Admittedly, Smithy’s second spell at Dundee United was more for show due to an injury – Jim McLean had brought him back to be a coach. No doubt mizerly Jim is where he learned his famed “dignity”. And it’s as a coach that Smithy is best known of course. A few years of working for Dundee United shouting at and, according to Kevin Gallacher, occasionally punching the younger players got him noticed by the SFA. He lead Scotland’s Under 18s to victory at the European Championships in 1982 and was then promoted to the Under 21s. When Jock Stein’s untimely death left Alex Ferguson in charge of the full team for the World Cup in 1986, he called on Smithy to be his assistant.
It must have been cosy out in Mexico, because assistant Smithy and player Souness ended up working together after it. With Souness taking over as player manager at Rangers, he wanted some experience as his assistant. Smithy was that man, and Souness offered him his first chance to abandon his country. Five years later when Souness himself was the one doing the abandoning as he left Rangers for Liverpool in 1991, Smithy stepped up to continue where Souness had left off. Two league titles in a row, lots of money already spent at the club, no one else in Scotland able to spend any money at all… who wouldn’t take on an easy job like that?
The seasons that followed saw Rangers spend big. £50 million was spent over seven years – more than anyone in the fledgling Sky funded English Premiership, let alone Scotland. With such a gulf in spending success in Scotland was pretty much guaranteed. So it is on the European stage that Rangers should really be measured.
Smithy’s first crack at Europe came against Sparta Prague in 1991. They lost on away goals. The following season saw the first group stages introduced to the European Cup, and while Rangers were able to beat off Lyngby of Denmark and then their lesser spending English counterparts Leeds United, the place in the group stage that those wins resulted in was a disappointment. Of the six games Rangers played, four of them ended in draws. Sure, they may have been undefeated. But with Marseille winning three of their games, Smithy’s team missed out on further progression in the tournament.
That last eight was the best Smithy would ever manage in Europe’s top competition. In the seasons that followed, Levski Sofia, AEK Athens and IFK Gothenburg – hardly giants of the game – stood between Rangers and the group stages of the newly christened Champions League. When Smithy’s team did manage to sneak past the big names in number of letters only of Anorthosis Famagusta and Alania Vladikavkaz and into the group stages they were habitually embarrassed. Scudded 4-1 and 4-0 by Juventus in 1995, finishing bottom of the group. Scudded 4-1 by Ajax and 3-0 by Grasshoppers Zurich in 1996, finishing bottom of the group.
It was on this very subject that the infamous interview by Chick Young came around. The day after another poor night in Europe, Smithy savaged the interviewer for suggesting (maybe even begging) that the big money signings weren’t enough and Rangers would need to spend even more. Smithy objected to this saying that Brian Laudrup and Basile Boli had come from the big teams they weren’t competing with and they were clearly good enough. As everyone knows, to be a top team you only need two quality players. A volley of profanities followed as the dignity mask slipped to reveal the true inner nature of Smithy.
For all the money that was being spent, the holy grail of Europe’s biggest prize was almost as far away as it had been when Celtic were winning nine in a row. Of course, back home, Rangers were doing their own nine in a row domestically. If they couldn’t win in Europe, they were doing so in Scotland. During a period where Celtic nearly went to the wall, Rangers almost managed back to back trebles. Unfortunately for Smithy, his old team of Dundee United spoiled the party by winning their first Scottish Cup in 1994. Annoying when that happens, isn’t it?
But Smithy’s crowning triumph would surely come when he would help Rangers win that tenth title in a row – beating that nine in a row record held by Celtic. Smithy’s ten would coincide with his final season in charge of Rangers, and he would ride off into the sunset on his white horse. Celtic had changed their manager yet again, and Rangers would sweep the board for Smithy. Everything was in place.
What Smithy didn’t count on was Celtic proving that you can spend all the money in the world, but there are still bargains to be found. While Smithy spent a full £13 million on players in an effort to secure the ten, Celtic spent £650,000 on a man named Henrik Larsson. Henrik helped Celtic secure the League Cup that season, and later he would help Celtic win their first title in ten years. I believe he went on to do some more good things for Celtic after that too. But this is about Smithy and he would never again face the man in dreadlocks that had ruined his leaving party. Smithy’s plan fell apart completely and he finished his final season in charge at Rangers without a single trophy when Hearts turned up and took the Scottish Cup off them as well. All the more galling when that final was played at Celtic Park.
While Smithy’s originally plan was to retire, it didn’t last long. He was immediately called up by Everton to bring his vast wealth of experience to the English game. Everton had narrowly avoided relegation the previous season and were looking to build themselves back up to the club they once were. It didn’t transpire. Without the backing of a board willing to near-bankrupt themselves to fund his team, Everton under Smithy continued to finish in the bottom half of the Premiership. When relegation was once again a major threat in 2002, Smithy was sacked. David Moyes, another Scotsman but of a Celtic persuasion, was brought in to save the club from relegation. Moyes did just that with ease before pushing on and taking Everton back up the table for the first time in years.
