WHERE Walter Smith has been involved as a manager in knife-edge denouements to Scottish league campaigns, his fortunes have been somewhat mixed.

In May 1998, a victory for his side over Dundee United was insufficient to stop Celtic from thwarting Rangers’ ten-in-a-row title ambitions with a win over St Johnstone in their own last game. The Ibrox side clinched the SPL trophy under Smith’s stewardship by winning at Tannadice on the last day in 2009, but the year previous to that, as Gordon Strachan’s Celtic were busy sealing three-in-a-row at the same venue, Rangers were put to the sword at Aberdeen.

Those with longer memories will recall, however, that Smith cut his teeth in the world of final-day dramatics long before any of those dates. He had, in fact, been ensconced as manager of Rangers a mere matter of weeks when a 3-0 defeat to Motherwell in his side’s penultimate league match set up perhaps the most febrile title decider in living memory. The year was 1991, Graeme Souness had just left to take up the reins at Liverpool and – 20 years ago this week – an on-fire Aberdeen side were the visitors to Ibrox.

“We had faltered a bit, but we realised all we needed to do was win one more game to win the league,” remembers Mark Walters, the English winger who would follow Souness to Anfield. “We knew we had to keep it relatively tight, take our chances and make sure we weren’t hit on the counter-attack.

“There was a lot of history between the teams going back before I came to the club, so it was always a big game playing Aberdeen and you always wanted to beat them.”

With the sides locked on the same points and with the same goal difference, Aberdeen – owing to the fact they had scored two more goals in the campaign – only required a draw to secure the title. However, a Mark Hateley header on the stroke of half-time swung the match in the hosts’ favour and he added a second as Rangers ultimately eased to victory and a third successive championship.

“It was a bit of a shock to the system, frankly, when Graeme left the club and it took us a few weeks to get over that, I suppose; but Walter had a big input into what went on anyway and once we got over that initial shock, things got back to normal in time for us to wrap up the league,” says Walters, who now works for the Football Association as a grassroots coach. “That’s the kind of experience Walter has going in to the last stretch in any title race. This year, Rangers haven’t always been in the driving seat, but there are always twists and turns and he’ll have been expecting those. I think now Rangers can only really lose the league and I would be very shocked if they did.”

Rangers’ triumph would prove, in hindsight, to be a defining moment on the road to nine-in-a-row – no team pushed Rangers as close in those years as Aberdeen did that season. Their next title brought with it participation in the inaugural Champions League, the revenue and prestige from which helped David Murray to widen the gap he had opened up on the rest of Scottish football.

“From then on the amount of money that was coming into the game from the Champions League was enormous,” recalls Walters. “Being ahead of the pack in Scotland and competing in the Champions League every year gave Rangers the momentum that enabled nine-in-a-row.”

EACH past event is inevitably contorted in the memory via the prism of more recent events. If that sounds like Proustian baloney, consider that when Aberdeen let slip the title from their grasp at Ibrox 20 years ago this week, Scott Booth recalls supposing that “there would probably be other opportunities like this for us.”

The gifted, fresh-faced young striker of 1991 has now attained a different perspective on that Ibrox afternoon’s significance for the club he served with no shortage of finesse before furthering his career in Holland. He is aware of how hungrily Aberdeen’s participation as contenders in a title race would be devoured in the north-east; and yet the paucity of comparable “opportunities” over two decades has almost heightened the sense of trauma attached to that game.

“It’s become almost unthinkable for a team like Aberdeen to go that close, but in the seasons after ’91 it kind of dawned slowly on the club and the fans and the city as a whole what a great opportunity that had been and that it was gone and may never come back round again,” he told Herald Sport. “For Rangers, you could see it was a catalyst for the run they went on; but it was a catalyst in the opposite direction for us in a sense. We still had good seasons after that, but there was a sense of frustration that we could never quite compete for the title again.”

No team from outside Glasgow has come as close to winning the title since. Alex Smith and Jocky Scott – joint managers at Pittodrie – had overseen a run of 11 wins in 12 matches ahead of the visit to Ibrox; and after Rangers lost 3-0 to Motherwell in their penultimate match, Aberdeen went top on goals scored, meaning they only required a draw.

Yet after fluffing a couple of decent early chances, Aberdeen were beaten by two Mark Hateley goals. To this day, their supporters debate as to whether tactical adjustments believed to have been ordered by Smith affected the outcome. For Booth, the decision to dispense with a winning 4-3-3 system and introduce Peter Van de Ven as the extra man in midfield as part of a 4-4-2, meant dropping to the bench.

“I was playing regularly in the run-in and scoring goals, so it was a major disappointment to me that I wasn’t starting,” he says. “I don’t know who decided what, but certainly the general consensus was that there had been a change in tactics. I had been playing as part of a 4-3-3 – it was a very carefree system. When it came to Ibrox we played 4-4-2; maybe that change from something that was working disrupted us, I don’t know. It’s easy to say in hindsight they got it wrong; we actually started the game the better side.”

The whole occasion itself Booth remembers as “surreal”. Due to work going on in one of the dressing rooms, Aberdeen had to change in a Portakabin, and though the match was billed as a cup final, their allocation was 1500 supporters. “It was the most hostile environment that I ever played in. I remember coming on at half-time and finding it hard to concentrate. It was just absolutely deafening. Guys like myself and Michael Watt [the young goalkeeper deputising for the injured Theo Snelders], I think it’s quite natural if we were slightly overawed by it all.”