When it comes to winning championships, nobody does it better. This season’s title was Rangers’ 54th, strengthening their claim on the world record, and Walter Smith’s tenth over two silverware-laden stints. Of course, the fact it was also Smith’s last ensured added emotional significance to the ensuing celebrations, and it left the Scottish champions facing up to an uncertain future.
Statistically, the departing 63-year-old is the second-most successful manager in the Ibrox club’s history, Bill Struth having won 18 championships over a 34-year reign from 1920 to '54. Yet plenty believe that even this historical icon has been surpassed, with Ally McCoist, Smith’s assistant and heir, leading the chorus of acclaim. "He (Smith) is without doubt the greatest manager this club has had,” was McCoist’s post-match tribute after the title-clinching 5-1 win at Kilmarnock. “His record is nothing short of phenomenal.”
McCoist has previously described succeeding Smith as “a bit like taking the microphone from Frank Sinatra”, but the 48-year-old at least begins with plenty of goodwill, his status as Rangers’ greatest-ever goalscorer making him a legend very much in his own right. He has also spent the past few years learning from a man who has made the Ibrox dugout his home since joining the club in 1986 as assistant to Graeme Souness.
Thoughtful and measured, Smith was the perfect foil for Rangers’ brash and confrontational young manager, and Souness was desperate for the partnership to continue when he moved to Anfield. “I still wonder if things would have worked out differently for me at Liverpool if Walter had come,” he recently admitted.
Rangers’ quiet man had also been in demand elsewhere. Sir Alex Ferguson revealed last week that, before taking charge of Manchester United, he had been approached by Arsenal, and had sounded out Smith - his assistant with Scotland at the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™ - about joining him at Highbury. One can only wonder how different the English footballing landscape might look today had Smith accepted either offer but, as it was, he had his sights not on following Souness, but on succeeding him.
The then Rangers owner’s initial preference was for a big name, a glamorous appointment, but Smith ultimately won him over - then set about winning everything else. The years that followed marked arguably the zenith of the club’s 139-year history, with Smith’s side equalling Celtic’s record of nine successive championships and coming within a whisker of reaching the 1993 UEFA Champions League final.
Impressive as those achievements were, however, it is Smith’s feats in his second spell that have cemented his status as one of Scotland’s true managerial greats. While circumstances favoured him during the nine-in-a-row years, with Celtic in chaos, millions at his disposal and stars such as Paul Gascoigne and Brian Laudrup in the Ibrox dressing room, recent years have required him to hold together a club in crisis.
With the hangover from that lavish spending of the 1990s resulting in stringent financial controls and muttered threats of administration, Smith has been forced to sell several of his top players – among them top scorers Kris Boyd and Kenny Miller – simply to keep the wolves from the door. In such circumstances, and with Celtic problem-free in comparison, failure would not only have been understandable, but entirely excusable.
Yet Smith’s record since returning to Ibrox in 2007 - three successive titles, two Scottish Cups, three League Cups and Rangers’ first European final in 36 years – would suggest that all in the garden has been rosy. It is his success in making this most difficult of jobs appear easy that has earned the esteem of pundits, rivals and peers alike, with Alex Ferguson among those fulsome in their praise.
"Rangers are a huge club,” said the Manchester United manager, himself a former Gers player. “The problem is the fans expect success every year. It's amazing Walter has been able to handle that, despite the lack of investment. What he has achieved this time, in his second spell, is better than the nine-in-a-row success. To do it this year, taking everything he's had to deal with away from football into account, I can't speak highly enough of him.”
Sadly, as Ferguson intimates, the beautiful game has often been posted missing during this Scottish Premier League season, with Celtic manager Neil Lennon the main victim in a shocking series of sectarian incidents. However, while Lennon’s assailants have brought shame on this football-fixated nation, the former Northern Ireland captain has succeeded in his aim of “bringing back the thunder” to Celtic Park with an adventurous style of play and an imaginative signing policy.
The extent to which those efforts have been appreciated was evident on Sunday, when Celtic fans reacted to the club’s title failure by incessantly chanting Lennon’s name and cheering his bewildered team on a lap of honour. In a city where coming second is equivalent to finishing last, these were remarkable scenes, and they provided a heart-warming end to an often depressing season.
Encouraging too was the way in which the managers helped restore civility to the bitter rivalry between Scotland’s dominant footballing tribes. Smith was swift and wholehearted throughout in his condemnation of the threats and attacks on his Celtic counterpart, while Lennon was dignity personified in the wake of Rangers’ final-day triumph.
“I’d like to congratulate Walter and his team,” said the Celtic boss. “He’s been one of the best managers in the history of the Scottish game, and he’s a really decent guy and a good footballing man. If I was going to lose out to anyone, it would be to be him.”
In being bested by Smith, Lennon finds himself in esteemed company. He and Celtic will try again next season, while McCoist faces the imposing task of matching his mentor’s grip on Scotland’s silverware.