Graham's Blog

Walter Smith: Gazza, Laudrup And The Rangers Revolution

IN Part Two of this Big Interview, Walter Smith takes us to Ibrox, where he served first as assistant to Graeme Souness and, of course, later became a celebrated Rangers manager in his own right.

That move to Glasgow, to the club he supported as a boy, introduced Walter to a facet of coaching he had not experienced at United – with Rangers able to source and buy great footballers.

Walter is responsible for bringing some undeniably brilliant players to Ibrox and he tells the story of how he convinced Brian Laudrup to move to Scotland and become a Rangers legend.

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Another famous acquisition was Gazza. Walter had no trouble in selling the club to Paul Gascoigne – as he will explain – but the former Rangers manager recalls with some affection the various challenges which came with managing a unique character like Paul.

Enjoy!

Walter Smith: All Roads Lead To Rome

THE wolves are still hungry.

It is a day when an entire city bares its teeth, when even the waiters at the team hotel growl malevolently as the staff and players of Dundee United sit down for breakfast. It is April 25, 1984 and all roads have led to Rome, the Scottish side having arrived in Italy to play the second leg of a European Cup semi-final. United lead the tie 2-0 following a win at Tannadice a fortnight previously and are on the verge of an historic triumph.

Jim McLean’s side have been made aware that they are unwelcome guests in the Italian capital and local animosity will become distilled inside the Stadio Olimpico. As United make their way across the city, Roma supporters inside the stadium drape banners written in English over the front of the stands which state: “Dundee be careful: the wolves are still hungry” and “God curse Dundee United”.

There is another which declares: “Rome hates McLean”.

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The United manager is persona non grata inside the city’s football colosseum, the unwitting villain of the first leg. Following Roma’s defeat on Tayside, a story has been circulated in Italy that McLean insulted the great Bruno Conti during the game – a tall tale perpetuated by Roma manager Nils Liedholm. Club officials have also accused the United players of doping ahead of their triumph in the first leg, putting the Roma supporters in a state of apoplexy.

“It was a hostile atmosphere. The whole environment was hostile – even the waiters in the hotel were none too friendly. I couldn’t understand it at the time,” recalls Walter Smith in Part One of The Big Interview with the former United assistant manager.

“During the game at Tannadice, the ball had bounced out towards our dug out. Jim had got the ball and bounced it back to one of their players [Conti], who had come to get it. Their manager later said that there had been an altercation. He was talking about that moment on the touchline when the ball went out of play. He said that there had been an altercation between Conti and Jim McLean, during which he said that Jim had called Conti an Italian whatever… I was there and Jim didn’t do that.

“So they exaggerated this whole case. That was European football – the stakes were so high for both teams.”

Roma felt the pressure more, since that year the finale of the competition was to be held at the Stadio Olimpico. Defeat against United had risked embarrassing the famous Italian side by denying them the chance to compete in a home final, so club officials took steps to tip the balance in their favour. They paid French referee Michel Vautrot a £50,000 bribe and sullied a match which ended 3-0 to the home side.

“The referee was later found to have taken bribes – he was found guilty of that,” Walter says. “But, I must say, during the game there wasn’t a decision which I questioned.”

He had little time for reflection in the aftermath of the match. Walter had entered the dug out as assistant to McLean but left it as the United manager’s bodyguard; fending off Roma players who wanted a square go with McLean after the final whistle. Walter does not admit to it in the podcast, but it was later reported that the coach was struck a number of times as he helped his manager to reach the sanctuary of the dressing room.

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“After the game it started to get nasty. Jim managed to escape up the stairs to the dressing room and left [United reserve goalkeeper] John Gardiner and I to hold them off,” Walter reveals.

“I was more disappointed for Jim. To take a provincial team like Dundee United to that level, to have an opportunity [to reach the final] after winning 2-0 in the first game, Jim deserved a day in the sun. That would have put him up there with the very best managers to have taken a team to a European final.”

The Big Interview Presents… Barca

FOR our latest clip show, we head to the city I call home. I did write a book about the football team – and you can win one of 10 copies by joining our mailing list by Friday –  but I swear that when the topic of FC Barcelona has arisen on The Big Interview, it has been at the urging of my guests.

So we look back at what some of our guests had to say about this modern Barcelona team – one that has, at various points in its evolution, been called the Greatest Team in the World.

You’re going to hear from Jody Morris and how he was meant to be marking Pep Guardiola but ended up with some kid called Xavi in the quarter-finals of the Champions League in 2000. Damien Duff then discusses what it was like to play against Frank Rijkaard’s Barca in the same competition five years later.

