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Walter Smith OBE: Contribution to Scottish Football

Volume 703: debated on Wednesday 17 November 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Steve Double.)

I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving the House the opportunity to put on the record its appreciation of the contribution made by the late Walter Smith to Scottish football. I will be as generous as I possibly can in allowing interventions because I know that an awful lot of people want to contribute. I thank the Minister for his understanding of the situation.

It is, of course, a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I hope you will forgive me if I express my regret that the Chairman of Ways and Means could not be with us this evening. I know from our frequent sparring over matters pertaining to life in Glasgow and Scottish football that there is no bigger Rangers supporter and no greater Walter Smith fan in this House than the Chairman of Ways and Means—

I will in a moment; I will make some progress first.

I am sure that the Chairman of Ways and Means, perhaps more than most, would understand me when I say that, unlike her good self and perhaps one or two others present, Walter Smith’s career has not been a source of great personal joy and happiness for me—far from it. Indeed, save for his brief period as manager of Scotland, Walter’s career was the cause of great personal angst and unhappiness for me, as his team all too regularly wiped the floor with mine, so I will leave it to others—I can see that on the Benches behind me others are indeed primed—to tell of the joy that Mr Smith’s remarkable career brought to them.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I spoke to him beforehand and said that this was a wonderful occasion to recognise the contribution made by Walter Smith OBE. As an avid Rangers fan—I am probably as good a Rangers fan as anybody in this House—I have long admired the role played by Walter Smith in our glory days, and I believe those days are on their way back round. I also admired the role that he played in the Better Together campaign against Scottish independence; he had a clear and wonderful view that I respected and that I know the hon. Gentleman respected too. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Walter Smith’s legacy of passion on the pitch and respect off the pitch was seen at his funeral, where there were not only many Rangers supporters but many Celtic, Hearts and Hibernian supporters? That tells me that Walter Smith OBE is respected throughout the whole UK—not just by Rangers fans but by everyone—for his contribution.

I do agree and thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is absolutely right and I will address that shortly.

Regardless of our football allegiance, we can all agree, whether through tears of joy or tears of sorrow, that Walter Smith enjoyed a remarkable managerial career that is up there with the very best Scotland has ever produced. In a trophy-laden career he led Rangers to an astonishing 21 major titles, over two terms at Ibrox. He won the Scottish premier league 10 times, plus three more times as assistant manager to Graeme Souness in the ’80s. He picked up five Scottish cups and six Scottish league cups, and his team reached the final of the UEFA cup in 2008.

He managed in the English premiership, taking charge at Everton for three or four seasons and performing wonders at Goodison Park in what was a hugely difficult period for the club; I think the consensus opinion would be that he performed a minor miracle by keeping them in the top flight of English football for the time he was there. Of course, he then joined his great friend Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United and enjoyed FA cup success in 2004.

He also briefly managed the Scottish national team and did a pretty good job, improving our world ranking by 70 places during his tenure, which included that famous victory over France at Hampden. Unfortunately, his stay at Scotland was all too brief and when Rangers came calling, there was no way he would turn down a chance to return to the club that he loved.

Walter Smith’s life and career is also celebrated in early-day motion 584, which I have signed along with my hon. Friend and 40 other colleagues. Will my hon. Friend join me in encouraging other Members to sign that early-day motion? Would not the best tribute to Walter Smith’s life be to see Scotland back where they belong, in the World cup in Qatar in 2022? [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]

I am delighted to say that we are—touch wood—heading in that direction.

Walter Smith had a remarkable managerial career, which will live long in the memory, but, perhaps more importantly, he will be remembered as being a thoroughly decent and honourable man—a man who, despite proudly wearing his Rangers colours, managed to cut across the maelstrom of football rivalry in Glasgow and was a hugely respected figure in the green half of the city, too. That was in no small way down to the close personal friendship that developed between Walter and Celtic hero Tommy Burns. The image of a grief-stricken Walter Smith carrying Tommy’s coffin out of St. Mary’s church in 2008 was deeply moving and is an extremely powerful symbol of there being matters much, much more important than football rivalry. It seems appropriate at this juncture to ask the House to pay its respects to Bertie Auld, one of Celtic’s Lisbon Lions who died on Sunday at the age of 83.

I thank the hon. Member for giving way and congratulate him on securing this Adjournment debate. Does he agree that, perhaps, the thing that Walter Smith and Bertie Auld had in common was that they did manage to bring together both sides of the city, which can be very divided, in a way that showed us a positive way ahead and that they have actually done a great deal to change attitudes?

I do think that. There is a phrase that we use in this place an awful lot, which is that there is an awful lot more that unites us than divides us. I think people always look for the divisions rather than the things that unite us.

