Old friends chase new glory
© AFP

When the late, great Jock Stein suffered a fatal heart-attack on the Ninian Park touchline in the act of guiding Scotland to the 1986 FIFA World Cup™, it fell to his assistant and protégé to lead a team in mourning to the showpiece itself. That assistant happened to be a promising young manager by the name of Alex Ferguson.

The then 44-year-old was a reluctant heir. Stunned by the loss of his mentor and left to juggle the national job with his day-to-day responsibilities at Aberdeen, Ferguson knew that he too needed to choose wisely in selecting a No2. An experienced, learned figure seemed the obvious choice, but Ferguson's legendary judgement instead led him to insist on a relative unknown: Walter Smith.

As it proved, the 37-year-old's appointment kicked off a long professional alliance and enduring friendship between these two like-minded football souls, and 22 years on from their Mexican adventure, this same duo are united in preparing their respective clubs into European finals. It certainly entirely appropriate that it is in Manchester, Ferguson's adopted city, that Smith will tomorrow oversee Rangers' first continental showpiece in 36 years - with Sir Alex looking on from the stands.

The long-serving Manchester United boss has a finale of his own to prepare for, of course, but Smith's side's showdown with Zenit St Petersburg was always likely to be a must-see for a former Rangers player born within a stone's throw of the Glasgow club's Ibrox stadium. Far more compelling, however, than any lingering affection for the team Ferguson grew up supporting, is a desire to congratulate a friend and fellow coach for whom he has the utmost respect.

"The qualities he has are outstanding," the Red Devils manager has said. "You can trust him with your life. He's a great coach, an excellent personality, players love him - he has all those qualities. And Rangers have had the great benefit of that."

Advice from Old Trafford
These attributes to which Ferguson refers even led the Manchester United boss to bring Smith back into the game in 2004 as a replacement for Carlos Queiroz, two years on from the end of his disappointing stint in charge of Everton.

"I'd been enjoying a life away from the game, playing a lot of golf and getting to matches as a form of enjoyment," Smith recalled. "But when the call came from Manchester United I found I'd got the bug for football back again. It reinvigorated me."

Later that same year, Smith began his brief but successful reign as Scotland manager, reviving a team that had been in crisis under Berti Vogts. So impressive was his tenure, in fact, that when Rangers' French experiment backfired and Paul Le Guen bade adieu, Smith's was the only name in the frame for the significant salvage job his former club required.

Predictably, it was the man who had revived his passion for management to whom Smith once again turned for counsel. "I asked Sir Alex for advice," Smith recalled. "I have a lot of time for Alex the person. And I've no greater admiration for any manager. He gives me inspiration to carry on.

"Without hesitation, Alex told me to take the job. He told me to get back in day-to-day football and win things again. If he had told me not to take it? Well, I don't know what I would have done. But he said I would enjoy being back involved and he has been right. I enjoy winning more now than I did when I was in my mid-40s."

There has certainly been plenty for Smith to enjoy this season, with Rangers having claimed one domestic cup, booked their place in final of another and put themselves in a position where victory in their remaining three league fixtures will secure the title. In Europe, meanwhile, Smith has guided his side past the likes of Panathinaikos, Werder Bremen, Sporting Lisbon and Fiorentina, and upwards of 70,000 Rangers fans are now in the process of making the short journey south to Manchester.

It cannot, however, be said that the Scots have been universally lauded along the way. Smith's stifling 4-5-1 formation led Lionel Messi to accuse his side of playing "anti-football" against Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League, while Louis van Gaal last week declared simply that: "Rangers are bad for football".

Yet while Fiorentina coach Cesare Prandelli also suggested that Rangers ill-merited their place in the final, remarking that "football sometimes awards teams that don't deserve it", Ferguson has once again been quick to leap to his old friend's defence.

"A very big part of management is to understand and work to the limitations and possibilities of your team and Walter has that," he said. "I know there has been criticism of the way Rangers have played so defensively in the European tournament. But that is part of his realistic assessment of his players' capabilities.

"Let me put it this way. What you're seeing from Rangers now is not necessarily what you'll be seeing a year or two from now. As his resources get better and he gets in other players, you'll see a re-shaping."

Smith himself is sanguine about the style critics' barbs. "If we're so bad, how come the teams saying these things can't beat us?" he asked. "I just hope they're still saying the same things about us on Thursday morning when we're the UEFA Cup winners."

Following in legendary footsteps
Should Smith succeed tomorrow evening, he will join Ferguson in an elite band of continent-conquering managers to hail from a small nation with a huge and long-established tradition of producing giants of the dugout.

From the halcyon days of Stein leading 11 young Scots to European Cup glory in 1967, through Bill Shankly and Sir Matt Busby's triumphs at Anfield and Old Trafford respectively, to Ferguson and George Graham's more recent exploits, Scots have held a long and fruitful association with UEFA's top club competitions.

At Ibrox, Willie Waddell is the man remembered for guiding the club to its only previous continental triumph: a 3-2 win over Dynamo Moscow in the final of the 1972 UEFA Cup Winners Cup. If, however, Zenit are seen off tomorrow, many believe Smith will surpass even Waddell to be remembered as Rangers' greatest-ever manager.

And nothing, save perhaps for a victory in Moscow next week, would delight Ferguson more.