Saturday, January 29, 2022

Best of Frenemies – Walter Smith And Tommy Burns

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The Highland Bear
Unashamedly watching the world through Blue tinted specs. Contributor to The 4th Official.

“Great Rivalries don’t have to be built on hatred. They’re built on respect, on a respect for excellence.”

Mike Krzyzewski

I’m writing this after watching the wonderful documentary from BBC Scotland on the life of the man we all knew as the father of Rangers. A man who single handedly delivered 10 of the 55 titles of our illustrious 150-year history. Incredible to think that excluding the war years, our club have achieved 55 out of 125 championships in the entire country.

Walter Ferguson Smith without a doubt has been the greatest Rangers manager of the modern era. 21 domestic trophies which included the equivalence of a semi-final in the first ever Champions League campaign of 1992/93 as well as a UEFA Cup final in 2008. What he achieved on the field will be spoken about far more eloquently than I can do justice. In fairness, I would likely need at least a years’ worth of articles to even scratch the surface of the success that Walter had within the Scottish game.

Walter was a wonderful Scholar of the game. His playing days and early coaching career was under the guidance of the legendary Jim McLean. McLean was a phenomenal manager, a character that you don’t really see these days. McLean led Dundee United to their one and only Championship in 1982/83. A remarkable achievement, not only for splitting the Glasgow big 2, but pipping an Aberdeen side that had just won the European Cup Winners Cup under Sir Alex Ferguson.

Scottish football was a far more competitive league in the 80s. From Aberdeen & Dundee United winning titles to Hearts being denied on the final day in 1985 and the infamous Albert Kidd double. If fate had taken a different twist, we may have seen Walter at Ibrox as a coach under McLean who famously turned down the Rangers job. McLean, as wonderful a tactician he was, was maybe let down only by his man management. Walter was the perfect bridge. Intelligent in his own right on the coaching side, he was learning from one of the best. However one of the best was learning from Walter. Walter had the gift of knowing how to treat you as a person.

This would be his greatest asset, not only in years to come as a manager, but the lessons he gave us as a human being. Don’t be mistaken, Walter had a fiery side that commanded respect also. Something reporter Chick Young infamously found out some years later.

The Rangers support didn’t need long for the lines of destiny to do their thing. Maybe the famed Marvel Multiverse was already a thing back then as our boy from Carmyle would enter the front doors of Ibrox as part of the Graeme Souness revolution. A Rangers side that had not won a Scottish championship since 1977/78. Smith, fresh from being an Assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson’s Scotland side at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, would now take on the biggest task of his career in the dugout. Souness, still a player, had someone he could trust at the sidelines to guide the team.

On 31st August 1986, Souness and Smith would make their Old Firm debuts in the Ibrox dugout as Rangers drew first blood against the reigning champions with a one nil victory courtesy of an Iain Durrant goal. The number 10 for Celtic that day was a certain Tommy Burns. This was to my knowledge the first time these two opposed each other in any capacity representing Rangers and Celtic. It would be the start of a rivalry that grew into a friendship that would span the next 20 years between the 2.

Tommy Burns had a career spanning over 15 years at Celtic. His honours are as impressive as you will find in the Scottish game. 6 Scottish league titles, 5 Scottish Cups and one League Cup. Nobody can argue with a medal haul of that magnitude, no matter what side of the fence you sit on.

Rangers famously ended a 9-year league trophy drought at Pittodrie in 1987 as we were crowned champions once more. The so called Souness revolution was in full flow. The English teams being banned from Europe following the Heysel disaster would attract the cream of English talent to ply their trade elsewhere. Rangers at one point had the England captain in Terry Butcher, Goalkeeper in Chris Woods, right back in Gary Stevens and right midfielder in Trevor Steven. That’s not even including UEFA Cup winner Graham Roberts. To achieve the equivalent now? You wouldn’t see change of 300 million and that is being kind.

The following season Rangers inexplicably failed to retain their title with a 3rd place finish, only a point ahead of Aberdeen as Celtic had wrestled the title back. It would be the final topflight league winners medal for Tommy Burns as he transferred to Kilmarnock where he would become their Player manager the following season.

Season 1992/93 was a memorable campaign on every level as a Rangers fan. The Battle of Britain, a 44-game unbeaten run that included a full maiden Champions League campaign. Walter in only his second season as Rangers manager had come within a whisker of the Champions League final. Olympique Marseille would deny them. This is despite 2 gutsy draws to take the final slot and defeat one of the greatest Milan sides of all time to lift the Champions League trophy.

Despite a treble winning campaign, it was the closest Rangers have come to winning the Champions League that David Murray had craved so badly. Rangers & Marseille remained the only 2 teams that season unbeaten in Europe’s premier competition, with Milan’s only loss being the final itself. It was an era where we truly dined at the top table and never looked out of place. The team had everything. Class, Guile, guts, determination and also the required luck. Scott Nisbett would probably argue the latter.

