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Page last updated at 22:45 GMT, Sunday, 20 March 2011

Rangers 'score' so satisfying for Walter Smith

Scottish League Cup highlights - Celtic 1-2 Rangers

League Cup Highlights - Celtic 1-2 Rangers

By Keir Murray
BBC Scotland at Hampden

Walter Smith struck a familiar pose as he was interviewed on the pitch after Rangers' 2-1 extra-time win over Celtic in the Co-operative Insurance Cup final.

Hands in the pockets of his grey slacks, sensible brown brogues planted amongst the red, white and blue confetti that rained down on Hampden, he answered the questions that came his way as a matter of routine.

But having lifted his last trophy at Hampden as Rangers manager, Smith's voice cracked with emotion.

The Silver Fox will soon retire to his lair.

This latest League Cup win, his sixth, brings his haul of silverware while in charge of the Ibrox club to 20 - "the Rangers score" has new meaning.

Smith has 11 matches remaining in his second tenure as Rangers manager before he hands over the reins to Ally McCoist, currently his assistant.

Walter Smith holds the Co-operative Insurance Cup aloft
Smith savours his final Hampden trophy triumph

Rangers' financial troubles and the saga of its ownership are well documented. Their latest set of accounts are due to be made public any day, while there are suggestions that Craig Whyte's proposed takeover of the club from Sir David Murray is at the make-or-break stage.

The veteran manager is working with his smallest ever squad and he has been hamstrung in his transfer dealings in recent seasons as the bank insists on the club reducing its debt, the purchase last summer of Nikica Jelavic, the match-winner at Hampden, a rare indulgence.

The Ibrox cost-cutting, combined with Champions League involvement, should show that about a third has been sliced from the club's debt that at one point was nudging £31m.

Against this backdrop, Smith has continued to deliver success for the club. With the League Cup in the trophy cabinet, Rangers will try to make it three Scottish Premier League titles in a row over the coming weeks.

The club has considerable assets in goalkeeper Allan McGregor and midfielder Steven Davis, but Smith, quite simply, should have a separate entry on the balance sheet.

What is his value to Rangers?

Rangers were underdogs at Hampden. They had been soundly beaten in their last two games against Celtic, an injury to Kyle Bartley had limited their defensive options, they had been knocked out of the Europa League on Thursday evening and there was a sense their season could unravel if Celtic were to triumph at Hampden.

Smith's preference against Celtic is for a 5-4-1 formation. Whether a tactical masterstroke or made necessary by scarce resources, he had to abandon that for Sunday's final and his decision to take the game to Celtic in a 4-4-2 paid handsome dividends.

Walter Smith lauds 'deserved' Cup victory

Playing just behind Jelavic, Steven Naismith was waspish up front for Rangers.

His willingness to chase and harry had an unsettling effect on the Celtic rearguard, where Thomas Rogne and Charlie Mulgrew were paired in the middle, and they were unable to build attacks to test consistently Rangers' defence.

Unlike previous Old Firm games this season, the ball stuck in the Celtic half: the waves of Celtic attacks were less ominous.

One cannot suppress the feeling that Smith's players, a small group augmented by the promotion of Kyle Hutton and Gregg Wylde from the youth ranks, wanted desperately to win the trophy for their manager in his final Hampden outing and gave everything to achieve it.

Man-of-the-match Steven Davis was instrumental in all that was good about Rangers. His 24th minute strike to open the scoring instilled a belief in his team-mates but that was tested when Celtic equalised through Joe Ledley's header seven minutes later.

As the Celtic fans celebrated in a verdant haze created by a smoke bomb, the Rangers end, for a spell, sulked in a blue funk.

Despite the classic cup final setting, with the ground split 50-50 between the two sets of fans, Celtic could not reach top form.

Midfield playmaker Beram Kayal and thrilling left-back Emilio Izaguirre were competent but did not have the space to shine in front of the 51,181 supporters.

