Rangers FC is one of the most respected and well known clubs across the world, and its manager enjoys an exalted status among the supporters, subject however to the club’s performance. However, the respect and support that Walter Smith commands is something that only a few managers across the globe can. How does one earn that respect? Winning three league titles on the bounce with no financial support is a start, and a good one at that.
The rivalry that Rangers share with Celtic is very well publicized and the fanatical extremist support that both clubs possess often leads to sectarian violence. Working in such testing conditions can take its toll on the best of managers, with Neil Lennon being the most recent example. The fact that Smith has been able to survive all the turmoil behind the scenes at the club, and command respect from supporters all across the country, whilst performing his job to the best of his abilities showcases his managerial pedigree and the dignity with which he approaches his duties.
The club’s financial troubles have shown in the recent transfer dealings, with the club failing to attract top class players, and the manager having to look far and wide for low price deals to bring in players that can help the club compete at a level befitting its rich tradition and culture.
Rangers possess a youth academy that produces talented young professionals on a constant basis. However, great talent draws the attention of predatory eyes of clubs from England; clubs that spend a lot of money to grab young talent from across the globe. Seeing the likes of Alan Hutton and Danny Wilson move across the border to join big English clubs would have been an eyesore for Rangers, especially when the transfer fee could not be reinvested in bringing players into the club. Alan Hutton has had a hard time maintaining his position in the Spurs starting lineup, while Danny Wilson is yet to play a game of substantial importance for Liverpool.
Losing their young players to foreign clubs was the clearest sign yet to the owners to mend the club’s finances, and coupled with their inability to compete globally in the transfer market, rendered the team very weak to compete for honors. The current graduates from the youth academy have shown great promise, and the manager has begun the process of integrating them into the first team. Kyle Hutton and John Fleck are now important members of the first team squad, and are sure to play important roles in the coming season. It is now the club management’s prerogative to maintain good standards in the youth academy, work to preserve and protect their young players’ interests, and allow their development to continue at their home club.
In Smith’s tenure, the club has emerged stronger for the loss of players such as Charlie Adam, Barry Ferguson and Kris Boyd. Adam was behind all the good for Blackpool this year, and Rangers lost him for a very meager fee two years back. With his current form, Adam would have been a perfect fit for the current Rangers team, considering that they do suffer for the lack of a genuine box to box midfielder with creative abilities. Having lost him out due to indifferent form and possible attitude issues would count as one of the low points of Smith’s reign.
Ferguson was one of the most influential and outspoken individuals at the club, and his captaincy had a stabilizing effect on the team. However, with his increasingly difficult to deal with attitude, exemplified by his behavioral problems while on national duty with Scotland (the Scots do like to have a drink), led him to being stripped of his captaincy by the club, and the following summer he left the club to join Birmingham City. The club stood right behind Smith during this period, and the team is now more united as a result.
Boyd, on the other hand, presents a different case altogether; with him not being happy at Rangers (despite being the top goal getter), and wanting to try his luck in England. His form in England has been poor to say the least, and he is now on loan at Nottingham Forest, finding first team opportunities hard to come by. In hindsight, the decision to allow him to move on was correct on the team’s part, and the club has been able to find suitable replacements.
Talking about the club’s transfer dealings, the club had to wait for two years to buy its first player since 2008, and the player in question was James Beattie! Not the ideal transfer signing you expect following a hiatus. Adding Beattie to the team just added to the wage bill, and he is now at Blackpool on loan.
Credit has to be given to Smith for exploring all possible avenues for players of the caliber of Rangers, and he has been successful, with signings such as Steven Davis, Madjid Bougherra, Maurice Edu and Nikica Jelavic justifying his trust in them. The loan signings of Vladimir Weiss and El-Hadji Diouf were shrewd deals (albeit the second one was a huge gamble); with the club getting some much needed depth and guile in the wide positions.
The lack of stability in the team composition is due to the continuous sales of successful and important members such as Kenny Miller and Pedro Mendes, which cripples the team in European competition, as the depth in the squad is not good enough for the club to perform well continuously. Losing out on a player like Kris Commons, to their fierce rivals Celtic, does not bode well for the club, as it reflects the lack of confidence players see when approached by the club.
Smith’s record as Rangers manager following his return to the club has been nothing short of brilliant. He continued the good work done by Paul le Guen in Europe, guiding the club to the UEFA cup finals in 2007, and building on that with three successive SPL titles. He has also helped the club constantly evolve, epitomized by the club’s 5-4-1 formation in this year’s Champions League. Although used by him mostly in away games, it helped offset the team’s overall lack of quality and depth across the field, using his team’s strong defense to wear opponents down, and play on the counter to try and snatch results. The fact that he is still able to find a place for the 41-year-old David Weir in the centre of the defense is befuddling one and all, and allows him to get away with the fact that Weir has been as slow as a tortoise for the best part of a decade now.
His decision to step down after the season has gone by will see his protégé Ally McCoist take over the reins of the team. McCoist is known for having a strong personality (has already clashed with Lennon), and will be a good fit with the team, given both his man-management skills and his status as a great striker for the team during his playing career.
The club’s takeover is a step in the right direction, and although the new owner’s intentions are not yet clear, there is optimism among the club’s fans that the seasons to come will see the club compete for top honors, with proper investment in the squad. It is up to the team management and the boardroom now to figure out the correct way of going forward, and ensure that Walter Smith’s legacy is honored, and in the proper manner. One way, perhaps, to go forward is to give Walter Smith a position in the club management, to make sure the team integration in the adjustment period goes smoothly.
After all, once a bluenose, always a bluenose.
– Vinay Sundar
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