Football management remains a
downright ghastly business. The writhing face, the pinched expression, the
wincing glances and the deathly pallor were only too visible at Hampden Park
The late Celtic and Scotland
manager Jock Stein was granted a minute's applause at Scotland's national
stadium to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his grim death during a World
Cup qualifying match in Wales.
Little did one suspect the
national side was about to embark on a mission to leave its present head coach
Craig Levein wrestling with his own ticker-stopping moments.
To say managing Scotland is
fraught with anxiety would hardly be telling tall stories. The ingredients that saw Stein
collapse and die at Cardiff's Ninian Park were poured into every furrow of
Levein's brow in Scotland's squeamish 2-1 win over Liechtenstein in Glasgow.
Scotland required every one of
the 52 minutes of an elongated second period to recover against a side
languishing in the nether regions of the FIFA rankings. Levein's heartbeat may
have taken a few days longer to resume normal service.
Manchester United manager Sir
Alex Ferguson and Walter Smith of Rangers, two Scots who meet in the Champions
League on Tuesday, are aware of the dubious delights of managing Scotland
having themselves tried out that sobering suit.
Ferguson had succeeded Stein as
Scotland manager after assisting him. He appointed Smith his assistant for the
1986 World Cup finals in Mexico, a campaign that saw Scotland bundled out at
the first group stage.
This is not the only common bond
that unites the sprightly sixty-somethings. Smith worked as Ferguson's
assistant at Old Trafford six years ago, while Ferguson played as a striker for
Rangers in the 1960s.
As the years advance, it is their
projects elsewhere that continue to mark them out as visible assets.
Stein's greatness is enshrined in
folklore as the manager of a Celtic side containing 11 Scots that became the
first British club to clasp the European Cup in 1967. He provided a template
that Ferguson, Smith and others have followed to some effect.
Ferguson was once a plater's
helper in Govan shipyards. Smith trained to be an electrician. They continue to
be practical in football terms.
Ferguson won 11 English Premier
Leagues and two European Cups at United after bringing the European Cup
Winners' Cup to Aberdeen in 1983. Smith was the manager who led Rangers to nine
successive Scottish championships, a feat which allowed them to equal
Celtic's record under Stein in the 1960s.
Smith ran Rangers for seven years
after Graeme Souness headed for Liverpool in 1991. Ally McCoist, the Rangers
assistant manager, once said Smith arrived at Rangers resembling Sasha Distel
and left looking like Steve Martin. He has probably felt as old as Charles
Aznavour in recent times.
In recalling some of Martin's
finer work, Smith has been like the man with two brains: one for football, and
one to deal with the of boom-and-bust era at Ibrox. Financial frailties have
clamped themselves to Rangers like the Union Jack in recent times, yet Smith
has somehow snagged six trophies in three seasons.
Smith is something of an
alchemist, contriving to piece together some waifs and strays to lead Rangers
to the UEFA Cup final in 2008. They lost 2-0 to Zenit St Petersburg, but have
been busy swigging wins in Scotland since the outset of 2007.
Rangers almost reached the 1993
European Cup final under Smith, but despite spending heavily and recruiting men
of the calibre of Paul Gascoigne and Brian Laudrup, he was dubbed a failure in
Smith was later deprived of funds
at Everton and fought a battle against relegation for four years which he never
Some people would describe his
traits as those of a dour Scot, but he has proven himself to be a fabulous
manager and a solid companion to his club.
Ferguson is of a mind that Smith
has saved the good name of Rangers since he returned.
Like Ferguson, Smith gets players
playing for him.
As Scotland manager, he oversaw a
1-0 home win over France during the Euro 2008 qualifiers, but could not reject
the call of Rangers.
A decade has passed since his
first spell at Ibrox, but Smith, 62, is more astute and worldly-wise.
The argument that he was only a
good manager with money to spend has been also been shot dead. As a manager
with no money, he has ridden roughshod over Celtic.
He had not signed a player for
two years until this summer. While Celtic have been feasting on new faces,
Smith has been making do with slivers of silverware. Smith intends to depart on
the 20th anniversary of his elevation to the manager's post at Ibrox, but will
he go? Or should he rethink?
The only way to enjoy retirement
is to get out of bed in the morning and put on your shoes rather than slippers.
There has to be a purpose to
one's life, especially for men steeped in wondering where their next win is
Ferguson, Stein, Bill Shankly and
Sir Matt Busby, all hardy Scots, would arguably merit a spot inside a world's
top 10 of the game's greatest, but Smith's longevity would place him neatly
inside a protruding quartet of the best managers to have adorned the Scottish
Ferguson and Stein may top the
list for conquering foreign lands, but Smith would perhaps follow ahead of Jim
McLean in third place. Smith played for McLean and was his assistant when
United were Scottish champions and came within one game of facing Liverpool in
the 1984 European Cup final.
McLean rejected the chance to
manage Rangers in the 1980s. Smith did not.
Scotland's ability to unearth
competent managers continues, but Scotland is far from a centre of excellence
for unearthing players. It is a curious paradox.
Only England have more managers
in its own Premier League, seven to Scotland's four. Ferguson and Everton's
David Moyes have been joined by the eager Alex McLeish at Birmingham City and
Owen Coyle in Bolton.
Several thousand fans will follow
Rangers to Manchester. To many of their admirers, Smith, like Ferguson, could
get there by walking on water.
Those who make disparaging remarks
about the modern value of Scottish football do not know their history.