Davis blunted the Israeli's effect while striker Kyle Lafferty's deployment on the right side of midfield stemmed the Honduran's incursions into Rangers' terrain.

If it was nip-and-tuck at half-time, Rangers enjoyed the bulk of pressure in the second half.

However, Madjid Bougherra's departure through injury and the defensive reshuffling that ensued - Edu to right-back, Whittaker to centre-half, Hutton into midfield - was reflected in a gradual retreat towards Neil Alexander's goal as Celtic, inspired by the impressive substitute Ki Sung-Yeung, pushed for a winner.

Smith's first visit to the touchline to bark instructions was in the 82nd minute. Rangers hung on to take the game into extra-time.

David Weir, approaching 41, and derided by critics in recent weeks, strolled through the additional half hour.

Walter Smith waves to the Rangers fans
Smith salutes the Rangers fans at the end of a dramatic cup final

Perhaps we should not have been surprised, for his crunching tackle on Celtic striker Georgios Samaras in the final minute of normal time, to concede a throw-in, epitomised his appetite for the job.

Meanwhile, Gary Hooper, whose vivacity at Celtic Park in previous games had thrown Weir's age into sharp relief, was anonymous until he blazed over from close range at the very end.

The intensity of the match did not relent and each foul and throw-in was contested by the baying banks of fans.

While Neil Lennon was marooned in the main stand serving his touchline ban, Rangers had McCoist and Smith directing affairs from the technical area.

The Rangers boss sent on Vladimir Weiss for the exhausted Lafferty, who left the pitch in slow motion, and the Slovak's contribution was significant.

His first involvement was to run at Celtic, for which he ended up the filling in a hooped sandwich.

Weiss, a loan signing from Manchester City, added a spark to a tiring side and it was his quick-thinking that released Jelavic to run through on Fraser Forster's goal to score the winner in the 98th minute.

I have never seen a bench react like the Rangers one in front of me. McCoist hared around, roaring, with his arms aloft while the face of substitute keeper Allan McGregor was puce as he exploded with joy.

In a few moments, though, the goalie was pointing to his temples, imploring his team-mates to maintain their concentration.

Rangers players celebrate thier Cup victory

Rangers players celebrate Cup win

So Jelavic became the cup final hero. At times his touch and awareness are reminiscent of Dimitar Berbatov, yet at others he looks like he is playing wearing ice skates.

But the Croatian striker had the measure of Mulgrew and having out-paced him for the winner, he almost added another when one-on-one with him in the second period of extra-time.

In that instance, Mulgrew was booked for hauling the Rangers forward down at the edge of the box.

Celtic could not find a way past Rangers' makeshift defence and, just as they had done with nine men when winning the trophy against St Mirren last season, their team spirit saw them across the finishing line.

Smith was last up the steps at Hampden as Weir climbed to claim the silverware.

In the years to come, when Smith is sauntering along the esplanade at Helensburgh in his retirement, he will surely be able to recall the roar that greeted his hoisting of the cup.

The finishing line is in sight for the veteran. Will there be 21st celebrations for the 63-year-old on the final day of the SPL season?

And, intriguingly, have Rangers fans witnessed the end of 5-4-1?



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see also
Celtic 1-2 Rangers (aet)
20 Mar 11 |  Scottish Cups
Rangers 'proved doubters wrong'
20 Mar 11 |  Rangers
Photo gallery - Celtic v Rangers
20 Mar 11 |  Scotland
League Cup final as it happened
20 Mar 11 |  Scottish Cups
Old Firm bosses face tough decisions
19 Mar 11 |  Scottish Cups
Weir experience key for Gers
18 Mar 11 |  Scottish Cups
Chick Young's cup final preview
18 Mar 11 |  Scottish Cups
Rangers keep Smith for final year
25 May 10 |  Rangers
Walter Smith's career in photos
26 May 10 |  Rangers


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