Walter Smith was born into a football-daft household on 24 February 1948. He grew up in Carmyle in the east end of Glasgow and, from a young age, every other week, his dad took him to see Rangers—Cambuslang Rangers who played just over the other side of the water from where he grew up. Walter never shared his dad’s passion for junior football, and soon it was he and his grandfather who were regular attenders at Ibrox to see his heroes Don Kitchenbrand and Johnny Hubbard turn out for the city’s other Rangers.

The young Smith was not a bad player himself and, after a short spell in junior football with Ashfield, he was signed by Dundee United in the summer of 1966, making 108 appearances in nine years on Tayside.

I thank my colleague for giving way. My constituents will be wondering why I have jumped up at the mention of Dundee United, and the truth is now out. I am sure that he will go on to mention this, but Walter Smith wrote himself into Dundee United folklore on 14 May 1983 when the ball sailed over Kelly’s head and Dundee United won the League. Walter was, of course, Jim McLean’s assistant at that moment in time, and I am sure that my colleague would like to pay tribute to that wonderful victory.

Yes, I will and then I will come on to how Walter began his managerial career with a remarkable conversation with Jim McLean.

Walter had what one would call a respectable career as a footballer, but I think it would be fair to say that his time at Dundee United provided little clue as to what lay ahead. The arrival of Jim McLean as manager of Dundee United in 1971 was to have a profound effect on his career—initially for the worse—as the new manager decided that he was surplus to requirements and sold him to Dumbarton. Possibly with an eye to the future, Jim McLean brought Walter back to Tannadice two years later, but a bad injury severely limited his United appearances. Walter spent more time working and playing with the reserve team than with the first team. It was his work with the reserve team that caught the attention of Jim McLean and indeed the SFA, which, in 1978, asked Walter to assist in the running of the Scotland under-18 team, which went on to win the European Youth Championship in 1982.

Walter also caught the eye of another young Scottish manager, Alex Ferguson, who on being appointed boss at Aberdeen, phoned Jim McLean to see whether he could approach Walter to be his assistant at Pittodrie. His request was somewhat robustly refused—anyone who knows Jim McLean will understand that. Perhaps it was that realisation that Walter was gaining a reputation that finally persuaded Jim McLean to have that life-changing conversation in 1980—a conversation that Walter often recalled. He described Wee Jim pulling him aside, saying, as only Wee Jim could, “Walter, at some stage in your career, you’ve got to face up to the fact of how good you are, and let’s face it, Walter, you are shite, but I think you’ve got a real talent as a coach, so would you be my coach?” As Walter said himself,

“It was hardly a marriage proposal”,

but it was one that he accepted anyway. It was an offer that took a journeyman footballer on an expedition that would lead to the very top of the managerial profession.

My hon. Friend has probably already said it for me, but generations of Dundee United fans like myself see the double act of Jim McLean and Walter Smith, and what they were able to achieve working together, and applaud those two great men, who we have lost in such short succession.

My hon. Friend is right. It is no coincidence that Walter Smith’s elevation to assistant manager at Tannadice coincided with the most successful period in the history of Dundee United,

Young players who Walter Smith coached through the ranks, including Richard Gough, Maurice Malpas, Ralph Milne, Paul Sturrock and so many more, helped to secure Dundee United back-to-back Scottish league cups, and in 1983 the Scottish premier league title for the first and only time—thus far—in the club’s history. Of course, the following season Dundee United made it all the way to the semi-final of the European cup. Had it not been for a £50,000 bribe given to a French referee by Italian giants Roma, they may well have progressed further.

In this week of all weeks, I should refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Following the hon. Gentleman’s point, it does sound as if some referees are worse than others in terms of monetary affairs.

Let me return to the hon. Gentleman’s excellent speech. I think that both sides of the House would echo what he said about both Bertie Auld and Walter Smith. Sometimes we use the word “legend” too much, but both were legends of the game. However, what probably made them different from just any other player was their decency, both on and off the pitch. That is something that we can remember, as their families mourn them at this time.

Absolutely. I genuinely thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. I hope that it brings comfort to both the Auld family and the Smith family that this House is recognising them in this way.

By the mid-1980s, Walter was in great demand. When Alex Ferguson took charge of the Scottish national team, he asked Walter to be his assistant. This time, Jim had no objection. But it was not just the national team who had designs on the Dundee United assistant manager. In the early 1980s, Rangers was going through a particularly barren spell and the new owners were determined to change that. In April 1986, Scottish football was rocked when Graeme Souness was appointed player-manager at Ibrox. Joining him as his assistant, somewhat under the radar, and with none of the fanfare and hullabaloo, was Walter.

History will judge—indeed, history has probably already judged—that the more important and significant signing of that duo was Walter Smith, because although it was Souness who provided the glitz and the glamour, it was Smith who provided the coaching experience, the managerial know-how and the cool head, which was never more exemplified than on the opening day of the 1986-87 season, when the new player-manager was sent off after a melee at Easter Road. But it was a partnership that worked, and the Souness-Smith era, ably assisted by an influx of top English internationals, got off to the perfect start when Rangers won the league cup in 1986.

