Monday, May 16, 2011

SPL: Walter Smith Says Goodbye To Winning Rangers

13 years ago today Walter Smith took his leave of Rangers. After season upon season of success his reign fizzled out.

Wim Jansen led Celtic to the league title, stalling Smith's Rangers on nine championships in a row.

In Smith's final game Hearts took the Scottish Cup with a 2-1 victory. Rangers consolation that day came from Ally McCoist.

That McCoist was prevailed upon from the bench to try and save the game was evidence of an ageing squad finally losing the winning habit.

Having pre-announced his departure, Smith was unable to engineer a glorious farewell.

But Smith seemed to have few regrets. As he got to terms with surviving in the Premiership on a restrictive budget at Everton and as he brought a new belief to Scotland he seemed content.

Doubters still sniped at the scale of his achievements at Rangers but he gradually settled into the role of one of Scottish football's sagely father figures.

And then Rangers felt themselves hitting the skids. Suddenly Ibrox needed a sagely father figure.

The call went out. And, to the dismay of the Tartan Army, Smith responded.

Maybe he did feel there was unfinished business. Maybe a distress call from his first was love was too much to resist.

Whatever his reasons Smith took the job.

And when he raised the SPL trophy yesterday he provided a winning final sentence to the valedictory chapter of his SPL career.

The trophy collection has grown. Three more championships, two Scottish Cups and another three League Cups. And a UEFA Cup final appearance thrown in for good measure.

And he's done it against an ever changing backdrop of uncertainty. From the riots in Manchester before that European final to the ongoing controversy over an unreconstructed songbook, Smith's own supporters have given the manager more than just football to contend with.

His board have been often divided, the financial repercussions of mismanagement have bitten hard and this season's league win came after one of football's more protracted - at times farcical - takeover sagas.

This year, of course, a lunatic fringe has added a whole new level of rancour to life in the Old Firm bubble.

If nothing else Smith is presumably content that his hair already given up the battle and turned resolutely silver before he wandered back to Govan.

He's persevered through all this with his sense of humour and his dignity intact. It would however be wrong to depict him as Saint Walter, forever above the fray.

Smith's passion has remained strong, his desire to win has never left him. He's not been above mind games or of a little bit of media manipulation. Experience has made him a master of keeping his powder dry when it's sensible to do so, making his occasional strikes against his own board, the opposition or the authorities more effective.

Most importantly he's kept delivering on the pitch. At times this season Rangers have looked lacklustre, the squad lacking depth, some ageing limbs creaking, some important performers haunted by a loss of form.

They lost the season's top goalscorer in January, Kenny Miller's departure coming just months after Kris Boyd moved south. Rangers, Scottish football's very own Bank of Govan, had built their house on the same sand as Fred Goodwin.

It is important to raise the counterpoint that even in penury Ibrox had a financial clout that only Celtic could match. Rangers accounts may have crashed back to earth but there was no levelling of our mountainous playing field.

But there was a rising in the east to contend with. Neil Lennon had a new squad at Celtic, one which brimmed with quality and which drew from it's manager a very clear understanding of exactly what this two horse title race means.

Worringly for Rangers it also began to look like Celtic had built a side that could ruthlessly exploit their opponents weaknesses.

Smith kept calm and carried on. The League Cup was won at the expense of Celtic. The final Old Firm league clash was billed as a must win. Rangers snaffled a point that now looks priceless.

When Celtic, as teams with little experience of closing out a title are wont to do, were tripped up by an obstacle delivered straight from the cool Highland night sky, Rangers were poised to take ruthless advantage.

Noting the size of the points target Celtic had set, Neil Lennon paid tribute to Smith's achievement.

And how.

Not since 2004/05 when Alex McLeish and Rangers pipped Martin O'Neill's Celtic by a single point have the SPL champions amassed the 93 points that Smith won this year.

That, of course, stands as an indictment of the other ten teams. But it's still a hell of goodbye from Smith. Somehow he's cajoled and demanded better of his team when they looked like they were down and out.

Crucially he's also never let them lose that winning habit - an annoying habit if you're sat in the SPL's cheap seats - of not losing too many points when they are playing badly.

Do the hardships make the final triumph sweeter? Maybe they were always going to be sweet enough.

Smith broke the rule about never going back. And still he came out on top. Not for the first time he broke another rule by announcing his intended departure. This time fate did not leave him without a trophy.

Rangers now take a step into the unknown reign of Craig Whyte and Ally McCoist. It's Smith's legacy that they do so as champions.

Smith's future is uncertain. We won't see him in the SPL again. Will an English club come calling? Will there be an effort to build bridges with the SFA to pave the way for a role with the governing body?

Yesterday Neil Lennon said: "If I was to lose to anyone, it would be Walter Smith."

That spoke volumes for their relationship and for the enduring bonds that can be forged in the centre of Glaswegian footballing madness.

You do wonder, however, if Smith glances across the city and sees the evil insanity that has surrounded Lennon this season and thinks that the golf course rather than the football pitch is now more deserving of his attention.

If this is the end, then it's a triumphant end. An unlikely return topped with what had looked an unlikely championship.

Frank Sinatra never said goodbye quite as well as this.

> An encore? Various members of the fourth estate are hinting at tomorrow's newspapers carrying some choice words about Celtic from Walter Smith.

As I mentioned. He keeps his powder dry before launching a broadside. And the rumours are at this one has been brewing. It could be an interesting day.