Walter Smith: Firm But Fair And Adored By His Players

It spoke to the class and selflessness of Walter Smith that when he left Everton, the Scot told the Club who should replace him as manager.

David Moyes was the best man for the job, insisted Smith.

Only Moyes feared treading on Smith’s toes. Moyes played for Smith in Scotland age-group teams and held the senior man in enormously high regard, was deferential, even.

“When I took the Everton job, I had to make sure he was giving me his blessing, that he was happy with that,” Moyes once said.

"I have always found him a really good guy. He will be one of the great Scottish managers, that's for sure.

"Every time I see him, I have to say: ‘How many trophies have you won? They are coming out of your ears, there are so many’.”

The answer to Moyes’ question about Smith’s trophy haul is 21, as a manager alone.

And Moyes, perhaps without realising, summed up the two distinct and separate strands of Walter Smith.

Everyone who encountered Smith, who has died at the age of 73, relates tales of a charming and warm and kind human being.

He was a winner, too. A proud and fiercely competitive, archetypal football man.

Smith emerged from the shadows to replace Graeme Souness as Rangers manager deep into the 1990/91 season.

The Ibrox club were neck-and-neck with Aberdeen in a Scottish title fight and on the final day beat their nearest rivals to win a third successive championship.

Smith, previously by Souness’ side for nearly five seasons, never looked back.

He skilfully moulded a Rangers side in his own image, blending flair and spirit with bloody-minded resilience.

Smith was chief architect of the club’s iconic nine-in-a-row – winning the league every season from his appointment until 1996/97 to complete nine successive campaigns of domestic supremacy for Rangers.

Alongside success in Scotland, the Smith-led Rangers jousted with the finest clubs on the continent and in 1992/93 were desperately unlucky to fall short of reaching the European Cup final after remaining undefeated in the competition.

High-profile players – Paul Gascoigne and Brian Laudrup, among them – flooded to Glasgow to play for Smith and grew to adore their personable but stern manager.

Smith’s ability to bring to heel the larger-than-life Gascoigne – and perform the same trick with countless big personalities in dressing rooms at Rangers and Everton – was indicative of a shrewd and empathetic character.

Everton’s appointment of Smith in summer 1998 – after he rejected interest from fellow Premier League club Sheffield Wednesday – was commonly viewed as a major coup.

Chairman Peter Johnson hailed the arrival of a manager with a “big club mentality”.

Smith would be hamstrung by limited transfer market clout during close to four years at Goodison Park but managed a period when Everton were navigating choppy waters with grace and persistence and professionalism.

There were tantalising glimpses of what could have been for Everton under Smith, arguably the right man at the wrong time for a club tightening its belt financially.

Perhaps the most famous game of Smith’s reign came in September 1999, a victory at Anfield that counted as a triumph for the skill and organisation and grit and belief of a team whose promise flickered only intermittently.

When Everton’s players reported for training the following morning they were ordered to slip on their trainers.

Smith walked his Merseyside derby winners into town, dressed in Everton tracksuits, for a cooked breakfast, eager that his squad felt the slaps on their backs and saw into the eyes of thrilled supporters.

It was the act of a man who grasped the meaning of football in his new city, who understood the Club’s connection with its fanbase.

Everton were irrepressible on occasions under Smith, demolishing Sunderland 5-0 at the dawn of Bill Kenwright’s chairmanship on Boxing Day 1999, beating Arsenal and Chelsea in successive weeks the following year and – four weeks after victory at Liverpool – sharing a pulsating 4-4 draw with Leeds United.

The inspired signing of striker Kevin Campbell late in Smith’s first season banished relegation fears and sparked a series of goal-laden performances, Everton notably scoring 10 times across two home games, against Charlton Athletic and West Ham United.

Stephen Hughes
Walter was such a lovely, old-school fella… you don’t get better than him.

Smith consistently lost key assets, however, preventing him from creating the culture and momentum he bred to such prolific ends at Rangers.

Ask any player who worked for Smith for an opinion on the man and the manager and the affection is palpable.

Stephen Hughes, signed from Arsenal by Smith in March 2000, recently recalled an unforgettable night out with his new boss on the eve of being unveiled as an Everton player.

Hughes’ memory of a man who was great fun over a drink tallies with those closest to Smith, who talk of a brusque public demeanour masking a kind and vibrant soul, at his happiest in good company. A bon viveur clad in iron.

Smith, said Hughes: “Was such a lovely, old-school fella… you don’t get better than him."

Ibrahima Bakayoko joined Smith’s Everton in October 1999 and, reliving time with his old boss last year, said: “Walter Smith was a very nice fellow, very charming.

