Thursday, 2 August 2007

Keeping up with the neighbours leaves Smith craving moonbeams and miracles

All Walter Smith is now asked to do with Rangers is deliver the success of 1997 with the finances of 2007. Bernard Thompson explains why that's easier said than done
By Bernard Thompson

What a difference a decade makes. You gain experience but also age, some ambitions are realised
while other hopes are surrendered; you move onwards and upwards or decline. All are things for
Moonbeam-provider & miracle-worker: Murray and Smith
Walter Smith to ponder on Saturday.

On August 4 1997, Rangers unfurled another championship flag, kicking off what they hoped would be the club's 10th - and Smith's seventh - consecutive Scottish league title. Around £15m had been spent in the close season.

The chairman Sir David Murray insisted that for every £5 the impoverished Celtic spent, Rangers would splash out a tenner. They had just negotiated one Champions League qualifying round and seen off a string of helpless or hapless Celtic managers - Liam Brady, Lou Macari and Tommy Burns - with Wim Jansen barely threatening to disturb the peace in Smith's blue heaven.

He could scarcely have imagined then that, long before the end of that season, he would be redefined as yesterday's man. It must have been even more unthinkable that 10 years on he would be looked upon as the last hope for tomorrow. How did it come to this?

Like all well-balanced Scots, Rangers fans have nursed a chip on each shoulder. Matching Celtic's nine-in-a-row record of Scottish league titles salved the wound on one side. The problem persisted on the other - they had never seriously threatened to match their rivals' 1967 European Cup victory (a Cup Winners' Cup in 1972 hardly compensating).

It is only possible to begin to understand how Smith and Rangers came to be where they are now - trophyless for two seasons and with modest funds to remedy the problem - by appreciating the recklessness of their obsession with matching Celtic's achievement. As far back as 1989, the then newly-appointed chief executive Alan Montgomery had declared that "Rangers must win the European Cup". It was a typical example of defiance overriding realism.

But Smith's failure to make a major impact in Europe - the finest moment probably being the home-and-away defeat of Leeds United in 1992, later missing out on a Champions League final place by one point - led to the clamour for something new.

Like Dick Advocaat, for example.

"Believe me when I tell you that we are going for it this time - we want to be successful in Europe, and the money we are raising now will take us there," Murray boasted of a team that, by then, contained Arthur Numan, Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Michael Mols. "This is the last part of the jigsaw for me ..."

The puzzle was that lavish expenditure delivered two league titles and some exciting European performances, notably eliminating a formidable Parma from the Champions League in 1999, but little else to show for financial crisis.

The arrival of Martin O'Neill having prompted Rangers to move swiftly on, Alex McLeish was asked to keep pace with Celtic while replacing high earners with radically cheaper alternatives. His record - two cups within six months of his appointment, a domestic treble in his first full season, a second title in 2005 and reaching the last 16 of the Champions League - set the context for a rueful but masterfully understated parting comment: "I'm sure those people who look at the facts will say that during a period of downsizing, I was reasonably successful."

But it must also be said that his tenure also coincided with Rangers' worst-ever run of competitive results and a record string of Old Firm defeats. He was pushed out by popular demand.

Turning to Paul Le Guen was bold, imaginative and seemingly unrealistic but demonstrative of a degree of audacity that Murray has often matched with persuasiveness to great effect. Le Guen described Murray's overtures as having "such force, such charisma and enthusiasm, that it gave it an extra dimension ... He's the kind of guy who can't leave you indifferent." Even more typical of Murray was his display of hubris in heralding a "moonbeam of success".

One brief, unmitigated disaster later, Rangers were returning to the man who self-evidently could not win the trophy they most covet.

Why Smith should have taken on the job when his reputation was at its highest after a short but successful period as coach of Scotland could easily be said to defy understanding. For sure, he must have found it irksome to see the fate that befell Rangers after his talents were considered inadequate for a club with European issues. Could he have felt he had something to prove, given that no manager since the legendary Bill Struth had brought more league titles to Ibrox? Sometimes in football logic, self-interest and common sense count for little compared to the innate sense that a club is in the blood of some individuals.

These days Sir David Murray doesn't even try to pretend he could double Celtic's spending, having lost out on Derek Riordan, Paul Hartley, Scott MacDonald and Scott Brown in the past 18 months. Murray's recent insistence that the club could have afforded the £4.4m transfer fee that took Brown from Hibs, but not his salary and add-on fees, is an indication that Smith faces the managerial challenge of his career. Last Monday the club announced that its debt has risen to £16.5m.

In the past Rangers have invested their finances with the shrewdness of a gambler on tilt. But contrasting the money wasted over the years with the more prudent acquisitions provides a lesson and Smith's best hope: the price ticket isn't always the best guide to quality, even if it is fun to be flash in front of the neighbours.

Smith once squandered £4m on Sebastián Rozental but gave an unknown Rino Gattuso his first big chance. The £12m Advocaat spent on Tore André Flo was outshone by his nurturing the talent of Barry Ferguson. McLeish, with little money to waste, landed Kris Boyd: to the purist, hardly even a footballer; to the statistician, an outrageously prolific goalscorer.

Now, as they prepare for the second leg of a vital Champions League qualifier with FC Zeta - after a first leg that, despite the 2-0 win, ranks among the club's worst European performances - the bombast is muted and Murray's summation of the club's fortunes drably pragmatic: "If we are in the Champions League we make £5m, if not we lose £5m." He is also now talking publicly of selling up.

And all Smith is now asked to do is deliver the success of 1997 with the finances of 2007. So Roy Carroll, Carlos Cuellar, Lee McCulloch and Jean-Claude Darcheville will be tasked with emulating the achievements of Andy Goram, Richard Gough, Brian Laudrup and Mark Hately. In other words, Smith must deliver a miracle - or at least a moonbeam.

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