Apart from a league and cup double in their centenary season, Celtic was left trailing in the wake of this new force, and Rangers, under the guidance of Souness and Smith, appeared set to dominate for the foreseeable future. But just as his arrival at Ibrox caused a sensation, so too did Graeme Souness’s departure, when, with just four games left of the 1990-91 season, he quit Rangers to become manager of Liverpool. Graeme Souness tried to persuade Walter to join him, but the offer to become Rangers manager was just too attractive for the lifelong Rangers fan to turn down. I remember him saying that his only regret was that his beloved grandfather did not live long enough to see it happen.

With the title race going down to the wire in the final game of the season, Aberdeen went to Ibrox needing just a draw to win. Walter was under enormous pressure to win that game. Rangers did win it, and that victory launched them into a period of prolonged dominance in Scottish football.

As the token Rangers fan of the SNP group—albeit I have not been at a Rangers game since Basile Boli played for them—I can say that Walter Smith is somebody who, as other Members have said, is loved across teams and loved across Glasgow—and, indeed, Scotland. My hon. Friend is making an exceptional speech and I want to thank him for it, because for me Walter Smith was a childhood hero and it has been great to hear the history of his career. I know that many of my constituents, whether they are at the Parkhead stand with my hon. Friend or not, will send sympathies to Walter’s family.

I thank my hon. Friend for that.

After that first victory against Aberdeen, six more successive Scottish league titles followed, along with three Scottish cups and three Scottish league cups, and Walter took Rangers to the brink of the final of the Champions league in the 1992-93 season. By any standards, it was a remarkable run of success, but everything must come to an end, and after a disappointing start to the 1997-98 season, Rangers announced that he would be leaving the club. They lost the league title to Celtic on the final day and then lost to Hearts the following week. It was not the end to his Rangers career that anyone wanted or expected, but as we have heard, they had not seen the last of Mr Smith, as remarkably, nine years later, in 2007, Rangers again turned to Walter Smith to help them out of another barren spell.

As a Motherwell supporter, I certainly remember that first season of Walter being in charge of Rangers, because in 1991 Motherwell won the Scottish cup. A key component of that victory was Davie Cooper. When Davie Cooper tragically died of a brain haemorrhage in 1995 at the age of 39, Walter Smith said at his funeral that God gave Davie Cooper a talent and that he would not be disappointed with how it was used. Does the hon. Member agree that Walter Smith’s talent as a manager was pretty much unsurpassed in Scottish football? I am very glad that we are paying tribute to him in this place today.

I thank the hon. Lady for that. The mention of Davie Cooper brings back incredibly sad memories because I was there when Davie died. I was working with Davie that day. I attended the funeral as well. He was an unbelievable talent and an incredibly nice man—a joy to work with.

Walter returned to the club in 2007, and again he worked his magic. In his four years at the club, he won another eight trophies, including three consecutive Scottish league titles, and he took Rangers to their first European final in 36 years, when they played Zenit St Petersburg in the 2008 final. He finally brought down the curtain on a glittering career on the last day of the 2010-11 season with another success.

As well as Walter being a constituent of mine, and for many years a near neighbour in Helensburgh, I also had the privilege of working with him in 2011 when I wrote, produced and directed a two-hour long documentary for STV, along with my friend and lifelong Rangers fan Andy Halley, on Walter’s remarkable football career. Throughout the making of that documentary, Walter was unfailing courteous, helpful and immensely co-operative. He was also remarkably trusting, as he afforded us unprecedented access to his life as Rangers manager. I would like to think he appreciated the finished product; if he did not, then he was far too polite to say. What was remarkable about the making of that documentary was that when I contacted people to ask them to contribute, no one—not one person—said no or made an excuse not to participate in it. Alex Ferguson, Graeme Souness, Jim McLean, Billy McNeill, John Greig, Ally McCoist, Richard Gough, Brian Laudrup and many, many others went out of their way to pay tribute to Walter Smith on the occasion of his retirement. That speaks volumes for the esteem in which he was held by fellow professionals.

His achievements will never be forgotten by ordinary Rangers supporters, because Walter Smith is an all-too-rare example of a manager who led a club he supported; a manager who celebrated every victory like a fan and felt the pain of every defeat like a fan. It was that affinity he felt for the club, every bit as much as the success that he brought to Rangers, that means Walter Smith will be revered for generations to come.

Walter Smith died on 26 October 2021 at the age of 73. Typically, only a very select few knew that he was unwell, and so, like the vast majority, I too was shocked and deeply saddened to hear the news. Walter is survived by his wife Ethel, his sons Neil and Steven, and his grandchildren, who I know he absolutely adored. I am sure that the entire House will join me in extending our deepest sympathies and condolences to the family and join me in thanking Walter Smith OBE for his outstanding contribution to Scottish football.

