Nyarko, [Niclas] Alexandersson and [Thomas] Gravesen to play in midfield I'm not exactly short in thatposition, am I?" Well, no. But as Smith accepts himself, they are only replacements for Don Hutchison, John Collins and Nick Barmby, who have departed, the latter two moving to Fulham and Liverpoolrespectively, much to the manager's chagrin.

Smith, who has also added defenders Steve Watson and Alessandro Pistone to his squad, professes himself "disappointed", rather than annoyed, about Barmby's decamping to Anfield. "He didn't have the best of times at Middlesbrough, nor when he first came here, but after an initial period in and out when I became manager he began to have an impact," says Smith. "He was gaining in confidence at the end of the season after a few years when his game suffered. I would see him as an England player for the next few years; he has a good attitude to the game."

The behind-the-scenes machinations at Goodison over the last two years would have had most managers at their wits' end. Smith's equable temperament allows him to cope, although he contributes one grim statistic himself. "Do you realise that since I've been here there have been 45 transfers, both ways? That's Guinness Book of Records stuff. No club's going to have any kind of success with all that going on. Although we're only around £3m down on transactions in my time, I take no joy from that."

Many outgoing moves were brought about by financial necessity. One of them, Duncan Ferguson's £8m departure to Newcastle, was not only enforced but negotiated by the former chairman Peter Johnson,behind Smith's back. Now the Goodison folk hero and the manager are about to be reunited. "People say to me, 'Did you consider walking out over that?' but really it was taken out of my hands. I never got to think about it because the day after he [Johnson] said he [Ferguson] was leaving, he was selling the club. What could I say then? I'd brought a lot of players. How could I go after telling them that the club was moving forward?"

With Kevin Campbell injured, Smith has acted quickly to entice Ferguson to make the return journey with the £3.75m-plus deal expected to be completed over the weekend. Everton were not prepared to match the £2m per year salary that the player was paid at St James' Park but have now apparently agreed on £30,000 a week.

When the impresario Bill Kenwright's consortium assumed control in March this year it at least brought some stability to the club. "I get on well with Bill and, although it's not all sweetness and light, we are working in the same direction now because he's Everton through and through," says Smith, who was mooted last week as a possible successor to his friend Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford.

For the moment, though, Everton, for all its uncertainties after an era of pot-hunting at Rangers, clearly appeals to Smith. "We were nearly bankrupt 14 months ago. Although new people have taken over, they're not Jack Walkers. I'm not going to turn round to Bill and say we need £50mto take us to sixth in the League because I know it's not possible for him. But at least we're moving in the right direction. I'm confident of that."

Evertonians will pray that he is correct. To borrow the title of one of CSN&Y's best-known tracks, one that Smith will know all too well, "It's been a long time coming". Far, far too long.

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