Walter Smith

01 Apr 2011

WALTER SMITH OBE: THE RETURNING HERO

Few managers find success when they return to a club for a second spell – but then few managers are Walter Smith OBE.

The history of football management is littered with examples of managers returning to scenes of their former glories, only to find that, contrary to the sentiment of the old Frank Sinatra song, things aren’t always sweeter the second time around.

In fact, it’s hard to think of a returning manager who has matched their initial success... or at least it used to be, until Walter Smith went back to Rangers.

When Smith agreed to leave his position as the Scottish national team manager in January 2007 to return to Rangers, the club he supported all his life and with which he had achieved extraordinary success in the 1990s, most pundits expected the pattern of second-time management to be repeated.

Not only had Smith set himself high standards (he’d won seven SPL titles, three Scottish Cups and three League Cups in his first seven-year spell), but he was also returning to a club in a vastly different financial situation to the one he’d left in 1998.

Smith, however, didn’t see his return to Rangers as an opportunity to fail; instead, he saw it as exactly what it was... an opportunity to test himself under an entirely different set of circumstances. This time around, he wasn’t taking the reins of an already successful operation, nor was he going to be in a position to attract big-name players to the club, like he had in the 1990s (when the likes of Paul Gascoigne and Brian Laudrup moved to Glasgow and pulled on the famous blue shirt).

In fact, the club’s financial position became so limiting during his second stint as manager that he was unable to sign any players for a two-year period. But despite the club’s reduced circumstances, Smith once again worked his Rangers magic. In the first full season of his second spell, Rangers lifted both Scottish Cups and, more remarkably, reached their first European final for more than 35 years (losing 2-0 in the UEFA Cup final to Zenit St Petersburg – who were managed, ironically, by the man who had succeeded Smith when he left Rangers to take over at Everton, Dick Advocaat).

The following season, Rangers finally wrested the SPL trophy back from their biggest rivals Celtic, who had held it for the previous three seasons. In all, in the first three full seasons of Smith’s return, Rangers won six of the nine domestic trophies available to them.

Now, however, Smith’s second Rangers adventure is drawing to a close. Before the beginning of this season he announced that it was to be his last as Rangers manager. The club has since announced that Smith will be succeeded by his assistant, Ally McCoist.

Smith sat down to talk to The Manager with the Scottish League Cup already secured and his team still going toe to toe with Celtic for the SPL title.

But even if Rangers don’t manage to retain the championship for a third season running, there can be no doubt that, for once, this ‘second time around’ appointment was good for both club and manager.

You’ve always said that the Rangers manager’s job is simple… you just have to win every game. Is that still the case?

It’s becoming the same in all Leagues. In Scotland we have two big teams, Rangers and Celtic. If you look at England in recent seasons there have been maybe four or five teams that have been at the top of the League consistently. They’re in the same situation as Rangers and Celtic; they’re expected to win every game that they play in and if they don’t they have a problem.

I always mention Rangers and Celtic together because I think that they go hand in hand; the pressures on both clubs are exactly the same. Even when we qualify for Europe, whether we’re playing Barcelona or anyone else, we’re still expected to win, because that’s just the way things are in Scotland. So the advice I would give to anybody taking over as manager of Rangers or Celtic would be the same... just win.

Has the club’s difficult financial position required you to develop new managerial skills?

When I first came back to Rangers the circumstances were slightly different to how they subsequently became, because we were still investing in the team at that point. At the end of my first season back the club was struck, like a whole lot of other clubs, with a serious financial problem because of the overall downturn. Fortunately, I had reasonable experience of handling financial problems from my time at Everton, where we had one financial crisis when the chairman left and another when our major sponsor withdrew its support. That experience helped me a great deal, as I have been able to use my experience to handle it in a far better manner than I was able to do then.

In October 2009 you revealed the extent of the club’s financial constraints and later that your entire squad was up for sale. Was this so that the fans and players would understand what was behind the decisions that you were making?

When we were told that we had financial problems and that, effectively, every one of our players was to be put up for sale, I felt it was important to be straight with the players right away. So I held a meeting and explained the financial situation to them; how we had to make everybody available for transfer and why expiring contracts weren’t being renewed. The overall picture has to be explained, because the supporters and media are always quick to decide who’s to blame for making decisions they don’t agree with. I think that people in football nowadays, if they have got a problem financially, then they should tell people that. Supporters pay an awful lot of money towards the club’s wellbeing and if that money is not getting spent in the manner that they would like, then they have got a right to know why.

How closely have you had to work with the chief executive, Martin Bain, to steer the club through this period of financial instability?

Martin and I take care of the day-to-day running of the club and he’s been fantastic in helping me handle the overall situation. It’s been a hard time for him as well; keeping everything going and making sure that we remain competitive on the field, while still trying to juggle the banks and other financial aspects in the background.

Have there been any positives? For example, has the fact that you’ve not been able to strengthen the squad brought the existing players together?

That’s one thing that I never realised would happen. When we put everyone up for sale, effectively every player was in a similar situation. We’ve had a squad of players that’s been more or less the same for two full seasons and that’s created a terrific bond, which, as much as anything, has helped us through the situation. It has happened by accident to some extent, but it has been a factor in the team remaining successful despite the off-field problems.

Given your contrasting financial positions, your away draw with Manchester United in this season’s Champions League was impressive, yet you were criticised for adopting negative tactics. But when José Mourinho used similar tactics to win the same competition last season, he was applauded. Does that frustrate you?

That aspect of it is a little bit frustrating. It was similar to when we reached the UEFA Cup final and we were criticised for being defensive. I admire José Mourinho. I think the way he sets his teams out is excellent and he’s been a fantastic – and very successful – coach. I have always done what I thought was best for the team and I make no excuses for that. I think in the circumstances that we have been operating in we’ve done okay. You do get a little bit disappointed that maybe people don’t have the overall understanding of why we do things a certain way – and that it’s out of necessity, not by choice. But that’s management... we get paid to make decisions that we hope are successful for our clubs and we get on with it.

There seems to be a general perception that you’re retiring from football when you leave Rangers in May; can you clarify that?

When you leave a job at 63 everyone assumes that it’s because of your age. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I am going to retire. If the right opportunity arose elsewhere, then of course I would consider it. I’ve had opportunities to go back to England on a couple of occasions, the most recent being at the start of this season. It was a good Barclays Premier League Club, but I didn’t think that it was right to leave Rangers when I had just agreed to stay for one more season.

What would you like the legacy of your second spell to be?

I would hope that my legacy this time would be that I have brought back a level of success and that I have been able to guide the club through a very, very turbulent period and still managed to win some trophies.