INTERVIEW The Rangers manager is scunnered by distractions to the title race, writes Hugh MacDonald
“All we’ve had are moans and groans, complaints, strikes and sectarian singing. Everything other than football.”
THIS could never be mistaken for the fondest of farewells to a season, perhaps a career. Walter Smith has been involved in professional football since 1966, when he signed for Dundee United. There was a distinct weariness yesterday in the Rangers manager’s reflections on a campaign that may end fully 45 years later.
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There is no definitive answer to what Smith will do next, but his appetite for football is undiminished. “I don’t have that weary feeling about football. That’s my job and I enjoy it. Of course, you still get excited about football,” he said.
The disenchantment is exclusively reserved for what Smith called the “non-footballing matters”. It was best illustrated when he was asked about his thoughts on UEFA’s punishment of the club for the sectarian singing of its followers. “I am thoughted out,” he said with a wryness that forms a protective barrier to exposure of Smith’s deepest feelings on the state of the nation.
“They were a bit more lenient than anyone thought they were going to be,” he said of the UEFA sanctions that include a fine of €80,000, a ban on travelling fans for one match and suspended sentences. He repeated for the umpteenth time: “The sectarian singing has to stop. The warnings are there. If you don’t heed them, the consequences are there. Obviously, if there are consistent breaches, the consequences start to become such that they have a drastic effect on the club’s ability to compete.
“Always it is the club who suffer the consequences. The manager at the time will suffer as well. But I think that, for everybody, the warnings are there. Hopefully, this time, there will be enough common sense out there to prevail.”
This sort of comment, of course, has become tediously routine for the Rangers manager. He is aware of the importance of ridding the club of sectarian singing, he is assailed with questions on refs and disciplinary committees and bans and non-bans and penalties given and penalties taken away and fingers wagged and ears held and...
“You get a wee bit fed up,” he admitted at 63 years of age. “But maybe that’s just the stage I’m at.”
Yet the portrayal of Smith as some sort of Victor Meldrew of Murray Park loses all its validity when he is pressed on matters relating to a Clydesdale Bank Premier League title that promises to be concluded in a dramatic fashion and on a national sport that is in crisis.
“Football has been secondary to everything else that has happened and that is a sad state of affairs,” he said, pondering the notion that his side could be just six hours of play from a third consecutive title.
He points out the unassailable truths that fans are becoming “disillusioned”, that “nobody is focusing on the fact that crowds are dropping”. Three Old Firm away fixtures in the atmosphere of a tight title race produced slightly more than 20,000 punters in total for Celtic’s match at Perth and Rangers’ games at Hamilton and Aberdeen.
“What everybody should be thinking about is how to get better players into all of the teams in the country, so we are raising standards,” he said. “Now, as we’re coming near the end of this season, we’re still talking about things outwith the football side and I think that’s a bit of a sad state of affairs.”
He added: “Scottish football, like every business, is having a tough time in a tough environment. We’ve got to work hard to make it better, make it more appealing to everybody. This season, we obviously haven’t done that, because all we’ve had are moans and groans, complaints, strikes and sectarian singing. Everything other than football.”
Smith does not have this “weary feeling” when he contemplates the reality of an intriguing end to an extraordinary season that continues today with a visit to Motherwell. He is too attuned to the press conference game to be sucked into “headline speak”.
But there is an unalloyed honesty when he surveys just how Rangers have persisted in the championship against his deepest fears. The Rangers manager believed that injury to Nikica Jelavic and the sale of Kenny Miller had fatally impacted on title hopes.
“I have tinges of regret about this season: that we had to sell Kenny Miller and that we didn’t have Jelavic for the whole season. But on the other side, I have had a group of boys who have handled whatever has been thrown at them over the last few years. They’ve got a resilience that I admire.”
He was convinced, too, that performances at Ibrox had mitigated against any sustained challenge. Rangers have been defeated at home in the league by Hibernian, Dundee United and Celtic. “Our home form hasn’t really been good enough this season, I don’t think, for us to be getting a championship.”
He was frank and generous in his assessment of his rivals. “Celtic have had a consistency of performance that has maybe been better than us.”
Smith was also energetically assertive on the merits of the Old Firm matches. Out of the seven clashes, he conceded the 1-0 defeat in the Scottish Cup, now routinely referred to as “The Shame Game”, was the “poorest”. He also believed his team had played badly in the 3-0 defeat at Parkhead but said: “We have had five good Old Firm games. We’ve supplied everybody with good games. But what do we talk about? We talk about clashes.
“Look at Real Madrid and Barcelona the other night. For Rangers and Celtic, that’s 10 days of newspaper headlines – and a summit meeting. That’s the point I’m making about Scottish football. That’s what we are.”
The nature of the footballing side of the season has left Smith slightly surprised his team are still in the hunt. The 3-2 defeat by Dundee United at Ibrox at the beginning of the month was immediately followed by a summit in the Ibrox dressing-room when the manager informed his players that, at best, they could afford only two draws in the remaining games of the season if they had aspirations to be champions. They have only dropped points since against Celtic and this leaves Rangers fully engaged in a title race that should be dominating most conversations.
It is this scenario that still has the capacity to captivate Smith.
Instead, he must confront other matters. Asked to comment on Neil Lennon cupping his ears as he left the park at Ibrox last Sunday, the Rangers manager replied: “No comment on that. None at all.” He also had no comment on Kate’s dress.
Four games to go, Mr Smith.