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) for securing this debate today about a true Scottish footballing great, and for the moving contributions that he and many others have made today. I know that many others would have liked to contribute, but are not able to be in the Chamber today. I also send my condolences to Walter Smith’s wife, Ethel, and the rest of his family and close friends and pay tribute to an absolutely incredible ambassador for football in this country. The fact that a diehard Celtic fan has tabled this debate to celebrate a Rangers legend is testament to Walter Smith’s legacy, his reach across football and so much more.

That legacy is not just about Rangers and Celtic, but Everton. What a fantastic manager Walter was at Everton. On this side of the House, we wish to say to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) that Walter cut across all divides. He was just a very good man and a very good manager. I think that is a lesson to us all in this place and beyond. We should celebrate his life and perhaps in future we should just understand, given how he cut across all divides, that we are all one in that respect. He was a great football manager. From my friends at Everton football club, I know he was an absolutely delightful man in many respects.

I thank my hon. Friend for those comments; I could not agree more. While Walter is best known for his managerial career, as the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute mentioned, he did play more than 100 times for Dundee United. Aside from a brief spell in Dallas, he played his entire career in the Scottish league. His greatest impact though, as we have heard, is when he made that all-important transition to management. Over more than two decades, he took charge of teams at the very top of the elite game in this country. As we have heard, there was his incredible performance at Glasgow Rangers, where he won 10 titles, multiple Scottish cups and Scottish league cups, including the domestic treble in 1993. He also completed a record-equalling ninth league title in a row near the end of his first spell at the club—a record that still stands to this day. To have established such dominance at the top of the Scottish game, given the ever-changing nature of our domestic leagues, is a true testament to his managerial prowess.

Smith is also remembered for his activities further south; as my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) just mentioned, he was at Everton for four notable years. Some may recall he then briefly spent time in the dugout with another Scottish great, Sir Alex Ferguson, at Manchester United. Everton may have regretted that move across the M62 though, after an example of Smith’s eye for talent, which I have heard a lot about, benefited his new side. Smith had spotted a certain Wayne Rooney when he was just 14 years old and scoring regularly for the under-19s. Some 559 appearances and 253 goals a few years later, it is clear that Smith was on to something. That is just one example of his scouting and coaching prowess. Former Everton and Rangers captain David Weir once claimed that Smith had a “sixth sense” when it came to the needs of his players.

During Smith’s spell at Man U, he was credited with playing a key role in the development of no less than one Cristiano Ronaldo, helping him emerge arguably into one of the best players who has ever played the game. Smith’s success in club football was rewarded ultimately with the men’s Scottish national team job in 2004.

Smith did not just produce one-off performances. Scotland rose a remarkable 70 places in the FIFA world rankings during his time at Hampden—a truly incredible feat. It is not just what he achieved with Scotland, which of course was remarkable, but how he did it. That has been a very clear theme in what we have been hearing this evening. In appointing Tommy Burns, a rival from his time as Celtic manager, as his assistant, he helped to unite a nation of football fans.

Smith would, I am sure, have been delighted with the progress of the national team on Friday, after they confirmed a place in the World cup qualifying play-offs with the 2-0 victory in Moldova. I am sure that hon. Members, particularly on a certain side of the House, will join me in wishing Steve Clarke and his exciting young squad the very best of luck for the play-off campaign.

Off the pitch, it was fair to say Smith did not suffer fools gladly. It has been interesting to do some background reading on Walter, and it is probably true to say that he would occasionally have used some unparliamentary language that I am not allowed to repeat this evening, tempted though I am.

As we have heard again and again, Smith was not just a great football manager, but a great man. That was illustrated by the awarding of an OBE for services to association football in 1997. He clearly made a huge impact on all those he worked with, and will be remembered fondly by his colleagues and supporters at club and national level. He is yet another example of the positive influence that our sportspeople and sport can have on the many lives that sport can touch.

I would like to sign off this debate with another thanks to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute for enabling the House to celebrate an incredible life. It is one that made such an important contribution to the national game in this country, and to many millions of Rangers fans and beyond. Rangers chairman, Douglas Park, summed him up perfectly when he said that

“he was much more than just a football manager. Walter was a friend to many, a leader, an ambassador and most of all a legend.”

I could not agree more.

Perhaps most importantly, a message to Ethel and Walter’s family is what a remarkable legacy it is that Walter has left because, even this evening, he has managed to unite the House of Commons. Thank you, Walter.

Brendan, in my experience, no one has been paid more touching tributes in an Adjournment debate that I have heard. Please could you send our deepest condolences to Walter Smith’s family from all of us at the House of Commons.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.