The true spirit of the late, great former Rangers manager Walter Smith, who sadly passed away last Tuesday, is revealed in his contrasting dealings with two young apprentices from Belfast who arrived at Ibrox with high hopes of a career in football.
John Douglas and Paul McKnight arrived in Glasgow aged just 16 and shared digs in Bishopbriggs while at Rangers.
Douglas spent three happy years with the Glasgow giants before returning home to play for Linfield, Crusaders, Glenavon, Lisburn Distillery, Bangor and Ards.
McKnight suffered a broken hip when he was 19 but the Gers persevered with him before he left for St Mirren after seven years at Ibrox.
Douglas is currently assistant manager to Lee Feeney at Bangor and the pair are famous for their lust for life and at times colourful antics.
Here, Douglas and McKnight, through STEPHEN LOONEY, look back on their time together at Ibrox under the legendary Smith and offer fascinating insights into the man-management skills of the respected Scot.
“He was an unbelievable man,” Douglas told Sunday Life Sport. “He had empathy for everyone, he oozed charisma and you can’t teach those things. Walter was a natural.
“When he spoke, everyone listened, he didn’t have to raise his voice. He knew what to say and when to say it, and he left you feeling uplifted.
“He had a way of getting his message across without getting angry. He was softly spoken and respected by everyone who knew him.
“His assistant, Archie Knox, he could raise his voice but Walter just had to look at you.
“He and I had a great relationship in my time at Rangers, I felt he took to me and he helped me with some problems I had in my life at the time.”
Douglas is celebrated for a fund of humorous stories from his time in Glasgow, where he was close friends with Duncan Ferguson, and has been on the receiving end of the banter as well as dishing it out.
“There was one time when I was getting fitted out with a new club suit, and after I tried it on I came out from the changing room to ask Lauren, the girl in charge, ‘Can I have a new tie? This one’s too tight’.
“That was tongue in cheek but I have to confess to a story about a TV that I blamed Paul McKnight on, and I think Lee also got the blame at one stage.
“Back then, Paul and I were in digs in Bishopbriggs with a Christian family. We didn’t know the area, there wasn’t much to do after training except stay in our rooms and watch TV – and there were only four channels back then!
“Anyway, I was bored silly watching Scottish news so I made a remark to Paul. I said, ‘I’m going to bring my own TV from home over so I can watch UTV’.”
McKnight chimed in about the incident: “I just looked over at Dougie and said, ‘Are you being serious? And he replied, ‘Yes, I am’. I didn’t even say anything in return, I just shook my head.”
Douglas says he took plenty of stick about that one but worse was to follow as he reveals verbatim a yarn about how he ended up in serious hot water with boss Smith after being stitched up by Knox.
“I was walking past the manager’s office one day, I was 16 or 17, an apprentice, and he called me in,” he said.
“‘Dougie! Come in here!’” he said. He was in his office with a towel wrapped around him, ready to go for a shower in the bathroom he had beside his office.
“Archie Knox was there too and Walter said, ‘Can you do me a favour? See those shoes, can you give them a polish for me? And I want them gleaming, mind’.
“I said, ‘Aye, no problem’ and he walked off for his shower. Archie then said to me, ‘Dougie, make sure you have plenty of polish on the soles of those shoes’ and off I went downstairs.
“Well, I took pride in the job, I polished all over Walters shoes, particularly on the soles, plenty of polish just as Archie told me, and I went back upstairs.
“‘Did you put plenty of polish on the soles?’ asked Archie, because Walter was still in the shower, and I said, ‘Aye, I did’.
“The next morning, I walked in and Peter Jacobs at the front door of Ibrox said, ‘Here Dougie, a bit of advice, don’t get changed, don’t do anything, go straight to the manager’s office’ and off I went, wondering what was up.
“I walked up and Walter, Archie, Davie Dodds and John McGregor were all in the room, waiting for me. I said, ‘Were you looking to see me Gaffer?’ and he said, ‘Dougie, come in’.
