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Wattie's Dream...


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DAYDREAM ACHIEVER

by Darrel King

HE allowed him-self an occasional glance up to the mural of the dozen Rangers' managers that adorns the wall of the famous Ibrox Blue Room.

A youthful looking Walter Smith is already there from his first stint at the club, not far away from the legendary figure of Willie Waddell.

Come next Wednesday night in Manchester, Smith could stand shoulder to shoulder with the great man as one of only two Gers bosses to win a European trophy.

Smith was a 24-year-old in the books of Dundee United when Waddell took the club to their finest hour back in 1972.

advertisementdo_dp_ad();But now he finds himself on the edge of greatness. After playing down Rangers chances round after round, Smith has dared to dream, with the Russians, Zenit St Petersburg, standing between him and folklore.

"I was in Dundee living at the team in 1972," Smith recalled, "Obviously growing up as a Rangers fan you knew what a massive thing it was.

"Things change a bit when you start playing for another club, but you always appreciate what is going on at the club you support. Barcelona was the club's finest achievement, and here we are 36 years on back in a final for the first time.

"It would mean everything to go and win it next week. For the club, for the fans, for the chairman. Personally, you just want to win when you get here for the first time - but Dick Advocaat will be the same."

Of course, some 15 years ago, Smith came within an inch of a European Cup Final just a couple of years after taking over from Graeme Souness.

At that time he had constructed a superb Rangers side, full of quality Scottish players and with a good foreign mix. In the inaugural Champions League, Rangers went to Marseille knowing a win for either side would secure a place in the Olymlpic Stadium against AC Milan.

That game ended 1-1, and it went to the final group match. Rangers failed to beat CSKA Moscow, but that result was rendered immaterial as the French side won in Brugge.

They also triumphed over the Italians in Germany courtesy of a Basile Boli goal, a player Smith was later to bring to Scotland.

But Marseille's win was tainted by allegations of corruption and match-fixing by their then president, Bernard Tapie, who subsequently found himself in serious trouble with the law.

FOR all of the murkiness that surrounded the situation, Smith only really had one major issue still fresh in his mind from that 1992/93 European run.

"I think it (allegations of corruption) would annoy anybody," he said, "I have said previously that, when all the aspects of it were brought up, the one real contentious issue for me was the ordering-off of Mark Hateley against Brugge at Ibrox.

"It meant he was banned for Marseille and if had won that game, we would have been in the final.

"It is still something that rankles with me a little and sticks in the back of your mind. I still cannot work out the sending off."

Smith had various attempts at reaching that kind of stage again in the subsequent years, only to be met with disaster at almost every turn.

As the Champions League evolved, Rangers' results got poorer, despite the fact they had injected quality such as Brian Laudrup and Paul Gascoigne into their ranks.

It is, therefore, not an over- exaggeration to suggest that this current Rangers side, spirited and committed as they are, have shocked many people - Smith included - by getting to the Uefa Cup Final.

They will contest their 19th European match in the City of Manchester Stadium against the Russians, despite Smith's fears that the European arena could have caused untold damage to what was, in the main, an untested squad at that level.

Smith explained: "When you stick a new group together it involves quite a bit of movement, but the one aspect I worried about was the spirit.

"Credit to the backroom lads for working hard on the unity of the team and we have managed to achieve a really good team spirit in a short period of time. That helped us get over the initial teething problems.

"Early on, we just wanted the team to settle down and become reasonably successful, not to the level we have achieved.

"I thought getting past the qualifiers in the Champions League was as much as we could have achieved this season.

"And I was concerned more by the impact the Champions League would have on our confidence. I genuinely thought things might not have gone too well because of the calibre of opposition.

"I did say that I worried about the impact of heavy losses. It was only natural because the teams we played against had a degree of success.

"Lyon are going for their seventh title in France, Barcelona are Barcelona and VfB Stuttgart have won one of the most competitive leagues in Europe.

"We had achieved second place in the SPL and, to be honest, weren't even challenging. I thought it might be a bit too much for us. But the boys just grew and grew. Even when we suffered the disappointment of losing to Lyon and going out of the Champions League, they got back into it and battled away to qualify against Panathinaikos in Athens.

"They regrouped and met the challenges. Every one of them deserved enormous credit for what they have achieved, I am very proud of them."

BUT Smith knows it will take an exceptional display in Manchester next week. Zenit, backed by the millions from energy company GazProm, have handed Advocaat over £25m to spend on new players since he arrived, and that brought them the Russian title last season.

With the Iron Curtain now thrust open to players from Europe and South America, times are changing in Russia.

Smith said: "The football, like the whole country, is going through a period of great change, and for the first time the foreign influx is really starting to have an effect on the league.

"We have seen it grow, and whether they can get the same profile and glamour of the Premiership and Serie A I suppose is down to how much money they are willing to continue to invest.

"The whole situation in Russia has changed very quickly, almost overnight, and it has happened with the football, too. It is not without its problems with the foreign influx and it will take a little while to settle down.

"As time goes on and they continue to outbid a lot of countries, every season they could sign bigger and better players.

"In the early part of the European campaign, Zenit were strong and were heading for the Russian championship, which was the priority.

"Since then, and given they are just six games into the defence of their title, the focus has been on Europe as much as anything else.

"They have showed themselves to be a really strong side and the result against Bayern Munich is probably one of Europe's best of the season, including the Champions League."

http://www.eveningtimes.co.uk/sport/displa...2259092.0.0.php

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