Friday 25 April ~
If you had been asked to guess in August which team would win the most trophies in 2007-08 Rangers' name would have been unlikely to crop up, even among optimistic Rangers fans. Their current squad is far from being one of their strongest and their playing style has rarely risen above the functional. Yet they could still win four trophies. They are strong favourites for the Scottish League and Cup having already won the CIS Cup. An appearance in a European final, their first since 1971-72, is still a possibility too after their goalless home draw with Fiorentina in the UEFA Cup semi-final last night. So is Walter Smith a managerial genius? On balance, probably not.
As is often the case with a team chasing multiple trophies, Rangers have had significant slices of luck in major games this season. Dundee United were heading for victory in the CIS Cup final until Kris Boyd's late goal made it 1-1. Boyd got another equaliser in extra time before Rangers won on penalties. They also progressed on spot-kicks in the Scottish Cup semi-final against First Division St Johnstone and it will be the biggest cup final shock ever if they fail to win against another First Division team, Queen of the South, at Hampden in May.
Despite the recent 2-1 defeat at Parkhead, Rangers are still on course to win the SPL. They trail Celtic by two points but with three games in hand, having finished a remote 12 points behind them last season. So the current revival is undeniably a major achievement for Walter Smith, following on from his resurrection of the Scotland national team after their decline under Berti Vogts. Earlier in his managerial career Smith had won seven successive league titles and six domestic cups with Rangers, having previously been a coach with the successful Dundee United side of the mid-1980s. But in between Smith failed significantly in four years at Everton who never finished higher than 13th during his time in charge. Everton weren't the wealthiest Premier League club during this period but they were also far from being the poorest and Smith seemed to run out of ideas long before his departure, which followed on from a televised cup capitulation at Middlesbrough.
With Rangers' and Celtic's financial power guaranteeing their dominance in the SPL, the bare minimum expected from managers of both sides is that they will finish in the top two, win at least one domestic trophy and have some sort of run in Europe. Ordinary managers have managed to achieve this, as well some who are notably better, such as Martin O'Neill, and Dick Advocaat, who won the 2007 Russian league with Zenit. Gordon Strachan's star has been waning as Smith's has risen this season. Although Celtic still have a chance of the title, that recent defeat of Rangers followed on from successive home defeats in the Cup and SPL against Aberdeen and Motherwell respectively. Up to 20,000 fans have been staying away from Parkhead lately as discontent has swelled. If this is Gordon Strachan's last season at Parkhead, it might be some consolation to Celtic fans had his side been swept away by a great team. But it will double the disappointment – and Rangers' fans delight – that this clearly isn't the case.