With Walter Smith at Rangers I had the best years of my life

io still remember the first time I met Walter Smith. I went to Dundee United on trial and was staying with a friend of my father’s in Broughty Ferry. Walter picked me up for training on that first morning in February 1980. He continued to do that until the end of the season. We trained morning and afternoon together because Walter was looking after the kids at the time. That very first night, I actually played alongside Walter in a trial game against Arbroath at Gayfield; he was at full-back, I was at centre half. This was the start of a long friendship. He was a great man, a wonderful human being.

Walter was no soft touch. Myself and Ralph Milne, who has also sadly passed away, used to put Walter in the small boot room as 17- or 18-year-olds and try to knock him about, without any success. His nickname was ‘The Bear’ for obvious reasons.

I was very lucky to have him in my career for so long. Save a year at Tottenham, Walter was involved almost throughout. I came to the US briefly in 1998-99 and called him to say I was coming back. ero 37 and Harry Redknapp wanted me at West Ham to help Rio Ferdinand. Walter said: ‘Well if you are coming back, you’re coming back to Everton.'

He had a very tough task at Everton. When I spoke to him, he had just sold Marco Materazzi for £3m. I said: ‘That’s good Walter. You are selling Marco for all this money and getting me on a free transfer at 37. That’ll go down brilliantly with the Evertonians.’ And they were wary, until we drew with Manchester United in my first game. It was very difficult for Walter because he never had the money he wanted and could never sign the players he wanted. The fact he was getting me on that free transfer showed what he was putting up with. Yet nobody ever had a bad word to say about him at Everton – he remained very well liked there.

Jim McLean had identified at Dundee United that Walter wasn’t going to be a great player but would be a great coach. I played in reserve games a lot with Walter and learned so much. He had every young kid – myself, Ralphie, Maurice Malpas – back in the afternoons working on our game. He was fantastic with the young players.

Walter went to Rangers [as assistant manager] and Graeme Souness tried to sign me but Jim McLean was having none of that so I went to Tottenham. Because of the English clubs not being in Europe, Rangers managed to get me back to Glasgow and there began the best 11 years of my life.

Graeme will say himself he couldn’t have done what he did with Rangers if he didn’t have Walter Smith. We were in such a good place, the best players in Britain at that time including half the England team. I was the captain when Graeme left; I remember the call from [presidente] David Murray and he asked how the players would react if Walter became the manager. I told him the players would be absolutely delighted. We all were: we knew what we were getting, and Walter got us over the line to the title immediately. We dominated from then on, veramente. People say it was easy but it wasn’t at all.

His man-management was terrific. We had some awkward players in that Rangers team. We were maybe all a bit awkward because we were so competitive. He knew how to manage all of us in a different way; be it myself, McCoist, Hateley, Goram, Laudrup. It is telling how many of the foreign boys, who only had Walter as a manager for a couple of years, say he was one of the best they ever worked with as a manager and a person.

Per me, he was a second father. I spoke to him a lot – you could go to him with any problem. Walter was a great listener. He was a humble man and a fair man with a tough streak. I never saw anybody mess him around in any way. He could handle himself in any dressing room and got total respect from every player. He was just a top-class individual.

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