At Rugby Park, Kilmarnock under the stewardship of Tommy Burns had gained a second promotion and were now back in the Premiership after an absence of 10 years. Burns and Smith would face off as managers in the next season for the first time. On Saturday 28th August 1993, Rangers would face Kilmarnock at Ibrox. The treble winners against the newly promoted side. It would be our first defeat and end our long unbeaten run.

Rangers would get revenge by winning the next 2 league fixtures over the Ayrshire side, as well as a Scottish Cup replay after an initial scoreless draw. It was a season that despite winning a double, ended with the disappointment of failing to win back-to-back trebles.  Ivan Golac’s Dundee United would win the Scottish Cup final courtesy of an Ally Maxwell error, and Rangers failed to make the Champions League groups due to a shock defeat by Levski Sofia. Any Goram omission was magnified greatly when defeated.

One highlight would be the return of Ally McCoist from the leg break suffered in a 5-0 defeat by Portugal in April 93 that ended his season. Ally came off the bench in fairy-tale fashion at Celtic Park and scored an overhead kick that will never be forgotten to hand Rangers another League Cup trophy. Having him back was priceless, even if only the morale boost as he would fight his way back to fitness. Our 2 time European Golden boot winner was priceless to our prospects. Since 1991/92 only 3 other players have won it twice or more. Thierry Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Not a bad Quartet for Ally to be part of.

Rangers’ final 5 league fixtures ended with 2 draws and 3 defeats yet they still won the title by 3 points ahead of second placed Aberdeen. A second defeat to Kilmarnock on the penultimate league match of the season played a significant part in them avoiding relegation. Equally impressive was the fact that Killie had held Celtic twice in the league and also beaten them at Rugby Park. These showings against the Old Firm would be significant in what was to come next.

4th placed Celtic sacked Lou Macari and appointed none other than Tommy Burns from Kilmarnock. It would be the beginning of 3 seasons of battle as Celtic would finally challenge Rangers for the Premiership title.

1994/95 was a huge season in terms of history of both clubs. Rangers unveiled their summer signings of Danish winger Brian Laudrup from Fiorentina and our old adversary from Marseille, Basile Boli. Both players caused massive excitement, with the duo already recipients of Champions League winners medals with AC Milan and Marseille respectively.  Laudrup only 2 years earlier had played a pivotal role as the underdogs of Denmark shocked Europe by beating the World Champions Germany in the final of Euro 92 to win a tournament they hadn’t even qualified for.

Celtic had just been bought over by Fergus McCann the previous March and had a massive rebuild ahead on and off the park. Burns signed the unknown Dutchman Pierre Van Hooijdonk from NAC Breda, as well as Phil O’Donnell from Motherwell, Tosh McKinlay from Hearts and Andy Walker from Bolton. They were assembling a new squad that would play at Hampden Park as Celtic Park faced substantial redevelopment. McCann was giving serious investment to a club that had always had the “biscuit tinmentality levelled at the previous boardrooms with their lack of spending. Many never forgave them for parading Mo Johnston for the 2nd time, only for Rangers to do the unthinkable and steal their poster boy. To this day it remains the most controversial and yet important transfer in Scottish football history.

In the League, it was Burns with Celtic who drew first blood as he had done with Kilmarnock the season before. A 2-0 win at Ibrox in a sequence of results that included AEK Athens eliminating us from the Champions League and Falkirk in the League Cup.  Walter was under serious pressure for the first time as Rangers manager with some even calling for his head.

Brian Laudrup of Rangers
19 Oct 1996: Brian Laudrup of Rangers celebrates their second goal during a Scottish Premier League match against Aberdeen at Ibrox Stadium in Glasgow, Scotland. The match ended in a 2-2 draw. Mandatory Credit: Ben Radford/Allsport
The 4th Official uses images provided by the following image agency: Getty Images ( Imago Images (

Rangers regrouped and would win the next Old Firm encounter at Hampden with Brian Laudrup destroying the Celtic backline that afternoon. Rangers would draw the next league game at Ibrox in the January 1994 match before losing the return at Hampden 3-0 on May 7th, 1995. It didn’t matter as Rangers were already crowned champions as Celtic limped home in 4th. It was a mixed campaign for both. Rangers winning the league was the ultimate aim, however, Celtic ended a 10-year Scottish Cup drought as they beat Airdrie 1-0.

Raith Rovers did however provide some entertainment for the rest of us as Paul McStay’s famous penalty miss at Ibrox handed Raith the then Coca Cola cup branded League Cup, denying Burns a Cup double in his first season. Famously we were told there would be “dancing in the streets of Raith tonight”. It also gave us the memorable scoreboard that displayed “Bayern 0 Raith Rovers 1”.