“He didn’t raise his voice once, he just knew and he said, ‘Dougie, did I ask you to polish my shoes yesterday?’ And I said, ‘Yes, Gaffer. Did I do a good job?’
“‘Can I ask you a question?’, he said. “‘Did you put polish on my soles?’ I hadn’t polished shoes before and I said, ‘Yes, Gaffer. Archie told me to’.
“Then he said, ‘I have a brand new Mercedes Dougie, with cream carpets. It was dark last night so I couldn’t see.
“‘I got home and we also have cream carpets in our house. So I have now walked black boot polish into the cream carpets in both my
car and my house’.”
“The blood drained from me as I just stood there, looking at Walter. Then the coaches all burst out laughing and Walter started laughing too.
“He just asked me questions to get to the bottom of the boot polish mystery and once he knew, he saw the funny side of it. He didn’t take it thick and he never held it against me.”
Like a lot of lads his age, Douglas failed to make the breakthrough and decided to return to Northern Ireland.
“I left Rangers to come home, and 12 months later myself, Lee and Warren Feeney went to an Old Firm game at Ibrox, and we were staying in the same hotel as the team.
“After settling in we went downstairs for a beer, and saw Walter and Ally McCoist in the lounge. I didn’t know whether to say hello after so long, if they would remember me or even if I wanted them to remember me!
“They both spotted me and called me over though, and Walter said, ‘Dougie, how are you doing?’ and I replied, ‘I’m doing well Walter, thanks’.
“Coisty was straight in, ‘What do you mean Walter?’ and I said, ‘Sorry, Gaffer’. That’s the respect he had.”
“Everything was going great for me at the start of my time at Rangers under Walter,” said former U21 international McKnight, who also played for Linfield and Glenavon when he returned home.
“I came through the ranks and made my debut at Ibrox, but then I suffered a broken hip when I was 19 that kept me out for a year.
“It was a testimonial game and I don’t remember who it was against, but I do remember the pain I felt when I twisted and landed on the hip. It was excruciating.
“I stayed at the club because the doctors thought it could be fixed and stayed for seven years in total, so they must have seen something in me.
“Recovering from a serious injury can be a lonely place to be but Walter always had that knack of knowing what to say to you and when to say it, and he didn’t have to do it.
“He was manager of Rangers, going for nine in a row with all the pressure that brings, but he still had time for a young lad like me.
“One time when I was rehabilitating from the injury, he called me to say, ‘Paul, I need 20 minutes of your time’ and he spoke to me to assure me I would get all the help and support I needed.
“He asked me how I was, how I was feeling, if he could help me with anything. He left me feeling 10ft tall. I was reinvigorated.
“He would also take time out to phone my parents in Belfast, again just to reassure them and that was special. He did it every couple of months, he was just the best of the best.
“I never met anyone who had a bad word to say about the man.
“Even when he took on the Scotland job, he brought Tommy Burns, a Celtic icon, on board with him, bringing everyone together and it was a special time for Scotland”.
Again, just like his flatmate Douglas, McKnight reveals the fun-loving side to both Smith and his trusted No.2, Archie Knox.
Both had a hugely competitive side to their nature but the man from the Four Winds in South Belfast says he managed to get one over on his old bosses after training.
“The Rangers home dressing room was sacred, but at the end of every day Walter and Archie would put netting up across the room so we could play head tennis — and they were brilliant at it, they beat everybody!
“I managed to beat them once, with whoever my partner was. I don’t remember that but I will always remember Archie saying to me afterwards, ‘Not bad McKnight, not bad wee man’ and that was a real compliment coming from Archie.
“I was lucky enough to be around the first team and only for my hip injury I would have played more than the two times I did for Rangers.
“I will never criticise Walter or Rangers. They could have kicked me to the kerb when I suffered the injury, but they didn’t and Walter was always there to support me through the dark days and put an arm around the shoulder if I needed it.”