Scotland has lost one of its most iconic football sons. Walter Smith was an ordinary player but a legendary manager and phenomenal person.
Who’s this then?
Walter Ferguson Smith, who passed away this week, was 73, born in 1948 in Lanark and grew up in Carmyle, one of the nicer bits of the East End of Glasgow. His career as a defender began at Dundee United in 1966. Interestingly, he had a three-game loan at the long-defunct Dallas Tornado in 1967 in the NASL before returning to The Terrors until 1975. He transferred to Dumbarton for two years before returning to Tannadice for three more years, mostly in the reserves as he’d picked up a pelvic injury in 1977. He retired at 29 having only played 181 games in 14 years.
An unspectacular player, he’d find his vocation in coaching.
Working under notorious eccentric Jim McLean, Dundee United – it may shock you to learn – were not only league champions but European Cup semi-finalists. Smith’s job as assistant was to temper McLean’s wild style, but he could be a strict disciplinarian in his own right.
At this time he was also U18 coach for the national team, winning the European Youth Championship in 1982, moving up to the U21s and being Sir Alex Ferguson’s assistant at the 1986 World Cup.
By the mid-80s he was seen as one of the best assistants in Scotland at a special time in the country’s football history when, for a few years, the Celtic and Rangers duopoly was broken.
He joined Rangers in 1986 as new player/manager Graeme Souness’ assistant, making most of the in-match decisions as Souey was still rampaging, stamping and fighting his way through Scottish football like an angry sex panther.
When Souness went to Liverpool in 1991, “Watty” (as his pals called him) took over, initially as a stop-gap, but he was soon appointed as permanent manager at the end of the season, with another league title under his belt.
Thus began an amazingly successful period as Rangers hoovered up six more league wins to make nine consecutively, six cup wins and a domestic treble in 1992-93 which also saw them just fall short of making the 1993 Champions League final. That run included two historic wins over English champions Leeds United.
Hard to imagine now but in this period the £50million Walter spent on players was more than anyone else in Britain. It only went sour when, in trying to achieve the historic ten-in-a-row, spending £13million to do so, they finished runners-up to Celtic. By this time Smith had already declared he was offski at the end of the season, saying he was retiring.
He didn’t retire. A month later he was installed as Everton gaffer but it was not a happy time as the Toffees sold players behind his back and, due to being skint, offloaded all the best talent. He did sign Gazza, of course, more as a social service for the troubled Geordie after working with him at Ibrox. But after being beaten 3-0 by the mighty Middlesbrough in March 2002, he was given the auld tin tack. A brief spell as assistant to his pal Sir Alex followed at Manchester United.
He then ducked out of the game for over 18 months before taking the national team on, doing relatively well at a difficult time, and taking Ally McCoist and Tommy Burns as his assistants, in doing so uniting Rangers and Celtic.
But Rangers came calling in January 2007 and he couldn’t resist returning to Ibrox for one last encore. In four years he picked up eight more league and cup titles and a UEFA Cup runners-up medal in 2007/08, losing to Zenit in the final. He finished his career with another domestic double and handed over to assistant McCoist just before the whole thing fell apart.
Still only in his early 60s at this point, he remained one of Scotland’s most revered football sages before his death at just 73.
Why the love?
Everything he accomplished as a manager of one of Europe’s biggest clubs is there in the record books. All the titles and cups. The fact is, for the last 36 years, either Celtic or Rangers have won the title. In such a dysfunctional situation, you might say that if you’re boss of one of them, you’re bound to win a lot of stuff, and that’s true to a large extent but that doesn’t account for the pressure such expectation brings and how that is brought to bear on the manager. Second is nowhere. You have to win. Have to. And if you don’t, woe betide. Scottish football is an absolute hot house, but it’s a small world and if you make enemies they tend to stay made. So for a man like Walter to be so successful and so well-loved is, in its own way, quite an achievement. For a while he made Rangers one of the best sides in Europe and played some great football along the way.
But that’s just one thing. He was loved by fans and players alike for who he was, for the man he was. For his attitude and style. When former players refer to him as a second father, it is not mere hyperbole.
A journalist who had sat in on many of Walter’s press conferences told me that he was one of those guys who just had an aura about him. There was nothing flakey about him, no flim flam, no pretence. When he spoke, you listened.
Apparently, he would always give a different line to the daily press, the Sundays and Mondays. Everyone got something they could use. This suggests a man who not only knew how to keep the press on his side, but also understood that lives were being lived outside of his small football bubble. This happens less and less now, as managers of big clubs increasingly breathe their own rarefied air, hidden behind a wall of press officers, all tasked with keeping the febrile elements of the media at bay with a series of blandisms and pre-determined narratives.