However Celtic had taken 2 wins and a draw from Rangers, a warning that they were more than capable of mounting a challenge the following season.

1995/96 saw Rangers and Celtic properly go head-to-head for the first time since the arrival of Souness almost a decade earlier. Rangers had signed England’s talismanic midfielder Paul Gascoigne, in a move that sent shockwaves around the British game. Oleg Salenko, the Russian history maker at the 1994 World Cup, also came in although he would only last until January when involved in a swap deal for Peter Van Vossen from Istanbulspor. Stephen Wright from Aberdeen, Gordan Petric from Dundee United, made up the summer signings. Rangers had qualified for the Champions League and reached the promised land once more. They would face Juventus, Steaua Bucharest and a familiar face for 2022 in Borussia Dortmund.

Celtic strengthened also as Burns was beginning to make his mark as a team playing free flowing attractive football. Andreas Thom arrived from Leverkusen, along with John Hughes and Jackie Mcnamara. Morten Wieghorst would arrive in December that year.

This time Rangers were victorious in the opening game at the partially developed Celtic Park. An Alex Cleland header and a wonderful Paul Gascoigne goal giving Rangers a 2-0 win at Celtic Park. Remarkably it would be the only defeat for Celtic in the league that season as they finished 4 points behind Rangers. The other 3 league games would end in draws, with the November match at Ibrox particularly an exceptional match.

The game ended 3-3 in one of the best Old Firm encounters in recent times. 46k packed into Ibrox. Thom put them ahead after 9 minutes with a spectacular effort. Laudrup equalised 5 minutes before halftime. John Collins hit a penalty to make it 2-1 just 6 minutes after the restart. Ally McCoist equalised on 63 minutes before an own goal put us ahead. Van Hooijdonks header ensured a draw was the outcome. Andy Goram produced arguably one of the greatest saves of his career from Van Hooijdonk. Celtic had not lost at Ibrox in over 2 years by this point.

In the January reverse at Celtic Park, the match was possibly one of the most famous of Burns’ reign. The game ended 0-0 with Andy Goram producing possibly his finest display in an Old Firm game. Tommy Burns famously said after the match that his gravestone should read “Andy Goram broke my heart”. It was a haunting prophecy as Goram over the next 2 seasons would be pivotal in Rangers holding Celtic off.

Rangers went on to win the league by 4 points. Celtic’s only loss coming at home in the first Old Firm compared to Rangers’ 3 defeats. It was Celtic’s mammoth 11 draws that cost them the chance of a league title. However, finishing within 4 points was the closest they had come since the 1988 victory and it set up a thrilling chase as Rangers went after the holy grail of 9 in a row.

This defining season didn’t just let us see the rivalry on the field, we were afforded for the first time to see the friendship and respect these two men held for each other. The New Year’s game at Ibrox was the definitive match of the season. Rangers and Celtic had conceded the same goals in 25, with Rangers 11 better off in goals scored. Unquestionably the gap had narrowed. Celtic saw it as an opportunity thrown away. Rangers had a knack for getting over the line time and time again under Smith, even if it wasn’t pretty at times.  Celtic for all the attractive football they played were punished with dropped points.

1996/97 was a titanic tussle between Walter’s history chasing side and Tommy’s challengers. Failure for either was likely to inevitably be the end of the road as they went head-to-head. The season certainly never disappointed.

Rangers welcomed Joachim Bjorklund from Vicenza that summer as well as a relatively unknown German from Hamburg for £4m by the name of Jorg Albertz. Later in the season, we would see Sebastian Rozental, a former Chilean player of the year arrive with much anticipation. It would be 2 temporary signings in March 1997 that may have proved the most important business of the season.

Celtic had already added Jorge Cadete, the Portuguese international in the March previous and now added Italian Paolo Di Canio from AC Milan as well as Alan Stubbs from Bolton. David Hannah, Enrico Annoni and Tommy Johnson made up their spending.

Rangers took the opening derby with a 2-0 win at Ibrox. Such was the fine margins, at 1-0 through a Gough header, Celtic hit the bar in the final minute from a John Hughes header.  Gascoigne picked up the loose ball and started a counterattack that he finished off himself with a diving header to seal the game. Celtic had won 5 and drawn one and this was their first defeat of the season. Rangers had won 7 on the spin and this opened up a 5-point gap only for them to drop 7 points from their next 4 games.

Free scoring Celtic went into November looking to “outfox” their opponents and go clear at the top. It was a game to remember in front of the cameras. Goram returned after missing 6 games for this one. Brian O’Neil slipped and allowed Laudrup the chance to fire Rangers ahead with a world class finish. Rangers cut Celtic open on the break in the first half that was a fiery affair. Not the last time Hugh Dallas would be in the firing line. Goram was inspired as Laudrup should have made it 2.

