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‘He was fantastic’: When Walter Smith joined Alex Ferguson at Manchester United

One of the biggest turning points in Walter Smith’s stellar career happened when he was sacked by Everton in March 2002.

For the first time in decades, he had been released from the irksome task of dealing with agents and journalists on a regular basis and could spend as much time as he desired with his family and attend to business at his Glasgow hostelry, The Rosevale, while visiting his beloved Ibrox.

Yet, a redoubtable figure such as Smith was never going to be content with bowing quietly out of football, developing a sudden passion for gardening or twiddling his thumbs as he waited for his bus pass.

On the contrary, he looked on aghast at Scotland’s decline under Berti Vogts and maintained lines of communication with senior figures in the game.

However, it was still with a slight sense of incredulity that Smith received a phone call early one morning in March 2004 from the Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, asking whether he would be interested in travelling to Old Trafford and working as his assistant for the remainder of the season.

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson with new assistant manager Walter Smith, right, and Mike Phelan.

The Scot, who died this week aged 73, was told that he would be filling the shoes of Carlos Queiroz, who had previously departed to join Real Madrid.

It took him, oh, roughly half a second to reach a decision and, as Smith said later, this was not the sort of invitation anybody in football would have refused, even though the offer “felt like something out of a movie”.

He added: “The chance to come to Manchester United was something which I couldn’t possibly turn down.

“There are few bigger challenges than helping a successful side sustain their achievements and I have huge admiration for what Sir Alex has done at United, so I am very excited to be a part of it.”

Back in the tracksuit again

He recognised in advance that his stint would be a short one, and was well aware that Ferguson’s team had endured a difficult season – they eventually finished in third place in the Premiership, 15 points behind Arsene Wenger’s all-conquering Arsenal artillery – but that was immaterial.

As the tracksuit was pulled back on again, in readiness for dealing with players of the calibre of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and the Red Devils’ summer signing, Cristiano Ronaldo, Smith felt refreshed and back on the beat where he belonged, even if the scale of the club’s resources took him aback after the privations he had experienced at Goodison Park.

He was only at United a short time, but he was fantastic.”

Sir Alex Ferguson

He said: “It was incredible, even after everything which I had been through in the game.

“It wasn’t just the 67,000 people at every home match and the worldwide fan base, where you received constant reminders way in excess of what is attached to any other club in the world, but I also wasn’t prepared for the demands which were placed on the players.

“Everybody wanted a piece of them. All the time. It was exhausting.

“But thankfully, I knew what I had been brought there to do and I would like to think I justified the faith shown in me by Sir Alex.

Sir Alex Ferguson with Walter Smith during their spell at Manchester United.
Sir Alex Ferguson with Walter Smith during their spell at Manchester United.

“In the past 11 years, they have had one third-placed finish, but in winning eight titles during that time, they have never failed to claim the championship in back-to-back seasons and that is a marvellous record by any standards.

“Before I came here, I always considered that Sir Alex was one of the best managers the British game has ever produced.

“But now, after watching him at close quarters, in a club environment, seeing how he pulls together the vast number of strands which are attached to the job, I don’t think he is one of the best. I know he is the best.”

Helping Cristiano Ronaldo improve

Even though he only spent a few months in Manchester, Smith made a big impression on a number of United players – including Ronaldo, the teenage wunderkind, who had arrived in the full glare of the media spotlight.

Indeed, the former United and Scotland player, Darren Fletcher, has revealed how his compatriot took unconventional steps to toughen up the Portuguese maestro during some intensive training sessions.

He said: “With Ronaldo, you could always see his talent and ability – it was obvious, and that is why the club had signed him based on that pre-season game when he tore us apart playing for Sporting Lisbon.

Cristiano Ronaldo in action for Manchester United against Rangers during his first spell at Old Trafford.

“He was a charismatic kid who had the ability and drive to become the best player in the world, but he frustrated the life out of everybody.

“Everybody thought that if he could learn, it would take him up to the next level and then Walter Smith came in and decided not to give fouls in training.

“For the next two weeks, Ronaldo was tearing his hair out at what happened.

“He was going bananas because it was open season for fouling him, but it made him a better player.”

It might have been a lesson learned from the school of hard knocks, but these unorthodox methods paid off for United, Ferguson and Ronaldo who became one of the greatest players in the game, winning five Ballon d’Or titles.

Walter Smith, Dundee United’s assistant manager, and Alex Ferguson, Aberdeen manager, at Glasgow Airport in 1985.

There was no denying the mutual appreciation which existed between Ferguson and Smith, whether working together with Scotland or during that short, sharp visit to Old Trafford, prior to him riding to his country’s rescue.

No wonder that Ferguson paid such a rich tribute to his comrade this week.

He said: “Walter was a great friend of mine for years and years.

“I had him as my assistant at United in 2004 and he was also my assistant when Scotland went to the World Cup (in Mexico)  in 1986.

Alex Ferguson, left, with assistant Walter Smith at Scotland training in 1986.
Alex Ferguson, left, with assistant Walter Smith at Scotland training in 1986.

“In all that time, you were dealing with a man with a great moral compass in how he lived his life and the friendship he offered so many people.

“His contribution to football with Dundee United, Rangers, Scotland, Everton and Man United was immense.

“He was only at United a short time, but he was fantastic.

“I lost Carlos Queiroz to Real Madrid and I knew I needed an assistant, so I phoned Walter about it and he came for six months and helped us win the FA Cup against Millwall (with a 3-0 victory at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff).

“He had a wonderful connection with people because he was a great listener, that was one of his greatest qualities.

“He listened and he showed an interest in people and helped everyone he could. It is such a loss to the game and to everyone that knew him.”

Two peas from the same pod. Shining brightly in the sport they graced.