Profile: How to follow the hardest act: Walter Smith

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The Independent Online
APART from defeat by Celtic, nothing irks Rangers and their fans more than to be reminded that in spite of 13 attempts they have never won the European Cup or even reached the final. All of their big rivals have been to the summit: Celtic, Manchester United and Liverpool all won, and Leeds United, who they meet in Glasgow on Wednesday in the second round, got there and lost, but at least they got there.

This is a club that is prepared to spend whatever vast amount it takes to achieve status and recognition beyond Scotland. Yet even though Rangers have come closer than any other British club to putting themselves in the same financial super strata as Milan and Barcelona, not even their employing of that notable big-spender Graeme Souness, who brought them almost everything else, could change their fortune in the European Cup.

In spite of his alleged eventual disaffection with everything Scottish, Souness might have stayed at Ibrox if he thought there was a serious chance of Rangers becoming the top club in Europe. He did not, so on Wednesday, his former subordinate, Walter Smith, will be at the tiller he unexpectedly took over after the stormy departure of Souness in April, 1991.

At the time, rumour had it that as soon as Souness had left for Liverpool, Kenny Dalglish would leave England for Rangers. Even the Glasgow papers gave Smith no chance of becoming permanent manager: a good side-kick, they said, but Rangers had the taste for expensive, ostentatious leadership. David Murray, the money man behind their prolonged attempt to be ready when, or if, the European super league he continually predicts ever comes about, is not the sort of man to be impressed by people who drive an extra mile to get a penny off a gallon.

Souness, all vanity, style, Italian suits, designer everything and expensive preferences in his choice of restaurants, was not only one of Murray's closest friends but his sort of guy. Dalglish would have been too, but, Rangers did not invite him. Ironically, while Murray apparently showed no interest, Bernard Tapie invited him to discuss a future at Olympique Marseille, but nothing came of it. Dalglish preferred to think things over for a while before taking a sabbatical and finally realising that having a pizza with the kids after school was more important than a heart attack.

So in spite of the fact that at least one 'well informed' local source reported at the time that 'Walter Smith can be discounted', Murray up-graded him from assistant and put him in charge. It was assumed that even if Dalglish was not in the running, sooner or later one of the other big names would be enticed to Ibrox and, like Ronnie Moran at Liverpool, the former assistant would go back to midshipman duties. Sixteen months later there is still no sign of a more famous name taking over, and Walter Smith's is growing all the time.

In spite of the acrimony within the club when Souness left, Smith loyally insists that without his former boss the club would never have had its recent success and broken out of the restrictions caused by bigotry and misplaced loyalty. Souness had the nerve to import from England and also sign Mo Johnston, a Catholic and former Celtic player. Smith watched it all happen. League championships and League cups came in Souness's time but nothing in Europe.

After caretaking Rangers to the championship soon after Souness left, Smith then opened his own account by leading them to a League and Cup double last season, their first since 1978 (also something Souness had failed to achieve), but he is not the sort of man to take any of another's credit and he made it clear that his predecessor had done a huge amount of the earlier ground work to the point of making a Rangers' monopoly of the Premier League. Since then, though, he has not only continued Souness's policy of buying from outside Scotland but made crucial use of talent that was always on his own doorstep.

The single most important factor in Smith's bringing the double to Ibrox and another chance in Europe's premier competition was probably his decision to take Rangers' international striker Ally McCoist off the bench. McCoist had sat there so often in Souness's time that he became known as 'The Judge'. After Souness's departure and under Smith, McCoist enjoyed an astonishing season in which he scored 39 goals. This term he has been scoring just as freely and has been captain. He gives Smith all of the credit for giving him back his confidence.