Even as a younger man, he had an air about him which hinted at the kindly uncle who would be found stripped to the waist, brawling on the cobbles every Saturday night. The hard man with a soft heart, perhaps. You can see it in his eyes. There’s a don’t mess with me glare, but quickly behind it a wry smile.
He was very understated, economical with his words and with an old-school patrician element to him. In private, apparently, he was a man with a hilariously dry wit – which you can totally imagine – who would regale pals with tales of outrageous behaviour from his days under McClean.
5 live correspondent Roddy Forsyth recounted one such incident where Walter was in the shower after training, only to be told that Jim was literally throttling a young player over his desk. Wrapping a towel around himself, Walter goes up to the manager’s office and finds McLean with the young lad over his desk, his manager bearing down on top of him. Walter goes to break up the contretemps, but in doing so, his towel falls off. At this moment the mother of the young player enters to see what appeared to be a bacchanalian scene of a stark bollock naked man, wrestling with a raging fella who in turn had his hands around the neck of the young lad. The mother, fearing the worst, dragged her son out, declaring he’d not be signing for this team.
Tom English of BBC Scotland recounts Walter telling him in 1993 as a young reporter: “If you want an interview with anybody then fax the club on a Tuesday and I’ll make sure it happens.” So he did, time and again, and Walter always arranged it. This seems typical of the man, generous of spirit even when he had no need to be.
Maybe he was one of the last manager-as-surrogate-father types in the game – certainly that paternal quality he had was what endeared him to fans and neutrals alike. While there will always be a huge divide between Rangers and Celtic in Glasgow, the animosity that comes with mother’s milk was somewhat dissipated when it came to Walter. There was widespread recognition that here was a man who you just had to respect.
But with the generosity of spirit came a touch, a street-fighter quality. He’d been pulled up in a tough part of the city and was nobody’s fool. His disapproving stare was often enough to keep people in line and while he was great at dealing with the press, he wasn’t shy of telling any writer what he thought of their latest work.
No-one wanted to disappoint him. That’s a great quality to have. To imbue that ‘I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed’ element into a football club and its players needs a special sort of character. It has to stem from an innate respect.
When he signed Gazza, he went to Lazio to talk with him and propose the move to Rangers. As Smith himself later recounted:
“I got a car up to his villa in the hills overlooking the city and rang the bell at his gates. He came out and said ‘What are you doing here?
“I said ‘I’m here to see if you’d sign for Rangers.’ He said, ‘Aye, I will.’
“That was the extent of the talks.”
These were very different days indeed. That Christmas after signing Paul, Walter invited him to his house, knowing he’d be alone in the city. He didn’t have to do things like that, but it was all part of his innate decency.
Along with McCoist and Peter Grant, Walter carried Celtic man Burns’ coffin at his funeral in 2008. He has been a cornerstone of Scottish football for so long it is hard to grasp that he is no longer with us.
Four great moments
This is a legendary interview by Chick Young. Not safe for work due to lots of proper and persistent swearing. I think it tells you a lot about the man. The stare! But you can see the half-smile in his eyes while berating Chick for talking “some f**king sh*te”. Chick sounds like a wee boy:
An emotional Ally pays tribute to his great friend and manager:
Some classic Walter and Ally. There’s real joy here. This is what football should be like.
A visibly upset Steven Gerrard:
What the people say
I once met him when I was 15 in work experience with the Evening Times in Glasgow. I was sent to Ibrox with a reporter for a Friday presser and remember feeling quite intimidated by it all. Walter stepped forward and introduced himself to me, like I was one of them. It was superb
— Craig Anderson (@CraigyAnderson) October 28, 2021
Built consistent winning teams and brought in & through Rangers’ legends to be, was able to tempt Gazza & Laudrup to Scotland, known to be firm but fair and class on and off the field.
A True Great.
— At The Bridge Pod (@AtTheBridgePod) October 28, 2021
His passing leaves a huge hole in the Scottish game. People who are great at the game and are great people too are thin on the ground.
His last night at Ibrox as boss of Rangers saw them beat his old club Dundee United in the kind of incessant rain that only the west of Scotland can dish out, but even so, all 50,000 stayed after the game to applaud Walter who emerged, slightly embarrassed at the adulation, to take their applause.
Steven Gerrard, now with a title under his belt, was genuinely upset by the passing of someone who he regarded as a mentor and friend. He had inherited a club that was all but built in the image of Walter.
He was a celebrity in the best sense of the word: a man renowned for his job and for the sort of person he was.
He leaves his wife Ethel and two sons Neil and Steven. An absolute giant of the game, we will not see his like again. Travel well, Walter, old son. Travel well.
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