Home Sport Rangers legend Walter Smith reveals all on the Old Firm ahead of...

Rangers legend Walter Smith reveals all on the Old Firm ahead of first derby of the season


Much as there is a measure to define toughness in minerals, a gauge for wind speed, and a means of quantifying the strength of earthquakes, there is a way to convey the gut-wrenching significance of Old Firm matches.

‘I won’t give you the precise details,’ says Walter Smith, whose relationship with the fixture stretches back to the 1950s. ‘But Old Firm day necessitated more toilet breaks pre-match. I could tell you how many, but won’t.

‘There was a nervousness always before the game. If you are in charge of Rangers, or even as assistant, there is a responsibility on you that day and you can’t escape that.’

Walter Smith has highlighted the importance of desire ahead of this weekend's Old Firm clash

Walter Smith has highlighted the importance of desire ahead of this weekend’s Old Firm clash

Celtic will battle with Rangers for the first time this season at Parkhead behind closed doors

Celtic will battle with Rangers for the first time this season at Parkhead behind closed doors 

The Glasgow derby roars back to life on Saturday, albeit in a near deserted stadium. 

Smith, at 72, is a practised guide in how it continues to hold vital importance, while nodding in respect to a past that included the triumphs he was involved in, the defeats he endured, and the greats he witnessed from Ralph Brand and Jimmy Millar, from Bobby Murdoch to Henrik Larsson and to the duo he identifies as the greatest on either side of the divide: Billy McNeill and John Greig.

It all starts, however, with Jock Rogerson. ‘My granny died when we were kids and my mother’s father came to live with us,’ says Smith. His father, Jack, was a ‘Cambuslang Rangers man’ but Jock Rogerson, the granda, was an avid Rangers fan, a founder member of the supporters’ club in Carmyle where the Smith family lived.

‘I can’t remember when I first went to the games. It would be the middle fifties but in the early sixties it was on a regular basis,’ he explains.

The 72-year-old's relationship with feisty Old Firm matches dates all the way back to the 1950s

The 72-year-old’s relationship with feisty Old Firm matches dates all the way back to the 1950s

Alfredo Morelos (R) pictured tussling with Celtic midfielder Ryan Christie in a clash last season

Alfredo Morelos (R) pictured tussling with Celtic midfielder Ryan Christie in a clash last season

‘My granda would tell us stories of Waddell, Thornton and the rest. It was a big part of my upbringing. He engendered something that is still with me to this day.

‘Ritchie; Shearer, Caldow; Davis, McKinnon, Baxter; Henderson, McMillan, Millar, Brand, Wilson. It still trips off the tongue. You can’t do that nowadays with teams. I later read that team didn’t play together that often. But I had the impression they played every week.’

In his early teens, he started to pay football seriously and the visits to Ibrox became rarer. But the memories remain more than half a century on.

‘What I remember most vividly about Old Firm games is going to them with that segregated aspect of 50-50, with the enclosures halved,’ says Smith. ‘Think about it now. Just a fence separating the supports. The memories of individual matches, though, tend to be of big European nights such as Real Madrid.’

Smith recalled attending Old Firm games with the enclosures halved to separate supporters

Smith recalled attending Old Firm games with the enclosures halved to separate supporters

His trips to watch football in Glasgow continued even when he was employed at Tannadice. ‘When I was at Dundee United, I tended to be in the reserve team,’ he says. ‘There may not be much at first glance to be similar in Jerry Kerr and Jim McLean (United managers) but they both agreed I was hopeless. So I played mostly with the reserves on a Friday night and watched football on the Saturday.’

He confesses these trips included visits to Parkhead. ‘Yes, for my sins I also went to see Celtic. I had an interest early in my career in how teams played and what they did in terms of tactics. Rangers and Celtic were among the very best teams in Europe at that time,’ he says of an era when the Old Firm contested European finals. 

Celtic, of course, won the European Cup in 1967 and reached the final in 1970 while Rangers lost the final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1967 before winning the trophy in 1972.

‘I knew fairly early that I wasn’t going to be a player of any kind of standing, so that maybe put me on the road to studying football. As a fan, too, I watched the matches closely. I wasn’t nervous as a supporter. I loved the challenge that was there, right in front of your eyes on the pitch.

‘They had teams well above average at the same time. It was remarkable. You were watching the best of Europe playing a Scottish fixture. I was not the type to get totally depressed when we lost or to be totally elated when we won. It was the challenge I enjoyed and I learned how it was met by top players.’

The Ibrox legend used to keep a close eye on games due to his interest in the tactical aspects

The Ibrox legend used to keep a close eye on games due to his interest in the tactical aspects

Neil Lennon celebrated with captain Scott Brown after Celtic beat Rangers last December

Neil Lennon celebrated with captain Scott Brown after Celtic beat Rangers last December

That education was to prove useful as a coaching career blossomed and was transplanted from Tannadice to Ibrox.

The Glasgow Cup final of May 9, 1986, was marked by a Rangers 3-2 victory over their perennial rivals but it may have been more significant for who was sitting in the stands, rather than who was playing on the field. Smith sat there with Graeme Souness, with the two men ready to launch an era of sustained dominance in Govan.

Souness, of course, had spent his professional career in England and Italy but needed no tutorial from Smith on the importance on the Old Firm match.

‘Graeme saw everything as a challenge,’ says Smith. ‘That was part of his make-up. He knew the score. You didn’t need to explain rivalry to him. But sitting there watching that match, I just said to myself: “Bloody hell”. It was something else completely. There was that feeling of being responsible. You can imagine the feeling. I was once standing on the terracing and later I am picking the team or helping to pick the team. Now that’s an experience.’

