Sunday 15th May 2011. Almost 20 years to the day he won his first league title as Rangers manager, Walter Smith OBE left Ibrox for the last time as club manager……..with yet another league title in the bag.
Earlier in the day, Smith had watched his Rangers side secure the championship trophy with a crucial last day victory. The victory ensured Smith claimed his tenth and last championship title with the club.
Walter Smith has truly excelled at Rangers. Under his leadership the club has amassed a total of 21 trophies in his two spells at the club making him the second most successful manager in the history of Rangers behind Bill Struth. A modest, articulate man who seems to have got better with age like a fine wine has seen it all in his time at Ibrox.
From joining the club at the beginning of the Souness era when he went onto lead Rangers to 9 championships in a row, equalling Celtic’s record, managing some of the best players to ever play in the British Isles in the likes of Paul Gascoigne and Brian Laudrup, dealing with the death of his close friend former Celtic manager Tommy Burns, referee strikes, the continued sectarianism that curses his club and watching Rangers almost go bust, its been some journey.
He has also had a stint at managing Everton, a short spell as assistant manger to Sir Alex Ferguson at Man Utd and a successful period as Scotland manager.
As Walter departs and the players and fans make their way to foreign shores for the holiday season there will undoubtedly be a time of upcoming reflection and reminiscing about the Walter Smith era. Was Sunday’s championship victory the most significant, the most important, the most pleasurable of all his championship wins?
As far as Walter himself is concerned it would appear that the significance of that first championship win 20 years ago is not lost on him. But for that success, his career may have been entirely different.
Saturday 11th May 1991: the final day of the 90 / 91 season and a pivotal day in the history of Rangers. Graeme Souness had departed the previous month for Liverpool leaving Smith as caretaker manager to lead Rangers to the championship title. However Rangers were stuttering towards the finishing line while rivals Aberdeen were sprinting.
On the penultimate weekend of the season Rangers had been soundly beaten by Motherwell while Aberdeen beat St Johnstone and stormed to the top of the league ahead of the final weekend of the season. As fate would have it, Aberdeen and Rangers would clash on the final day of the season at Ibrox in the mother of all championship deciders.
Similar to Sunday, Rangers needed to win on the final day of the season to lift the trophy. A draw would be insufficient and would hand the title to Aberdeen.
Smith recalls of that match “My greatest win as boss of this club was clinching the first title against Aberdeen in 1991. I had just taken over as manager, we were leading in the league but then it blew up. We lost 3-0 at Motherwell, Graeme Souness had gone and we were beset by suspensions and injuries. We were in bad shape against a rampant Aberdeen side who were flying on the run-in. I had to prove that I could handle all this just a month after Graeme had left.”
Smith had to get his knackered troops up for the fight. It was win or bust. If Walter could pull of a victory, he would rightly claim he was the man for the job. Lose and the board would potentially be looking at other managerial options for the following season.
Smith caught a break before a ball was kicked. Dons goalkeeper Theo Snelders, the club’s best ever keeper, was ruled out of the championship showdown. The Dons would be forced to play the young inexperienced Michael Watt in goals.
Inside the first five minutes Mark Hateley clattered the young keeper on a high ball and Watt never recovered. Hateley bullied the keeper throughout and scored twice, his second following a mistake from Watt. Rangers won 2-0 and lifted the championship trophy.
The victory galvanised the team and Smith proved he could handle the pressure that comes from managing Rangers. That victory over Aberdeen gave Rangers their third championship on the bounce and was the catalyst for a period of dominance for Smith’s Rangers as they went on to win the next six championships to equal the nine in a row record.
In reality it was a period of near total Rangers dominance of Scottish football. With Celtic almost broke, embroiled in internal conflict and Aberdeen’s challenge fading, Rangers coasted to trophy after trophy after trophy.
That championship win was also the springboard for success in Europe as Rangers defeated English champions Leeds Utd in the Champions League Battle of Britain in season 1992/93. Smith’s Rangers eventually just missed out on a place in the Champions League final to Marseille, who were later discovered to have bribed Valenciennes players to “go easy” on their players in a French league match leading up to the final.
Back in those days Rangers were a cash rich club and could compete financially with clubs in the English Premiership thanks to Sir David Murray’s millions. For this reason many believe that Smith’s recent achievements in his second stint at Rangers have been his most impressive.
With limited transfer funds to purchase players and with the club almost on its knees financially he has managed to turn Rangers fortunes around, once again winning three championships on the bounce while reaching the Europa League Cup Final in the process. All this achieved with a smaller squad than rivals Celtic.
It is undoubtedly the case that these recent triumphs in an age of austerity for Rangers have been mighty impressive but I agree with Walter himself that the Championship triumph of 1991 was his most significant achievement.
Two spells at the club over two decades has undoubtedly made his decision to leave the club a difficult one. Smith said yesterday “There will be a regret but I still think it’s the right thing. It’s the right thing for myself and it’s the right thing for Rangers now that they’ve got a new owner and a new manager. It’s the right thing to do.”
Ally McCoist, the man with the unenviable task of succeeding Smith, feels the name of Walter Smith should be mentioned in the same breath as Sir Alex Ferguson, Jock Stein, Matt Busby and Bill Shankly.
I’m sure there are many that agree with that statement.