All the doubts turn to delight: Smith keeps cool as Rangers boss bows out on a high

Walter Smith has never been the kind of manager to display too much emotion or passion in public, even though few doubt the fire that has burned within the Rangers stalwart.

Nor is he inclined to often flay his players in public in the event of below-par displays.

So he kept his feelings private when, back in January and February, he feared the worst for the Ibrox club’s title bid.

Parting gift: Walter Smith celebrates Rangers' SPL title win

Parting gift: Walter Smith celebrates Rangers' SPL title win

Defeats inside a four-week period at Hearts and Celtic left the Rangers manager nursing deep concerns that his side could ever find the consistency required to compete for Three in a Row.

The 3-0 reverse at Celtic Park took the number of league defeats to four in 24 games. The season before, the record was only three in the entire 38-match campaign.

Rangers had played well in Gorgie but lost 1-0, while at Parkhead an abject display had seen Neil Lennon’s side run rampant. Neither outcome augured well for the champions.

To make matters worse, Kenny Miller had been sold to Bursaspor for £400,000 in January, while Nikica Jelavic was still honing his match fitness after an absence of more than three months. Steven Naismith’s recurring hamstring injury was another problem and Kyle Lafferty was suffering the effects of tonsillitis.

Then, one Friday night in February, Smith confirmed Lee McCulloch was expected to miss the rest of the season.

Key man: Nickia Jelavic's goals were crucial to Rangers' title success

Key man: Nickia Jelavic's goals were crucial to Rangers' title success

His regret and disappointment was audible after losing a man he believed to be a genuine contender for Player of the Year honours.

‘Back in January, knowing we still had further European games to come and having lost Kenny Miller, I did think we might not have the necessary consistency to really mount a challenge,’ said Smith.

‘Jelavic had been out a long time and clearly he had to be given some time to recover full match sharpness. We didn’t have that time.

‘So it was a pleasant surprise for me to find us in contention right into April and May. Even after the Dundee United defeat on the first weekend in April, I told the players they would need to produce a near-perfect winning run to seriously compete with Celtic.

‘My players have been called upon to show a level of resilience and determination over the course of the season.

‘It is to their credit that they managed to deliver in that respect. I know myself what has been asked of them week in, week out. We have had to overcome injuries, suspensions and players moving from one position to another. But they have all handled it very well.’

So, indeed, has Smith.

Double act: Smith and Rangers captain David Weir with the CIS Insurance Cup and the SPL trophy

Double act: Smith and Rangers captain David Weir with the CIS Insurance Cup and the SPL trophy

Gordon Strachan often used to suggest that managerial influence was overstated —  success came down to having quality players. He has a point, but Smith’s leadership has towered over Rangers this season.

Possibly only he and Ally McCoist know the full extent of trying to keep minds on the job during distractions like the takeover, sectarian singing charges, the regular refereeing  conspiracy theories and so on.

Seven Old Firm games in one season was also unprecedented and, even from the outside, it is obvious that would put the respective managements under severe stress and strain.

Celtic, under Lennon, presented another factor, too. Unquestionably stronger opponents than Celtic under Tony Mowbray. So much so, in fact, that Smith leaves Rangers with Lennon as the only Parkhead boss to beat him in a derby head-to-head record.

Make no mistake, a lot of what has taken place this season has irked Smith deeply.

A quiet fury enveloped him from October 24 onwards — when Lennon pointed the  finger at referee Willie Collum and Ibrox midfielder McCulloch when, from the Rangers perspective, a clutch of their players had been subjected to robust challenges.

Remember, that was only the first match of what became a marathon between the Old Firm. Safe to say a few  vendettas were stoked up over the course of those games, yet somehow Smith managed to avoid the worst of the controversies.

Big shoes to fill: Ally McCoist will take over as Rangers manager

Big shoes to fill: Ally McCoist will take over as Rangers manager

He even held back McCoist at Parkhead when his assistant seemed hellbent on entering the Celtic dugout and, for that moment alone, his  successor should be grateful..

Perhaps it was not that much of a surprise, however, that Smith kept his head that night when all around were losing theirs.

He did the same throughout the ownership saga and a previous two-year spell without signing a player.

One day, he might admit to a regret that he brought in El-Hadji Diouf in January when allowed a little leeway in the market after Miller’s departure. Selling Danny Wilson and Kevin Thomson for a combined £4million and bringing in Jelavic stands as a better example of shrewd business. One Smith himself made a point of addressing.

Other earlier signings like the three Stevens — Naismith, Whittaker and Davis — have proved their worth for Smith and Rangers this season.

Events at Rugby Park ensured any nervous tension could quickly be erased.

Instead, Rangers could celebrate another title success — worthy winners of an SPL championship even the departing manager feared was beyond them.

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