The Scottish game from the Borders to the Highlands & Islands and beyond
Over the last week, the SPL’s final weekend was regularly billed as ‘dramatic’ as Rangers and Celtic were to scrap it out to the death for the title – but it seems nobody told Rangers.
Within eight minutes, the Ibrox men were 3-0 up and cruising against Kilmarnock and all the pre-match nerves – from fans of both Old Firm sides – had evaporated, with one set starting the party early, while the others were forced to grin and bear what seemed more like a wake.
Walter Smith bows out of Rangers with his tenth league title in total over his two spells and exits in a much happier fashion than he did first time round, when he suffered the disappointment of missing out on ten-in-a-row before losing the Scottish Cup final to Hearts in 1998.
What was a little startling was Smith’s revelation in the build-up to the Kilmarnock game that he had been sacked “in a nice way” by then chairman David Murray at the end of his first spell at Ibrox, although he insisted he was leaving on his own terms this time.
He said: “This is my decision to go. It wasn’t my decision alone to leave in 1998: Sir David [Murray] always sacks you quite nicely! This time it was my decision. It has been made by me and I go into my last game hoping we are going to win it to keep our run going.”
As many have recalled, it seemed his initial decision to leave 13 years ago was his as Celtic were galvanised under Wim Jansen and with Henrik Larsson in the side to prevent what would have been an historic ten titles on the spin.
In 2011, it may be only three titles on the trot, but this is arguably Walter Smith’s greatest triumph in the face of ever decreasing money and constant sales of top performers. They say you should never go back. Walter has more than bucked that trend.
The last manager to “go back” was Jock Wallace, who won three league titles, three Scottish Cups and two League Cups in his first Ibrox spell between 1972 and 1978. He returned in 1983 with the club very much in the shadow of Celtic and Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen and could only add another League Cup to his roll of honour, before being moved on in favour of Graeme Souness in 1986.
It can be argued when Walter was brought back in the wake of the disastrous Paul Le Guen “era”, Rangers were already at their lowest ebb. But he soon started putting the pride back into the side, not only culminating in the side winning three in a row, but he’s won two further Scottish Cups and three League Cups, not to mention reached the UEFA Cup Final in 2008.
This latest success will be the best of all and after all the build-up and talk of “Helicopter Sunday” – as the broadcast media tend to label the SPL’s final day – Rangers seemed to stroll it in running out 5-1 winners over Kilmarnock.
This season in particular he had to get the very best out of every player at his disposal. Kenny Miller weighed in with 21 goals, left for Turkey in January and still ended up SPL’s top scorer, Nikica Jelavic suffered a bad injury and missed parts of the season, but still scored his fair share and Allan McGregor was again outstanding in goal.
That’s before you even get to 41-year-old captain David Weir, Steven Davis and a much improved Kyle Lafferty and he deserves great credit in dragging these guys over the line and on to another title party. He wouldn’t say whether this one was the best of all, but privately, you’d think it would be.
Now he leaves the club as a winner and the feeling the toil and the stress of it all has been worth it in the end. It’s been widely assumed Walter will now step into retirement. But don’t rule a managerial return in some capacity any time soon.
Who knows, he may fancy a return to England and finish whatever business he started at Everton.
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