He adds: ‘It’s not as if I was inexperienced in some way. Under Jim (McLean) I had been to European Cup semi-finals, UEFA Cup finals, won the league and League Cups, but Old Firm games engendered a feeling in me that was completely different. It brings out something that is difficult to explain and very difficult to handle.’

Smith insists the Old Firm derby is the best British rivalry due to each fixture's importance

Smith insists the Old Firm derby is the best British rivalry due to each fixture’s importance

Smith is blunt about the importance of the fixture. ‘Everton v Liverpool? Manchester United v City? It takes a whole set of circumstances for these games to take on the importance of the Old Firm match,’ he says with the experience of managing Everton from 1998 to 2002 and being Sir Alex Ferguson’s assistant at Old Trafford in 2004.

‘I don’t decry these games, obviously. But if Manchester United are playing City in October, no one would see that as a title decider or having an overbearing aspect on the outcome of a season. It’s the same on Merseyside.’

It’s the difference, he says, between important and season-defining. ‘Look at this game,’ he says of Parkhead on Saturday. ‘The importance is far beyond what is normal. There is still three-quarters of the season to go and yet this will be seen as pivotal.’

So what are the crucial factors? Smith, who had two spells at Ibrox, from 1986 to 1998 and from 2007 to 2011, believes that – in the maelstrom of such a fixture – it is about achieving a balance of aggression and discipline.

‘First, anybody who needs motivating shouldn’t be anywhere near this game,’ he says. ‘I didn’t worry about motivational aspects. I tried to address the consequences of being over-motivated. You had to be careful with that. My challenge as a manager was to try to keep a proper balance.’

Having had two spells at Rangers, Smith says it is crucial to balance aggression and discipline

Having had two spells at Rangers, Smith says it is crucial to balance aggression and discipline

He admits there was no certainty in achieving this with red cards falling like confetti over the history of the fixture. ‘It’s difficult. It’s also understandable if players find it so when they are going out in front of 50,000 or 60,000 fans in that sort of atmosphere.

‘They try to keep it all in check but the balance is a knife-edge with proper aggression one side and indiscipline on the other. It is very, very difficult to have a strong, competitive edge and keep a discipline to it, too.’

The scene in a Rangers dressing room under Smith is described. ’You didn’t have to be Churchillian,’ he says of his pre-match talk. ‘There would some brief discussions on technical aspects. There has to be a professional calmness while still having an intensity.’

Who were the players that revelled in such an atmosphere and did any blink? ‘I can’t think of anyone who was not up to it. I can’t think of any player who did not react well to the match,’ he says.

Smith ascribes this consistency of a care taken in recruitment. ‘I had a lot of conversations with Sir Alex,’ he says of days when Smith was coach at Dundee United and assistant to Ferguson at Scotland.

Smith's brief team talks during Old Firm matches would typically focus on technical aspects

Smith’s brief team talks during Old Firm matches would typically focus on technical aspects

‘I always asked him: what is more important, ability or attitude? He was certain that it was attitude. He said: “Playing for a big team, it’s about mental toughness. If they don’t have that, ability just doesn’t matter”. That always stuck with me. You don’t know if a player has that until you see him in those games but you can make an educated guess.’

Another match, another lesson. Celtic won 3-0 at their lodgings at Hampden in May 1995. Asked about his greatest victory on the sidelines over Celtic, he replies simply. ‘Any of them. Any victory was satisfying.’

Worst experience? ‘Again, just losing but that day at Hampden was the only day that we never achieved a motivational level to give us the chance to compete. We had won the league by then but… it was three but it could have been six or seven. It could have been a real embarrassment.’

And what of the great performers in the fixture? ‘For Rangers. I would have to pick out John Greig. He had a much harder task than many Rangers greats. Celtic were winning titles and you are captain and you have to compete against that. John Greig never weakened. He kept driving Rangers on. I have the utmost respect for him.’

John Greig, who has a statue outside Ibrox (pictured), was singled out for his Old Firm heroics

John Greig, who has a statue outside Ibrox (pictured), was singled out for his Old Firm heroics

For Celtic? ‘I look at personalities who encompass what it is like to be at the Old Firm. Billy McNeill and John Greig showed the best of both clubs, they embodied what it meant to be at their respective clubs.

‘When you grow up in such an era – even I can name Celtic’s European Cup-winning side – you are aware of great players on both sides. Bobby Murdoch, Jimmy Johnstone, Bertie Auld. Celtic had exceptional players.’

He adds with a grin: ‘I was lucky to avoid Larsson. I don’t mean I was lucky to get sacked but it did mean I wasn’t there when he was playing.’

But he knows the Swede has an affinity with Greig, McNeill and a host of others in blue and green down the ages. ‘I don’t know the fellow, I’ve never met him, but everybody would talk about his goals and his talent but my memory of him is this. Celtic were winning a game easily – it may have been against Dundee – but lost a goal in the last minute.

Smith admitted he was lucky to avoid coming up against Henrik Larsson during his Celtic days

Smith admitted he was lucky to avoid coming up against Henrik Larsson during his Celtic days

‘I was watching on the TV and the camera was on Larsson as he came off the park. He was berating everybody.

‘He knew that in an era of goal difference, that lost goal could be important. I thought: “Outstanding ability? Yes. But that mental toughness…”

He knows this and more will be needed for a victory on Saturday but makes a heartfelt point about the game that some love to hate. ‘There are bad things about the fixture. We all know that. But there are some things that should be celebrated,’ he says.

‘It is a huge game that means so much to so many people over the world. You travel all over – Canada, Australia, United States – and the love of the club is passed down. I still loving watching the game. That Rangers ‘bit’ is still in me.’

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