Smith ensures Rangers are not prepared to stand still

Scottish clubs have bought mainly foreign talent to upgrade for their new season, which starts today. Phil Gordon reports
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Any manager who has just taken his club to a ninth successive title would be entitled to believe there is little chance of improving on perfection.

Not Walter Smith. The Rangers manager has spent the summer unpicking much of the side which wrote itself into Scottish football history last May, spending pounds 13m in transfer fees and ushering in eight new arrivals. Hardly the work of a contented man.

Smith may have put himself alongside the legendary Jock Stein with his championship achievement - six under his own steam and three as assistant to Graeme Souness - but his conscience nagged at him to disregard the plaudits.

The sum total of the recruitment work, which took Britain's biggest-spending manager past pounds 50m in his six years in charge, will be there for all to see on Monday night when Rangers open their Premier League title defence at home to Hearts.

Smith never had any second thoughts about the massive scale of team rebuilding, which saw time-served campaigners like Richard Gough, Trevor Steven and David Robertson leave while Sergio Porrini (Juventus), Marco Negri (Perugia), Lorenzo Amoruso (Fiorentina), Rino Gatuso (Perugia) and Jonas Thern (Roma) all left Serie A for the sterling lure of Glasgow. Swelling the Ibrox foreign legion too, are the Norwegian defender Stale Stensas (Rosenborg Trondheim), the Finnish goalkeeper Antti Niemi (FC Copenhagen) and the Australian full-back Tony Vidmar (NAC Breda).

"We needed a complete revamp," Smith admitted. "If I had not done it, then the club would have got stuck in a rut. I had to take the club on to another level and the chairman felt the same." David Murray, the club's owner, and Smith planned the Rangers make-over 10 months ago, after a humbling defeat by Ajax in the Champions' League forced them to confront their own blemishes.

However, Smith bristles at the suggestion that his spending spree is aimed at the Champions' League. " Everyone says I have been signing up players solely to acquire European success, but that's not the case. You are on dangerous ground when you do that. I am simply trying to make my side better and successful on all fronts. You can't place one competition ahead of another."

The Rangers manager echoes Ruud Gullit in his explanation of an attachment to all things foreign - Smith has 15 foreigners in his squad and could quite easily field a team without a single Scot. "The standard of people that Rangers require are not really available in either Scotland or England or, if they are, the transfer fee is too high," he said. "I had to go abroad to buy players!"

Smith's fellow Premier managers have followed in his continental footsteps, though with much smaller budgets. Tommy McLean has again gone for the Scandanavian injection which propelled Dundee United to third place last season, investing in the Danish defender, Thomas Tengstedt.

Hearts have brought in the French striker Stephane Adam from Metz and the winger Thomas Flogel from Austria Vienna, while their Edinburgh rivals, Hibernian, have bought another Frenchman, Jean-Marc Adjovi Boco from Lens, and the Icelandic international keeper Olafur Gottskalsson.

Motherwell have also scoured the European market, netting the Austrians Franz Resch and Mario Dorner, but there the similarities with Rangers end. While Walter Smith spends lottery sums, Alex McLeish has been a loser on football's version of Russian roulette: the Bosman law. Last summer, the Fir Park manager watched Paul Lambert and Rob McKinnon move abroad without receiving a penny.

McKinnon joined the Dutch club Twente Enschede while Lambert went to Germany, where he subsequently won the European Cup with Borussia Dortmund. This summer, McLeish sold Mitchel van der Gaag to Utrecht in his native Netherlands for pounds 400,000 simply to avoid a similar scenario.

"I lost two top quality players last year, whom, if I tried to buy their replacements in Britain, would have cost me a fortune," McLeish said. "Paul Lambert is now worth millions to Dortmund, we got nothing. The gulf between the Old Firm and the rest is growing. We could only afford to pay Resch and Dorner decent wages because we got them for no fee."

Motherwell, runners-up just a few seasons ago, are almost certain to fall into the relegation scrap involving today's opponents Dunfermline, Kilmarnock, Hibernian and promoted St Johnstone, who also recruited abroad. The difference is that the Perth club's ne w players are both Scots: Paul Kane was with Viking Stavanger in Norway while the striker Gavin Price returns from Dutch exile with Den Haag. The only manager not to worry about foreign exchange rates is Roy Aitken at Pittodrie. He has spent pounds 2m reshaping his Aberdeen team, who face Kilmarnock today, with Jim Leighton, Mike Newell, Eoin Jess, Gary Smith and Brian O'Neil.