“I was very impressed with him as a coach.

“He was a good ‘un.”

Richard Dunne was an Everton youngster making his way when Smith was manager.

The Irishman’s youthful scrapes positioned him in Smith’s crosshairs more than once but Dunne had only positive words about the pair's relationship.

“I really liked Walter, we got on well,” Dunne told Everton’s matchday programme this year.

“I had some misdemeanours and mistakes but Walter treated everyone fairly.

“Him and [assistant] Archie Knox were brilliant, great coaches and very good man mangers.”

Smith left Everton in March 2002 after 168 games in charge.

He was awarded an OBE for services to football in the Queen’s birthday honours list in 1997 and Smith’s standing in the game was reflected in his next appointment after Everton.

Richard Dunne
I had some misdemeanours and mistakes but Walter treated everyone fairly. Him and [assistant] Archie Knox were brilliant, great coaches and very good man mangers.

Sir Alex Ferguson asked his compatriot to assist him at Manchester United and the two men – who had formed Scotland’s managerial team at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico – won the FA Cup together in 2004.

Smith was the obvious candidate when Scotland needed a new manager in December 2004 and immediately turned around the national team’s fortunes.

He salvaged pride from an already ill-fated World Cup qualifying campaign by drawing with Italy.

In qualification for the subsequent European Championship, Smith’s Scotland beat World Cup finalists France and were heading a table also including Italy, when Rangers asked their former boss to return.

The pull of Ibrox was irresistible.

"I'm delighted to return to Rangers as manager, this team has always been in my blood,” said Smith.

He ushered in another period of unbroken success, winning three straight titles from 2008/09 and adding five domestic knockout cups for a personal haul of 11.

There was another memorable European campaign, too, Rangers reaching the club’s first continental final in 36 years in the 2007/08 UEFA Cup.

Stuart McCall
Walter treated you like a person and a man – there was mutual respect.

Smith’s final Scottish championship triumph in 2010/11 was Rangers' last until they won the 2020/21 Scottish Premiership.

Stuart McCall, who played for Rangers between 1991 and 1998, echoed Dunne’s view of Smith as a master of man management.

“He treated you like a person and a man – there was mutual respect,” said McCall.

McCall tells a story about his first away game with Rangers. Returning to the changing room at half-time with the team trailing 1-0 to Heart of Midlothian but far superior, McCall expected a simple ‘same-again’ message.

He sat wide-eyed as Smith stripped the paint off the walls, furious at what he perceived as an effort beneath the sky-high standards with which he would become synonymous.

In that element of his personality, Smith perhaps borrowed from Jim McLean, the combustible former Dundee United manager who invited his former player to begin coaching at Tannadice.

Smith, who was born in Lanark but grew up in Carmyle in Glasgow’s east end, trained as an electrician and worked for the South of Scotland Electricity Board.

Stuart McCall
There was time to enjoy the celebrations, none more than Walter and Archie, who would end up on the top of the tables, while I’d be under them.

A defender, his football career began with Glasgow non-league team Ashfield. Smith signed for Dundee United in 1966, initially combining sport with employment in his trade.

Reaching the 1974 Scottish Cup final represented the pinnacle of nine seasons playing with Dundee United.

He left for Dumbarton the following summer but returned two years later, Smith’s career ultimately curtailed by injury at 29.

Smith revealed last year how McLean colourfully sold the idea of coaching.

“He said to me one day in 1976-77,” began Smith: “‘At some stage in your career, you’ve got to face up to the fact of how good you are [as a player]. And let’s face it Walter — you’re s***e’.

“He then added: ‘But I think you’ve got a real talent as a coach, so would you be my coach?’”

Smith, who assisted Andy Roxburgh with Scotland’s Under-18 and Under-21 teams – winning the 1982 European Championship with the younger group – at the outset of his coaching career, got the taste for success alongside McLean and never lost it.

Dundee United were Scottish champions in 1982/83 and reached the following year’s European Cup semi-finals.

McCall added of his seven years with Smith at Rangers: “There was time to enjoy the celebrations, none more than Walter and Archie, who would end up on the top of the tables, while I’d be under them.”

Smith got to witness Rangers reclaim their title this year, a decade after overseeing a final-day victory at Kilmarnock in 2011 to lift his personal championship total into double figures.

His verdict 10 years ago was illustrative of a man who owned an unquenchable thirst for success.

“It’s always just a beginning,” said Smith. “You win a league championship and you start again.”

David Moyes had it right.

Walter Smith was a really good guy and one of the great Scottish managers.


Check out the latest Everton player stats