Walter Smith admitted he went through an emotional night as Rangers gave him a rousing Ibrox send off in his final home game as manager.An even more moving occasion is within his grasp on Sunday when a win over Kilmarnock will guarantee that his final game in charge delivers a third consecutive Clydesdale Bank Premier League title. They could even win it tonight if Celtic lose at Hearts.
Smith and his players did a lap of honour after defeating Dundee United 2-0 to go four points clear at the top last night although assistant manager Ally McCoist was quick to stress that the gesture was in respect of their departing manager, not a premature celebration of a championship which has still to be won.
A near capacity crowd stayed to acclaim Smith, who was joined by his grandchildren on the pitch for the lap of honour. “It was a nice reception, I thank everyone for that,” he said. “For as many people to stay behind and applaud in the manner they did: I was delighted with that.
“You always feel a bit of emotion. Most of the time when you’re leaving as a manager it’s because you’re sacked. It’s not about a lap of honour: you’re thrown out. So when you get the chance to accept applause like that then of course it becomes a wee bit emotional. But hopefully there will be a bit more emotion at the weekend.”
He felt no regrets about deciding to leave, though. “No, not even the slightest bit. I’d thought about it for a while. The time is right. A change of owner and a change of manager. Maybe on Sunday, if we do well again, I’ll feel it a little bit more, knowing it’s the last game.
“We face an away match at Kilmarnock on Sunday where we can clinch the championship. It’s in our own hands now and that’s how we wanted it. It doesn’t matter if I watch Celtic’s game at Hearts or not. I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow night. “I didn’t think we would manage it [mounting a strong title challenge] and it’s to the players’ credit that we’re in the situation we are in, so we just have to see it out now. But we will have to play as well as we did tonight to overcome Kilmarnock.”
McCoist made an unexpected entrance to the media room after the game to ensure that the post-match lap of honour was not misinterpreted. “In this season, where sometimes people are picking things up wrongly, I want you all to know that that after the match was for Walter Smith and Walter Smith only,” said McCoist. “Our lads and our team and our management are not taking anything for granted. In no way are we being disrespectful to Kilmarnock. The league championship is far from won. That, after the match, was for Walter and Walter only.”
Peter Houston, the Dundee United manager, also paid tribute to Smith, but also to his own team’s season despite the defeat meaning they can no longer catch third-placed Hearts. “Wattie is different class. I look at Jock Stein being a massive manager and then I look at Sir Alex Ferguson and Jim McLean. In my opinion Walter is up there, exactly alongside them. He’s a top manager, he deserves to go out as a winner because he himself is a winner.“I could pick massive faults in the way we defended the goals. I would like to have scored a goal to see how Rangers would have reacted. But I look at the season and we’re going to finish fourth. It’s been a great season for us. I’m delighted with the United players. Some are moving on but they’re not holding back.”