On 3 March 1994, there was chaos in the Celtic boardroom. The Bank of Scotland had just informed shareholders that it would be calling in the receivers, with the club exceeding its £5m overdraft. The financial situation was dire, the club hierarchy was about to be toppled and the spectre of bankruptcy loomed menacingly large. Soon enough, expatriate businessman Fergus McCann had purged his rivals, taken control of the club and started the long and arduous process of digging Celtic out of a fiscal hole. Meanwhile, arch-enemies Rangers were crowing over the turmoil at Parkhead. The Ibrox club were well on their way to a sixth consecutive league title, and would subsequently go on to win three more.
If the world of football was asked to provide proof of Newton's Third Law, the subsequent trajectories of Celtic and Rangers would do nicely. To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction, and so it has been with the Old Firm. While Celtic were once plunged into the mire of financial uncertainty, Rangers clambered to the pinnacle of Scottish football. Now, it is Celtic who have won successive league titles, and Celtic who have come to dominate Scotland's footballing landscape. Now, it is Rangers who are having to haul themselves out of the sucking, squelching bog of mismanagement, and Rangers who are having to establish themselves once more.
Despite Rangers' recent woes, however, Celtic are still some way off matching their rivals' great decade of dominance. In the 1990s, The Gers were a truly unstoppable force. The nine consecutive league titles which they won between 1988/99 and 1996/97 still represent a national record, matching Celtic's achievement under legendary manager Jock Stein. During those halcyon days for the club, Rangers had a vast wealth of talent to choose from, with players like Mark Hateley, Paul Gascoigne and Brian Laudrup amongst their ranks. Add a smattering of local heroes, and they could field a team which was the envy of all Scotland.
While Rangers couldn't have been so successful without the all-action midfield performances of Ian Durrant and Stuart McCall, or sans the stinging shooting boots of Bellshill lad Ally McCoist, there was one man responsible for blending all that Scottish ingenuity with rarified English and European flair. That man was Walter Smith, the staid former Dundee United defender who took charge of the club in 1991. Prior to his appointment as full-time manager, he had been assistant to Graeme Souness, who had won three titles as player-coach between 1987 and 1990. When Souness was eventually snatched up by Liverpool, Smith was asked to take the reins.
Despite his mundane playing career, Smith was a man who truly understood Scottish football. He was deceptively soft-spoken, quietly canny, and ruthless to an absolute tee. If there is one moment which exemplifies his approach to management, it is his infamous 1994 interview with BBC Sport reporter Chick Young. With Rangers having lost to AEK Athens at Ibrox in the Champions League, Young suggested that Brian Laudrup and Basile Boli were "big disappointments" on the European stage. Smith proceeded to deliver a hushed and measured oration in their defence, while simultaneously cutting his interviewer to ribbons with language that would make the average Glaswegian brickie blush.
The infamous Smith-Young interview
There was certainly a dichotomy in Smith's character, in that he was somehow both unassuming and ferociously competitive. Likewise, he was traditional in some elements of his coaching, while staying progressive and forward-thinking in others. His teams tended to reflect this balance, with Rangers' success built on both their attacking elan and their uncompromising physicality. In forwards like Gascoigne and Laudrup, Smith had an outlet for his creative impulses. In defenders like Richard Gough, Gary Stevens, John Brown and David Robertson, the team had unshakeable foundations, and a streak of much-needed nastiness which would serve them well in the battle for Scottish supremacy.
After Rangers win the treble in 1992/93, David Murray promises more money for Smith
While Smith managed to win the league every year bar one during his first spell as manager, his achievements with Rangers went far beyond their top-flight dominance. Having won a league and cup double in his second season in charge, the 1992/93 campaign produced a domestic treble for only the fourth time in Rangers' history. That year, the club went to the brink of the Champions League final, going ten matches unbeaten only to miss out to Marseille. Rangers continued to pile up the domestic cups in the years following, even if their adventures on the continent were never quite the same again.
One of Smith's many wins against Celtic, with a trademark goal from Paul Gascoigne
When it came to the Old Firm itself, Smith's record was imperious. He was bitterly resented by Celtic fans, orchestrating victories against them time and time again. Smith built a monumental dynasty of success at Ibrox, and it cast a long shadow over Parkhead and the East End of Glasgow. It took Rangers' rivals some time to emerge from under that shadow, and shake off their memories of a dark decade watching blue ribbon tied to each and every domestic trophy.
Brian Laudrup secures Rangers' ninth consecutive title with a goal against Dundee United
Having guided the club to its ninth consecutive league title, Smith's last season at Rangers was a disappointing one. Celtic fought bitterly to stop their rivals from bettering Jock Stein's decades-old record, and eventually succeeded on the final day of the campaign. Celtic won the league, Hearts beat Rangers in the 1998 Scottish Cup final and, with that, Smith's long spell at the club was over. He announced his retirement, only to take up the manager's position at Everton a month later. Despite the underwhelming send off, he left the club in a strong position to continue their dominance on the pitch.
That said, Rangers' success under Smith had come at a high price. His tenure at the club saw an outlay of over £50m on transfer fees, more than any other club in Scotland or England over the same period. Signings like Hately, Laudrup and Gascoigne propelled Rangers to international renown, but also saddled the club with a significant wage bill. The attitude to finances at Rangers had gradually become toxic. In 1998, mere weeks after Smith's departure, chairman David Murray famously said: "For every five pounds Celtic spend, we will spend ten." That philosophy was not so much a break from club tradition, as a continuation of what had come before.
By 2002, Rangers had debts of £52m. The big-spending culture which had developed under Smith continued under Dick Advocaat, before it started to slow ominously at the turn of the millennium. While Celtic were getting their finances – and performances – back on track, Rangers' outgoings were coming back to haunt them. The foundations of Smith's dynasty were crumbling, and the club was about to take a spectacular fall.
While Rangers experienced a decade of victory under Smith, their expenditure in the 1990s was the start of something disastrous. When he returned to the club in 2007, The Gers were in a seriously bad way. Though he managed to win another spate of titles and silverware, he did so in an increasingly bleak financial climate. His last game as Rangers manager came in May 2011. Just over a year later, the club was plunged into the maelstrom of liquidation.
Smith's last ever post-match interview, in which he refers gloomily to "the situation the club are in"
Smith was not responsible for the club's finances, of course. He was a football manager, and his responsibility was to build a team capable of bringing success. He used the resources he was granted to do that, and the teams he produced were, at times, magnificent. Unfortunately, the club's hierarchy could not match his knack for management off the pitch, and tried to guarantee further success by spending money at a debilitating rate.
When people look back at Smith's golden years with Rangers, they will remember a team – and a manager – who changed the game in Scotland. They will remember Laudrup and Gascoigne, that glorious treble, and the stunning feat of winning nine titles in a row. Sadly, thanks to what came afterwards, that illustrious decade will also be associated with overreaching ambition. While the club's hierarchy basked in the reflective light of Smith's successes, they failed to see that they were on the brink of Rangers' darkest hour.