You would think that abject failure would have been the end for Smithy. The retirement he had planned in 1998 was now a lot easier to put in place when nobody wants you in 2002. And for a while, he stayed away from the game. But when his old boss at Scotland came chapping his door in March 2004 for a temporary tea boy, Smithy was on his way to Manchester United. It was only for a couple of months while Sir Awex got a real assistant, but it kept Smithy busy for a while. It may also have reminded him about the national team, because when the Scotland job was offered to him later that year he took it.
Berti Vogts had been a nightmare of epic proportions for Scotland. The team were awful and hadn’t qualified for anything since the World Cup in 1998. So practically anything would have been an improvement. Still, having got off to a poor start under Vogts, that continued under Smithy. Defeat to Italy was expected. Defeat to Belarus at Hampden was not. No World Cup for Scotland. Smithy stayed on into the Euro 2008 qualifiers, and took on what looked like an impossible task. With both World Cup finalists to face in France and Italy, as well as the quarter finalists Ukraine, Scotland were expecting nothing. But Smithy would give it his best and see it out to the end, wouldn’t he?
Scudding the Faroes 6-0 at Celtic Park was a great start, but when France showed up at Hampden and were defeated 1-0, Scotland suddenly felt like they had a chance. Defeat away to Ukraine was disappointing, but there was still a lot of hope throughout the nation. At least there was until Smithy abandoned his country for a second time in his career.
At the start of 2007, Rangers were dire. Really, truly hopeless. They’d lost to St Johnstone in the League Cup at Ibrox and were more than a dozen points behind leaders Celtic in the league. The Celtic fans were singing about having won the league before the clocks went back. Yes, Rangers were dire. Paul Le Guen had been a disaster as manager and had been sacked. So the call had gone out for Smithy to return home. Never mind that he was doing his bit for his country. No, Rangers are far more important than the hopes and dreams of an entire nation. So Smithy returned to Ibrox once more – just after interim manager Ian Durrant had ensured Rangers were also out of the Scottish Cup to Dunfermline – and Scotland eventually missed out on Euro 2008 as well. Thanks for that Smithy, the Tartan Army had been ramping up their Doe a Deer practicing for going to Austria too. Shame.
Rangers was not the same place Smithy had left eight and a half years earlier. Money was now tighter than one of Smithy’s cardigans. Celtic were the dominant force in Scotland, and Rangers were out of both domestic cups and more or less out of the league too. The only thing that remained was Europe, but with Smithy returning so did his European record and Europe quickly disappeared too. But a few months of preliminary work set Rangers up for the 2007/08 season and Smithy’s first full season back in charge.
This was to be Smithy’s finest hour. Being truly terrible in the Champions League in his first stint was impressive, but in this campaign he stepped it up. To take seven points from the first three games and still fail to qualify for the latter stages takes some doing. But three defeats in the final three games ensured just that, and Rangers dropped down to the UEFA Cup where the team went on a run of boring draws to the final. Smithy’s brand of “lets not get humped” football paid dividends as the hordes of Rangers fans invaded Manchester for the final. Unfortunately for them, Smithy’s successor at Rangers, Dick Advocaat – a man who somehow managed to spend even more money than Smithy – was in charge of the team that would win the final that night.
Meanwhile domestically, the league title appeared to be going Smithy’s way in April, but the plan to postpone games during the Champions League campaign in an effort to help Rangers progress backfired spectacularly. Not only did Rangers lose 3-0 at home at Lyon immediately following that postponement, but a grueling number of games at the end of the season – and beyond thanks to a small extension to the SPL – took its toll and Smithy’s Rangers lost the league to Celtic on the final Thursday night.
Smithy would not be denied though. If the UEFA Cup run had caused a fixture pileup in 2008, it would not happen again in 2009. Rangers were duly dumped out of Europe at the earliest possible opportunity by FBK Kaunas, freeing them up to concentrate on their domestic campaign which saw them win the league on the final day of the season.
Another league title followed in 2010 as Celtic’s attempts at not heading down the same anti-football path hit a few road bumps. This distraction for Celtic allowed Rangers to return to the European stage to once more finish bottom of their Champions League group. A 2-0 home defeat to Stuttgart as well as two much heavier 4-1 home defeats to Sevilla and the lesser known Unirea Urziceni saw Rangers finish with a record Scottish low of just 2 points, therefore surpassing any dismal performance put in during his first period in charge at Rangers.
Neil Lennon’s return to Celtic as manager ensured that Celtic’s bumps would be smoothed out. Lennon’s beginning coincided with Smith’s ending as he once more announced his intention to stand down as Rangers manager. In his second “final season” at Rangers, Smithy failed to record any wins over Celtic at home and had to set the best points total in his career. This was in part thanks to a lenient and understanding SFA not banning any of his maddened stars. The SFA themselves undergoing an “end of an era” feeling as they were shown up for being the dinosaurs they were. So unlike departure number one, there would be no retiring Bobby “Broken Watch” Tait to screw up the title party this time.
And so, Smithy once more departs down the marble staircase. Having got a second attempt at leaving and not made a pig’s ear of it this time, where will he go next? Will the English league give him a second attempt at getting a big name relegated? Will the antique SFA throw one final curve ball before change sweeps over them and grant him the chance to turn his back on Scotland for a third time in his career? Or will the old media who love him so dearly give him a job so they can continue their brown nosing?
Only time will tell.