The Scottish popular press has a slavish adoration of good old Uncle Walter, sycophantically portrayed as the ‘elder statesman’ of Scottish football. The grey haired avuncular Smith is everybody’s idea of the ideal manager. Except that is, when you examine his record carefully.
Any fair, objective analysis of Walter Smith’s managerial record will conclude that he is a mediocre figure. Beyond the parochial borders of Scotland, Smith’s record at European level is nothing sort of disastrous. His calamitous campaigns in the mid -ninety nineties have been conveniently consigned to oblivion. He did at that time have several very talented players at his disposal, and yet that did not prevent his teams from receiving very public and painful humiliations.
The aggregate 8-1 defeat against Juventus gives us some idea of Smith’s real tactical ability. Also, the Ajax dismemberment of Rangers in Amsterdam lives long in the memory. This was merely 4-1, but could have gone well into double figures if the truth be told. The return leg in Glasgow had Smith ordering his players not to stray over the half way line, lest the flying Dutchmen cut them apart. Here was the origin of the ‘anti-football’ that has so characterized Walter Smith’s career. He was so traumatized by his first experiences in Europe that fear became his trademark, setting out with an ultra cautious approach.
Not that time did him much good, fifteen years after the batterings in Europe, history repeated itself. Rangers were trashed at home this season by mediocre opposition, including a Rumanian pub team team which somehow contrived to score four goals in Glasgow. Rangers achieved the astonishing feat of obtaining just two points in probably the weakest of the CL groups. Just what had Smith learned in those fifteen years of European experience? Not a lot if the truth be told.
If Smith failed miserably in Europe, then surely we have to recognize his domestic achievements? Once again, we can look at his ‘success’ through different eyes as recent data reveals. In the nineties when Smith took over, the massive and insane spending sanctioned by David Murray was about to take off. He was able to buy the likes of Michael Laudrup and Paul Gascoigne, whereas Celtic and the rest just could not compete financially. There was no even playing field, despite the fact that under Tommy Burns, Celtic often played some magical, positive football. Even with a huge financial imbalance, Smith’s teams often refused to take risks and would sit back for eighty minutes and defend, waiting for the break away goal.
If this is sour grapes don’t take my word for it, just listen to none other than Lionel Messi. This is what the best footballer in the world said in October 2007, after a frustrating evening at Ibrox.
“It’s incredible,” he said. “Rangers didn’t want to play football. They practised anti-football from the first minute and it’s a shame we couldn’t take victory because we created a good number of chances. We just didn’t put them away. I think that when they come to the Camp Nou everything is going to be very different.”
Messi was of course right on two counts, Rangers did get shown up for the talentless sods they were in the Nou Camp. However, his second point is the more substantial point. Football is entertainment, it is something to be enjoyed not endured. Deliberately setting out to kill the game drives people away from the game.
So why is Walter Smith’s team champions of Scotland? Because Celtic were so poor, that is the simple truth of the answer. Tony Mowbray failed abysmally, and although Neil Lennon might not be the answer, he has even in a relatively short period of time managed to get a much better performance from the same players. When Big Tony spoke of his ‘philosophy’ I used to cringe, just as I cringe when other managers make the same crass statement. Only Philosophers have philosophies.
Jock Stein never waxed lyrical about his philosophy, instead he had a very clear idea of how football should be played. Always going forward, occasionally sideways but never backwards. Ball played to feet and never hoisted into the skies. It was simple really. If players didn’t subscribe to his game plan, they didn’t get picked.
There is also the bizarre theory that Smith gets results because of the fact that he is a “Rangers man”. By that same logic, Celtic should have walked the SPL this season because they had ‘Mr Celtic’, Peter Grant in the dugout!
Smith owes some of his success more to a series of disgraceful decisions by corrupt officials, who are probably bigger Rangers men than Smith himself.
To sum up, in our quest to find a new Celtic manager, our starting point should not be to find a Celtic equivalent of Walter Smith. We want somebody who is clear headed and experienced, and does not come to the club with wooly philosophies and no track record. Equally, going for a Celtic minded option is not necessarily the best answer.