WALTER Smith is one of the greatest Scottish managers of the last 30 years.
His achievements at Rangers were off the scale. Ten league titles, five Scottish Cups and six Scottish League Cups across two spells, plus the small matter of reaching a European Final. Quite simply, he’s one of the best managers Rangers have ever had.
But we also shouldn’t forget the role he had in restoring pride in the Scotland Men’s National Team during his two years at the helm.
Smith was appointed as Scotland manager in December 2004 with the team in disarray after the Berti Vogts reign. Picking up just two points from the first three matches of our Germany 2006 World Cup Qualifying campaign, and sitting at a worst ever world ranking of 88, Scotland really were at their lowest ebb. It was his first managerial job since being sacked by Everton in March 2002, which begs the question – why was he not brought in sooner?
When you look at Scotland’s remaining seven matches of the campaign, there is ample evidence to suggest that we could’ve achieved a playoff spot behind eventual World Champions Italy had Vogts been relieved of his duties after that 6-0 humiliation in Holland. Three wins, two draws and just two losses saw us finish just short of that second spot, and who knows what could’ve happened in those playoffs with momentum on our side.
Initially, Smith requested a squad get together instead of a friendly in order to build team spirit. He kept Celtic coach Tommy Burns on as his number two and brought in Ally McCoist as coach. The three formed an incredible bond that rubbed off on the players, and gradually the number of call offs for International duty would reduce such was the increased desire to play for their country again.
His first game saw us perform admirably against the Italians in Milan, where it required two superb free kicks from Andrea Pirlo to separate the sides. A 2-0 home win over Moldova on his first home match gave Smith his first win, which was followed a few days later with a 0-0 draw in Belarus, where Craig Gordon started to establish himself as first choice goalkeeper behind a solid back three of David Weir, Andy Webster and Steven Pressley.
Next up was Italy in front of a packed Hampden, something that would become a regular feature over the next couple of years. The place was rocking when Kenny Miller opened the scoring, and for long spells it looked like it would be enough to earn a famous victory. Unfortunately, Fabio Grosso netted an equaliser from close range with under ten minutes to play to salvage a draw for the Italians, who would go onto win the World Cup ten months later.
Rather than mope on what might have been, Scotland dusted themselves down for the must win game in Norway to keep alive their playoff hopes. It was an outstanding performance in Oslo and a double from Miller put the Scots two up at half time and, despite Norway pulling one back with a few minutes to go, they done enough to earn that crucial win. There was now real belief that we could win our last two matches and overhaul the Norwegians into second place, something that seemed impossible when Smith walked through the door.
Unfortunately, those hopes died with a forgettable performance in a 1-0 home defeat by Belarus. From memory, it was the one time that Smith’s tactics were called into question as he deployed a 4-1-4-1 formation in a must-win game against the pot five side in our group. We never recovered from losing a fifth minute goal and our plans for Germany were scuppered. The mood was lifted a few days later with another impressive away display, this time a resounding 3-0 win in Slovenia with three screamers from Darren Fletcher, James McFadden and Paul Hartley doing the job. That win prevented us from dropping into pot five for the forthcoming Euro 2008 qualifying draw.
Before we go onto Euro 2008, there was a trophy delivered in Smith’s reign at the end of the 2005/06 season. Despite being without Gordon, Pressley and Hartley due to Hearts involvement in the Scottish Cup Final, and without the Celtic contingent due to being involved in two testimonials (I’ll reserve my true thoughts for another day), Scotland thrashed Bulgaria 5-1 in the Kirin Cup thanks to debut doubles from Kris Boyd and Chris Burke, with a James McFadden strike sandwiched in between. A 0-0 draw with hosts Japan ensured the Scots won the group, and meant that the Kirin Cup would join the team on the flight home.
The Kirin Cup trip was good for building confidence ahead of the upcoming Euro qualifiers, and with the group we had been drawn in we bloody well needed it! In our group were an Italy side who won that summer's World Cup, the side the beat in the Final France, and a Ukraine side who reached the Quarter Finals in Germany. Add to that a tough Lithuania side, an unknown quantity in Georgia, and old foes Faroe Islands from Pot seven, then you have the ultimate group of death scenario.
First up was the Faroes at Celtic Park, moved from Hampden due to the Robbie Williams concert. Whilst sections of the Tartan Army sang an allegation about someone fat and round who stole their effing ground, Scotland were busy scoring goals. Five of them before half time courtesy of Fletcher, McFadden, two from Boyd (one penalty) and a Miller penalty. With tougher assignments to come, energy was conserved, meaning just the one second half goal from Garry O’Connor to round off the day. Three days later, it was off to Lithuania where we had issues in the past, a 0-0 draw in 1998 followed by a 1-0 loss in 2003. Christian Dailly and Kenny Miller ensured this time we would leave with a valuable three points in a 2-1 win.
Then came Smith’s finest hour as Scotland manager – 7 October 2006. You don’t need me to explain what happened that day when France, now ranked number one in the world having beaten Italy at the Stade de France, came to Hampden Park. If you want a brief summary, Thierry Henry hit the post, Craig Gordon made a few saves, France had a goal chopped off for offside, Gary Caldwell sticks a leg out onto Paul Hartley’s corner and we win 1-0. It was a truly memorable day and it was testament to the work Smith had done to restore the faith in a broken nation, the fear and trepidation had been replaced by hope and belief that we could take on the worlds best again.
With the energy sapped out of them, Scotland went to Ukraine and struggled, going down 2-0, but it was a mere bump in the journey, the bigger picture was we’d taken nine points out of twelve that included fixtures against two of our rivals for the two qualification spots available. The building blocks were in place, we had a good manager in place and a squad that was getting better and better. What could go wrong?
Paul Le Guen’s ill-fated spell as Rangers manager ended at the turn of the year, and there was only one man they could turn to in order to arrest the decline, and that man happened to be Walter Smith. Unfortunately from a Scotland point of view, there was only one job he would’ve considered leaving the National Team for, and that so happened to be his old club.
The general reaction from the Tartan Army was one of shock, anger and disappointment. The shock and anger that anyone would walk out on their country midway through a campaign, particularly one that had started so well, and disappointment given what he’d done to restore hope in our nation again. Up until his recent passing, there were still a number of Scotland fans who resented Smith for his decision. To be brutally honest, that number would have been much larger had Alex McLeish not come in and picked up the reigns in such a manner that the campaign became more memorable, albeit one with a painful ending against the Italians in the rain.
It is often discussed what could’ve happened had Walter Smith remained in charge for that campaign and whether or not we could’ve qualified for the finals in Austria and Switzerland. There are arguments that the Georgia result might not have happened under his stewardship, but we also may not have got that result in Paris either. It would also be unfair on McLeish to make that judgement given that he done a really hood job in his first spell at the helm.
What is unquestionable is that Walter Smith brought back respectability to the Scotland Mens National Team at a time when the media, some players and a lot of fans had long given up on them. To take the team from 88th to 24th in the world rankings within those two years was extraordinary, and the Scotland Supporters Club membership soared from around 15,000 to over 20,000, simply because he got them believing again.
That should be his legacy!