Walter Smith was one of Scottish football’s genuine working-class heroes

The death of Walter Smith at the age of 73 marks the passing of one of Scottish football’s most influential characters of the last forty years.


When somebody in the public eye passes on, it’s not uncommon to find out more about them in a couple of days than you did throughout the whole of their life. Truths, friendships, and details about that person start to leak out. The minutiae of their life becomes public, including acts of kindness of which we might not already have been aware. They become more whole, whereas our previous perception might well have been little more than a cariacture.

The announcement of the death of the former Rangers, Everton and Scotland manager Walter Smith is a case in point. Rangers, the club with which Smith was most readily associated are, it’s fair to say, a divisive club, and it’s easy to draw a cariacture of an entire club and everybody closely associated with it on the worst excesses of its worst people, but in the time since Smith’s death what we have seen has not been the reinforcement of a negative stereotype, but a portrait of a deeply loved and deeply respected man, who loved football and who loved his life.

The stories that have emerged since his death have shown Smith to be humourous – consider, for example, Ally McCoist’s story of Smith watching Rangers Europa League semi-final penalty shootout without having the first idea what the score was – and passionate about music. Smith grew up as a Rangers supporter in Glasgow’s Carmyle, considerably closer to Celtic Park than to Ibrox. In a city with a long history of religious tension, he almost certainly needed a thick hide to get by.

He started his career in the Scottish Junior leagues before earning himself a professional contract with Dundee United in 1966. But his playing career never really got going. Twelve years at Tannadice Park over two periods with the club only resulted 183 appearances for the first time but twice as many for the reserves, and when he left Tannadice Park for Dumbarton, he couldn’t achieve any greater success there. But like many successful managers wo hadn’t been particularly talented players, he laid himself out a future career path early, coaching with the Scotland under-18 team and serving as assistant to Jim McLean with his highly successful Dundee United team of the early 1980s before accepting the call to become the assistant manager at his boyhood team, Rangers, in 1986.

He was assistant to Graeme Souness for five years, and with Souness being a player-manager with something of a temper, he frequently found himself as being the senior man on the touchline during matches, and occasionally in charge, when Souness was seeing out another ban. When Souness left for Liverpool in April 1991 following the shock resignation of Kenny Dalglish, Rangers were in the middle of a title race. Smith finished off the job, leading Rangers to their fourth successive league title, and was unsurprisingly given the job on a full-time basis at the end of the season.

Smith’s success at Rangers came at a cost. The club spent £50m in his first six years there, more than any other in Britain, but with league title after league title coming at home, their aspirations were focused on Europe. But that European trophy never came, and in 1999 he headed south for England and Everton. Having been falsely told that the club had the funds for significant transfers, Smith found that this wasn’t the case and was unable to to get the club above mid-table in the Premier League. Four years later, after an FA Cup quarter-final defeat to Middlesbrough, he was fired.

After a brief stint as assistant to Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, he was appointed as the Scotland manager in December 2004. Scotland had been in decline since the 1990s, but while Smith was unable to get them to the finals of a major tournament, he did at least improve them, lifting them by 70 places in FIFA’s rankings. But in January 2007 he returned to Ibrox, taking Rangers to a hat-trick of league titles before leaving for the final time in 2011. When Rangers were liquidated the following year he returned to the board of the club, but these were fleeting periods in his career. In total, he won 21 trophies with Rangers, including 10 league titles.

That East End upbringing was an influence on his entire career. When Graeme Souness wanted to sign Mo Johnston in 1989, breaking a long-standing Rangers tradition of not signing Catholic players, he was enthusiastically supported by his assistant. When Rangers were at their peak during the mid-1990s, his opposite number at Celtic Park was Tommy Burns, as much a Celtic man as Smith was a Rangers man. But the two became close personal friends after Smith invited Burns to work with him and Ally McCoist while he was manager of the national team, and when Burns died prematurely in 2008, Smith served as one of his pall-bearers.

It would be easy to focus on what Walter Smith achieved at Rangers to the exclusion of everything else, but his involvement at Dundee United, where as assistant to Jim McLean the team – alongside Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen – briefly broke the hegemony of Celtic and Rangers, won the Scottish league in 1983 and reached the semi-finals of the European Cup the following year, and this, on top of his role in breathing Scotland’s national team back to life after the chaotic era of Bertie Vogts and ihs successes with Rangers, makes him one of the most important and influential people in the last four decades of Scottish football.

Football is a deeply tribal game, and there may be nowhere that this is more true than in Glasgow. But as we do frequently see, it is perfectly possible to show respect and even hold friendships which cross the game’s divides. The passing of Walter Smith is not only a sad loss for Rangers, but also for Scottish football in a broader sense. His decency, humour and insight will be sadly missed. In divisive times such as these, we need more working class heroes like him.

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