As Souness's deputy, Smith spent more time on the bench than even McCoist, but he never seemed remotely as frustrated. He had the habit of sitting on Souness's right side and everyone assumed that even if managers came and went this would be his place for ever more. Certainly he never saw himself attempting to live the same way as Souness. He is as moderate as Souness was flamboyant. He says the partnership has left him with more sophisticated tastes, though that admission extends to nothing more extravagant than the terrible confession that, 'I always used to be a mince-and-potato man until I met him'. He is still a long way from becoming as garish as Souness or Ron Atkinson.

Unlike Souness, Smith was never one of Scotland's more exalted players. He was a tough defender for Dundee United and stayed with the club to become assistant to Jim McLean. When Souness returned to Scotland as manager at Ibrox in 1986 he needed help. He had been away in Italy for some time and had little up-to- date first-hand experience of Scottish league football. Smith was steeped in it, and in terms of character complemented Souness well.

In spite of his playing reputation as a bruiser, 44-year-old Smith is one of those outwardly tough men with a high regard, almost envy, for players with greater skill than they had themselves. His purchasing policy emphasises his desire to fill the Rangers' midfield and attack with skilful experts in the playing-to-feet style, yet he knows that the present team is still not good enough to compete with the best in Europe and will probably struggle against Leeds, especially in midfield. Nevertheless, there is a feeling within the club that the spirit is better now than it was in Souness's days. Smith, though he can be demonstrative, wields a disciplinary stick that can bend a little. The players who found Souness's unyielding strictness difficult to take, much prefer Smith's comparative forbearance.

Souness and Smith immediately agreed on one fundamental: that Scottish football was in decline. In his own days as a player Souness could always link his considerable skill with intimidating physical strength. That was the way Scottish football used to be, but both of them had seen strength and stamina become predominant. Souness believed that while improving skill levels in the club's younger players was all very well, he had to bring in talent from wherever it was available. He spent pounds 16m on 37 players, and only 13 were Scots. Yet in the end he still thought that the club's prime objective, success in Europe, was unlikely since the League programme was too big and demanding.

Smith has extended Souness's argument. He says that until British clubs are given more time to develop good technique they will struggle in Europe. Although sympathetic to Smith's opinion, when Souness left Murray still insisted that what Rangers needed more than anything was success in Europe, and soon. He said Souness could have achieved it. 'He is making the biggest mistake of his life,' Murray said. Smith inherited a job that Souness felt was limited not through any lack of resources but by the fact that, as he said, 'Rangers are the biggest club in British football but in football terms they have a long way to go. Liverpool is still The Club in Britain purely in football terms'. Possibly his experience this season at Anfield may have left him contemplating that remark.

When Smith took over he was also unconvinced about the possibilities. He made it clear that no Scottish team, club or national, would make a lasting impact internationally until the roots of the game were made healthy. He went as far as to say that the Scottish game was in mortal danger because young players were brought up to believe that defeat was always the direct result of inadequate commitment. He maintained that more often than not it was because youngsters were unable to perform the basics of ball control. He still says that the majority of players outside the top few clubs in Scotland are not good enough to be playing professionally.

His answer has come partly in the encouragement of ball skills among the younger players but also in further raids on the international transfer market. His most significant signing was the Soviet midfield player Alexei Mikhailichenko from Sampdoria for pounds 2m. Murray continues to sign the cheques and no doubt will go on doing so until he achieves his ambition of ranking with Silvio Berlusconi of Milan and Tapie of Marseille as Europe's most powerful football entrepreneurs. It would be ironic if plain Walter Smith did more to achieve his master's objective than his high-living predecessor.

First, though, Rangers have to overcome Leeds United. The match is being seen as a Scotland v England substitute with all of that temporarily defunct fixture's problems and intensity. Leeds have successfully faced Scottish opposition five times in Europe and are probably the team Rangers would have wanted to avoid above all others. Smith knows that early European Cup defeat this season without even facing a famous Continental name would pour salt in some old wounds and be held against him no matter whether Rangers again dominate everything at home. And that was the situation that got the better of Souness.

(Photograph omitted)

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