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And Darren Fletcher also explains what it’s like to not play against them, but to watch and wish that you were – in a Champions League final.

David Moyes and Gordon Strachan will argue that it is Andres Iniesta – and not Lionel Messi – who is the jewel in the crown for the Catalan side.

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Gary Neville, on the other hand, rates Messi so highly that he reserves certain phrases to describe the little Argentine.

Enjoy!

Win A Copy Of Barca: The Making Of The Greatest Team In The World

WE’RE giving away 10 copies of Graham’s Barca book to coincide with the release of of our brand new clip show, which is dedicated to The Greatest Team In The World!

The book was updated last year with a new jacket featuring Lionel Messi’s iconic celebration in the 2011 Champions League final at Wembley.

It contains a substantial new epilogue comprising a fresh perspective on the end of Pep Guardiola’s reign an the club; the transition to Tito Vilanova as head coach and the tragic death of Pep’s former assistant from cancer.

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There is also a new section on the brief reign of Tata Martino and a reflection on the untimely passing of Johan Cruyff, the Godfather of the modern Barca era.

Here’s what you have to do to get your hands on a copy: sign up to the Big Interview mailing list by Friday by putting your email address into the ‘Subscribe’ box directly beneath this post. (If you’re on the mailing list already you don’t need to do anything).

On Saturday, we’ll email you a Barca-related question. Hit ‘reply’ to Saturday’s email with your answer, and we’ll announce the 10 lucky winners next week.

And if you don’t win, don’t worry. You’ll now be on our mailing list and will have the chance to win more goodies in the future and will have the latest podcasts sent directly to your inbox.

Good luck!

Jonny Evans: Fantastic Forwards And Where To Find Them

THE words left a bigger impression than the tackle which preceded them. “I came up against Zlatan Ibrahimovic when we played Sweden. He left one on me,” says Jonny Evans in Part Two of The Big Interview with the Northern Ireland defender.

“I cleared the ball and he left his studs up – I thought I would try and make the most of it. He came over and was all like: ‘Get up, bitch.’ I thought I’d better get up!”

It was a revealing quip, a momentary interaction which exposed the ruthlessness of the talismanic Swede. Jonny is a formidable footballer himself – he has played in the Premier League, Champions League and European Championships – and has rubbed shoulders with the some of football’s elite goalscorers.

He can claim to have got the measure of most of them. Evans’ Northern Ireland side won that encounter with Sweden 2-1.

Jonny would face Ibrahimovic again two years later, when Internazionale hosted Manchester United in the Champions League. The defender helped his side to record a clean sheet in Milan but was reacquainted with the combination of strength and skill which makes Ibrahimovic such a formidable opponent.

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“I remember playing against him for Manchester United. I just remember the strength he had – he could put one arm out and hold me off – and I could see the skill he had,” Jonny says in the podcast.

He was faced with a combination of physical power and technical skill when he made his league debut for United, too. He started that day at Stamford Bridge and ended the game defending manfully against Didier Drogba. Jonny recalls how encounters with the Chelsea forward were especially challenging, since Drogba possessed a turn of pace which is uncommon among more imposing strikers.

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“Sometimes when you come up against a really strong centre forward who doesn’t really have a lot of pace, you can play a high line,” Jonny says in the podcast. “By squeezing the space in front, you can stop the ball coming to his chest or prevent him from dictating the play by winning headers if they are playing long balls.

“But Drogba had a little bit of everything – he had the pace and the strength and the technique all in one, as well as having the unpredictability of taking long-range shots. So the important thing was always to try and be ahead of him in your brain. I could never compete with him physically, so I had to try and be quicker than him in my brain. I always thought I did quite well against him.”

Speed of thought is also a requirement when playing against Thomas Muller, if only to come up with witty rejoinders to the forward’s relentless jokes.

Jonny was deployed at left-back when his Northern Ireland side faced Die Mannschaft during the group stage of Euro 2016, with head coach Michael O’Neill asking the West Brom man to play against Muller directly. Jonny discovered during the game that the German jester is an irrepressible character – as well as a very serious talent.

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“I played against Muller in the Euros,” Jonny says of the Bayern Munich forward. “It was one of the biggest games in my career, but in the tunnel before the game I could tell that he wanted to chat to the lads. He wanted to have a laugh. We were all in the zone, trying to get ready, and he was all: ‘All right, guys!” I ended up chatting to him during the game about a few things.

“But, on the pitch, I have never experienced movement like it – every time the ball went wide and a cross came in, he seemed to get on the end of it. I’ve never marked someone with movement as good as his.”