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Walter Smith bids adieu to Champions League

Rangers manager Walter Smith
Smith will oversee his last Champions League match at the Ataturk Stadium

By Keir Murray

Walter Smith's name won't feature quite as prominently in the history of Rangers as Kemal Ataturk's does in Turkish legend, but his contribution to the club has been considerable nonetheless.

On Tuesday in the Ataturk Stadium in Bursa in northern Turkey he will take charge of Rangers for the last time in the Champions League: he could not make it more plain that he will end his involvement in football matters at Ibrox at the season's end.

Smith's stewardship of Rangers in the continent's premier club competition conjures up certain images.

There's Smith out on the touchline barking at his players, one hand cupped to mouth, the other thrashing the air.

Recall too an angst-ridden Smith in some foreign dugout, face lowered, forefinger and thumb squeezing the temples of his head, the silver hair contrasted against the navy blue of the club blazer. It says "when will this misery end?"

And, occasionally, we see ecstatic Smith, rejoicing at a goal like the fan that he is, hugging his assistant Archie Knox in the 1990s or Ally McCoist in his second term as manager.

When the adrenaline rush subsides, you will have seen him clap his hands in approval as he makes his way back to the dugout, like an excited uncle stepping off the dance floor at a wedding.

The match against the Turkish champions will be Smith's 60th in charge of Rangers in the Champions League and its guises in the past two decades, including qualifying rounds. He has won 18, with just six triumphs from 35 group games.

After last season's Ibrox maulings by Sevilla and Unirea Urziceni and a more palatable defeat by Stuttgart, the notion of "one last crack" at the competition must have held limited appeal to the 62-year-old.

Mark Hateley (centre) is mobbed by his Rangers team-mates after equalising for the home side
Rangers went 10 games unbeaten in the 1992/93 campaign

So it is to his and the players' credit that they have played with renewed confidence in the current campaign, with a goalless draw at Old Trafford, a home win over Bursaspor and a chance-laden 1-1 draw with Valencia helping to soften the pain of last season's two-point "haul".

The impressive run to the 2008 Uefa Cup final, which ended in defeat by Zenit St Petersburg, was bookended by desperate disappointment in the Champions League.

A 2-1 defeat of Stuttgart and a stunning 3-0 win in Lyon was followed by a goalless draw in Barcelona, much to Lionel Messi's chagrin.

With seven points from nine in Group E, the departure of Paul Le Guen after a dismal reign at Ibrox, making way for Smith's return, had almost been forgotten about.

But Barca and the Germans exacted revenge, requiring Smith to guide Rangers to at least a draw with the French side to progress to the last 16.

Instead, with Sidney Govou, Hatem Ben Arfa and Karim Benzema their attacking trio, and Jean-Claude Darcheville missing a sitter for the Light Blues, Lyon left Glasgow with a 3-0 win, two of those goals coming late on.

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Smith, typically understated, described the night as "disappointing" as he and his team slid into Europe's second tournament.

Almost the same team that had taken the club to that Manchester final was stung three months later by FC Kaunas before the new domestic season had begun.

Rangers simply did not play well enough in the 0-0 draw at Ibrox or the 2-1 away defeat, yet the tie did highlight the precariousness of Smith's stature at Ibrox and the nature of Scottish clubs in European competition.

Beaten Uefa Cup finalists, Rangers, by dint of a poor Scottish co-efficient, were forced into an all-or-nothing match, where defeat meant expulsion from Europe before some fans had returned from their summer holidays.

Further, Smith had not strengthened his ageing squad after the glut of games the previous season and a support once accustomed to big summer signings was left bereft of new heroes and European football.

When Smith took over from Graeme Souness as Rangers boss in April 1991 his subsequent seven-year tenure was every bit the rollercoaster of recent years.

Famously, he led Rangers to within 90 minutes of the Champions League final in season 1992/93, its first year after its rebranding, a campaign marked by no losses in 10 games against teams such as Leeds United, CSKA Moscow and Marseille.

On either side of that, though, there were exits on the away goals rule at the first hurdle by Sparta Prague in 1991 in the old European Cup and by Levski Sofia in the Champions League in 1993.

As Smith began to work his way to nine league titles in a row, so the challenge of Europe [as opposed to in Europe] returned with regularity.

Rangers manager Walter Smith
Smith is preparing for his 60th match in Europe's premier contest

August 1994 pitched Rangers against AEK Athens and produced another qualifying round defeat. Then, as now, the step up from the Scottish Premier League to the Champions League was considerable.

The following season, with Paul Gascoigne in midfield adding to Brian Laudrup's creative talents, Rangers survived a nervy qualifying encounter against Anorthosis Famagusta to reach the Champions League where they faced Steaua Bucharest, Borussia Dortmund and Juventus.

Rangers shared four goals in both their ties with the Bundesliga side, but Smith, in the 4-0 and 4-1 thrashings meted out by the Fabrizio Ravanelli and Allesandro Del Piero-inspired Juve, could have heard the echo of his wails in the canyon between the Scots and the Italians.

With another league trophy secured, Smith's men were applauded off the pitch by the fans of Alania Vladikavkaz after their 10-3 aggregate demolition of the Russians in the 1996/97 Champions League qualifier.

Their reward was a group including Grasshoppers, Auxerre and Ajax. A 3-0 opening reverse to the Swiss stunned the Scots, attracting the now familiar accusation that "Rangers can't cut it in Europe".

The three consecutive defeats that followed, including a 4-1 pasting by Ajax, added weight to the critics' claim.

In his final season before heading to Everton, Smith was denied another Champions League campaign when Rangers lost to IFK Gothenburg in the second qualifying round, having knocked out GI Gotu.

Smith had a decade to lick his wounds before entering the fray once more three years ago.

Victory over the Green Crocodiles of Bursaspor on Tuesday would reward him for his persistence in the Champions League - and help to seed Rangers in the Europa League in the new year.

The great Ataturk would admire his appetite for battling against the odds.



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see also
McCoist ready to step up - Smith
06 Dec 10 |  Rangers
Gers boss eyes Bursaspor flourish
06 Dec 10 |  Rangers
Gers positive about Euro future
05 Dec 10 |  Rangers
Bursaspor 1-1 Rangers
07 Dec 10 |  Rangers
Bursaspor fans caught in violence
05 Dec 10 |  Rangers


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