EXCLUSIVE: Steven has made it look easy: Rangers royalty Walter Smith bows in deference to the remarkable efforts of born leader Gerrard
- Steven Gerrard has made a demanding Rangers job look easy, says Walter Smith
- The Gers boss has delivered the club’s 55th league title and the first since 2011
- Smith believes the Liverpool legend has handled the media superbly this term
- He hailed him for improving every single player to spur them to the title triumph
- Gerrard should be ‘careful’ over his next move amid links to ex-club Liverpool
Over two spells in charge of Rangers Walter Smith learned just how hard it could be to manage a footballing institution.
The scrutiny is savage. The demands are draining. The expectations are endless. The finances fluctuate.
For two seasons Steven Gerrard embarked on one of the trickiest crash courses in football management. Yet, when the pressure to stop Celtic winning ten-in-a-row reached breaking point the former England captain ripped off the L-plates.
Steven Gerrard has made managing Rangers look easy, according to former boss Walter Smith
The Gers secured their first Scottish Premiership title since 2011 on Sunday
And Ibrox legend Smith has marvelled at how easy he made it all look in the midst of a relentless march to the club’s first league title in 10 years.
‘The one thing you could say about Steven right from the start is that he is suited to a big club environment,’ Smith told Sportsmail.
‘I always loathe to use the word ‘easy’ in connection with managing Rangers. It’s not. But he made it look at times as if he had been doing the job for a few years.
‘Everybody talks about Scottish football and how it’s not the level of England. And you would need to be mad to say that it is. But there is a proportional aspect to football. And running Rangers and Celtic is the same in Scotland as running Liverpool or Manchester United or Manchester City in England.
It’s clear that Gerrard is not fazed by managing a big club like Rangers, Smith added
Smith says managing an ‘institution’ such as Rangers is akin to coaching a club like Man United
‘It has the same focus and the same problems. The English clubs have significantly more finance and that helps, but Rangers is not only the perfect grounding for somebody to come in and learn.
‘It’s also a very difficult and challenging environment for someone to come in and learn as well.’
Taught some harsh lessons in his first two seasons, Gerrard proved a fast learner.
This season there were no close up celebrations in a Sky camera. He resolved to shut down much of the noise surrounding the club’s affairs. The blinkers came on and everything focussed on one final goal.
The title was effectively won weeks ago. Even then he maintained the ‘one game at a time’ mantra until the triumphant end. Anyone showing the slightest lapse in humility or professionalism was slapped down.
The Liverpool legend has proven to be a fast learner to end Celtic’s strangehold on the title
‘Steven’s handling of the media this season has been terrific,’ adds Smith.
‘Even if you have been a really good player and grown accustomed to handling the press, being a manager is slightly different because you are in talking about someone else. You are not talking about yourself anymore.
‘So overall I think he cannot take enough credit for what he has done.’
Smith had a better appreciation of the job he took on than most. His own first crack at management came at Rangers in 1991 after five years as assistant to Graeme Souness.
Souness arrived in Glasgow like a firework in 1986 and fizzed across the footballing landscape.
Smith hailed Gerrard for his handling of the media this season and keeping his squad focused
While Gerrard’s impact has been more of a slow and steady burn, Smith sees parallels between the two situations.
‘It’s not an identical scenario,’ he tells Sportsmail. ‘But you have someone coming from being an iconic player at a specific club and then stepping into management.
‘In Graeme’s case it was player management in the first year. Think back to Graeme coming in and Rangers hadn’t won the league for nine years back then either.
‘Celtic had won five, Aberdeen three and Dundee United one, but Rangers hadn’t won it for nine years and there was an immediate uplift in the place. At that time we were able to get players like Graeme himself, Terry Butcher and Chris Woods.
‘Rangers already had players like Davie Cooper and Ally McCoist. They had players there who would get a boost from Graeme coming in and, in that first year, we managed to get the boost from winning the league.
He compared Gerrard’s arrival at Rangers to the impact of former boss Graeme Souness (R)
‘Both have had a real effect on the club in a short space of time. There are real parallels.
‘There is one difference in that Steven has not been able to get England internationals like Terry Butcher and Chris Woods in the current era. But every season he has been there the team has improved.
‘You are seeing that most obviously in this, a quite remarkable season. Celtic have dominated Scottish football over the last few years. And people are saying they are not playing as well.
‘But I still don’t think that takes away from Steven’s achievement. You have to say that Rangers are playing particularly well. Their statistics have been fantastic over the season.
Gerrard deserves immense praise for taking all of his players to another level, Smith says
‘When you see how Steven has stepped into the job he has made it look natural.’
In Smith’s company Gerrard has been respectful, sometimes even deferential. He spoke on Friday of the older man acting as an informal managerial mentor, always available on the end of a phone.
When a man has won ten Scottish titles, five Scottish Cups, six League Cups and steered the club to a European final it makes sense to access his database of knowledge. Now 73 and quietly retired, however, one of Scottish football’s elder statesmen has been careful. He only offers advice when it’s asked for.
‘Steven said a couple of times to me to come to training any time and it was very nice of him to say so. Over the last year that has been more difficult, because you have to be tested to go up.
‘But I have been a couple of times and the club have invested heavily in the training centre – and I dare say it’s Steven leading them in that respect.
Gerrard invited Smith to training and he was impressed with how the boss has set things up
‘The place is immaculate now, everything is great. He has also changed the playing area at Ibrox, the area where the players are on matchdays. The dressing rooms and the rooms round about those have all changed and he has lead all that change.
‘He has been in and done all that and come in and changed the environment. It’s good management that. But the hardest job he faced was on the pitch and if you look at the players there every one of them has improved over the period of his tenure. That, for me, is the main factor in their improvement.’
In taking a punt on Gerrard Rangers always knew the deal. And, at times, his status in the game has provided protection against harsh scrutiny.
Yet failure this season would have meant gift wrapping a historic tenth title for bitter rivals Celtic. There would have been no hiding place.
The price to be paid for success is inevitable speculation over a return to Anfield as Jurgen Klopp’s successor.
Gerrard has been linked as a replacement for Jurgen Klopp (R) at Liverpool, but Smith believes he should be ‘careful’ over his next move
Recent reports suggest the German could be tempted to succeed Joachim Lowe as national team boss. With a crack at the Champions League on the horizon, however, Smith believes Gerrard will tread carefully.
‘Rangers and Celtic, for any prospective manager, is a great place to learn your trade. If you have the ability to do so there is nowhere better.
‘Steven has shown that he has that ability and where is he going to jump to that is going to give him what he needs? He’ll be careful in what he does. He will be careful in the next move that he makes.
‘But for now he has won the league in Scotland and the Champions League is a huge attraction for anyone.
‘I cannot speak highly enough about how he has handled the whole experience of managing Rangers. After a long hard journey he has turned them into deserved champions.’
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