Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

The perfect ending for five-star Smith

Rangers players deliver a fitting finale for Walter

Walter Smith blows a goodbye kiss to the Rangers fans after victory at Rugby Park secured his 10th title as manager

It was a send off that Walter Smith could only have dreamed about.

The Rangers boss would have settled for a scruffy 1-0 win over Kilmarnock at Rugby Park yesterday to clinch the Scottish Premier League ahead of Old Firm rivals Celtic.

What he got was pure fantasy as the Gers turned on the style to hammer Kenny Shiels' side 5-1 to claim another title - number 54 in their history.

Rangers, in particular Kyle Lafferty who struck a superb hat-trick, were in blistering form.

While Celtic fans and manager Neil Lennon were wondering what might have been after losing out by a point despite their 4-0 home victory over Motherwell, Smith and his players were hugging and high fiving in triumph.

They savoured celebrating a third title success in a row and a tenth overall for the gaffer, who can depart the Scottish football scene with an immense sense of pride.

In his first spell in charge of Rangers, Smith won a remarkable seven SPL crowns in succession after taking over in 1991 when Graeme Souness left to manage Liverpool.

Souness put solid foundations in place, but Smith built on them brilliantly and it's easy to forget that, amid all the domestic honours, he took the Gers to the brink of the Champions League final in 1993.

He left in 1998 (surprisingly empty handed in that campaign) to manage Everton, before becoming Sir Alex Ferguson's assistant at Manchester United. Then came the opportunity to be the boss of Scotland, recruiting Ally McCoist as his assistant.

The Scots, after the nightmare reign of Bertie Vogts, flourished under Smith's shrewd guidance, but when Rangers, in distress, came calling after the Paul Le Guen experience, Walter's heart took him back to Ibrox in January 2007.

In 2008 Smith led the Teddy Bears to a UEFA Cup final in Manchester, where they lost to Zenit St Petersburg, before the domestic dominance began again with titles in 2009, 2010 and this year - bringing up double figures in SPL medals to add to six League Cups and five Scottish Cups.

Now the dignified 63-year-old is off again, this time not to return, leaving new boss McCoist to take on Lennon, who seems determined to continue at the Celtic helm next season and beyond.

Celtic fans had hoped that fate would play a hand in their favour on the final day of this campaign, with some believing that, after the tough and testing time Lennon had endured, the footballing gods would shine on him and see to it that he was dancing around Parkhead with the SPL trophy.

Not so. Rangers had a grip on the title entering Helicopter Sunday and they weren't going to let go.

The destination of the silverware may have been up in the air at kick-off but, 47 seconds later, after Lafferty's first exquisite finish, it was obvious where it was going. And Celtic only had themselves to blame.

With glory and the title at their mercy in the final Old Firm match of the season, Georgios Samaras fluffed his lines from the penalty spot with Alan McGregor making a stunning save.

Still, even after that scoreless draw, Celtic were in control of the race going into the final straight, until they lost it with a pitiful performance in a 3-2 defeat at Inverness Caley Thistle, managed by former Ibrox hero Terry Butcher.

That result proved crucial.

From there Rangers knew by winning their remaining games they'd be champions and, unlike Celtic, they didn't crack under the strain.

Instead they revelled in it, scoring goals galore, with the perfect finish coming yesterday.

They started on fire, with their slick passing, hunger and desire overwhelming Kilmarnock. Lafferty, with two, and Steven Naismith had the Gers 3-0 up with just seven minutes gone. It was champagne football, added to in the second half by Lafferty's well taken third and a cracking free-kick from Nikica Jelavic.

What a day for Rangers.

What a day for Lafferty, who has excelled in the last three title run-ins, plus fellow Ulstermen Steve Davis and substitute David Healy, who will cherish their Rugby Park memories.

And what a career for Walter Smith, surely up there with Scottish football's greatest ever managers.

Super Ally has some act to follow.

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