The game was held up in the second half as a fox ran onto the field to rapturous applause from the stands. Something I have never seen happen since at a match. Goram was in sensational form. Gascoigne had a penalty well saved by Kerr. Van Vossen with 7 minutes remaining missed an open goal to seal the game. The “van Vossen” now being coined in playgrounds all over the country for a shocking miss. Goram repeated the trick of Kerr to deny Van Hooijdonk before another Van Vossen sitter.

Rangers had won and were back on top of the table. Celtic headed into the New year game at Ibrox a massive 11 points behind Rangers in the league.  It would end up as the pivotal game of the season. Jorg Albertz announced himself well and truly with a free kick that would have melted a speed gun such was the ferocity. Rangers were missing Gough and Laudrup through sickness. Goram was again on fire but unable to stop Di Canio from equalizing. On 75 minutes, on came Erik Bo Anderson. And the rest is history. His first on 83 mins. Cadete flagged offside, many would say incorrectly, only for the Dane to seal the game and put Rangers 14 clear, although Celtic had 2 games in hand.

Maybe one of the best parts of this game was something you simply wouldn’t see now. Before the game, Walter Smith and Tommy Burns were interviewed side by side in the Ibrox tunnel. Smiling, even a joke or two as they discussed who’s round it was for a glass of wine after the game.  It was the first time I’d personally seen 2 rival managers showing such respect, especially before a game that was a powder keg.

Dropped points from Rangers ensured we headed into the final eight games of the season with the gap at only 5 points. Both teams dropped points before the last Old Firm at Celtic Park that effectively ended the title dream of Celtic. Rangers with a Goalkeeping crisis with the veteran Andy Dibble brought in on an emergency loan.

The other masterstroke was the return of the legendary Mark Hateley. Hateley although in his twilight years and not the same player he was, the inclusion was a masterstroke. A player that had terrorised Celtic for years was now back. The psychological impact alone was worth the risk. It was Walter at his finest. Hateley bullied them the entire first half as Laudrup scored once more.

Celtic had hit the bar and threw everything at the game. It was a common theme for that team. Attacking they were exceptional, defensively they were suspect. In simple terms, they never had an Andy Goram. Goram you could argue won Rangers championships alone. Hateley’s final Old Firm resulted in a red card for a scuffle that resulted in yellows for his counterparts. Mackay would eventually see red with 10 left to even it up. Laudrup was kicked all over the park that day, as tempers flared, there was an infamous exchange between Di Canio and Ian Ferguson. Di Canio has famously intimated in years gone by how he was after Ferguson.  I’m not so sure on that one if the Italian would have come off best.

Rangers players mockingly did the “huddle” as all hell broke loose between both sets of players. Celtic drawing the next 2 fixtures with Rangers taking 3 points. With 3 matches remaining, Rangers had a 9-point advantage. One point at home to Motherwell at Ibrox or indeed any of the last 3 fixtures would make history.  Motherwell had other ideas as they spoiled the party at Ibrox with a shock 2-0 win.  Celtic played their part in winning and cutting the gap to 6 with 2 left to play.

At Tannadice Park on the 7th of May 1997, Rangers were not to be denied. The place that Walter had spent almost his entire playing career would see Brian Laudrup’s most famous goal in blue. A bullet header would be enough for Richard Gough to lift our 9th title in a row and make Walter immortal in the eyes of the Rangers support. Celtic dropped points that night to compound their misery.

Tommy Burns last game as Celtic manager came on April 23rd, 1997, as they lost to Falkirk in the Scottish Cup semi-final, ending any chance of silverware. A defeat at Ibrox was his last stand as manager.

As the years have passed, many have regarded that Tommy Burns’ Celtic played some of the best football of that generation. Others will point to the name inscribed on the SPL trophy. Romanticism is one of footballs greatest qualities. There will always be split opinions regardless. The one defining line from his era as Celtic manager vs Walter will always be the quote “Andy Goram broke my heart”.

If Celtic had a goalkeeper of that quality, there is a reasonable argument that their fortunes may have turned out differently. Of course, it’s all conjecture. For your Di Canio & Van Hooikdonk, we had Laudrup and Gascoigne. What there is no doubt of was the 3 seasons that this played out rekindled the intensity that had been missing between these 2. Celtic had only finished runners up in 2 of Rangers sequence of 9. The last 2 under Burns. It may not have felt that way at the time, but his rebuild, coupled with the investment of Fergus McCann was actually the starting point of Celtic’s revival we witnessed over the next 20 years.

Walter would part ways with Rangers after failing to seal the elusive 10. He would end up at Everton with Tommy at Reading. No disrespect to either of those 2 clubs, but they simply would never replicate the magnitude of what they both had in Glasgow.

Burns would return to his beloved Celtic, working under Dalglish, O’Neil and also Strachan.  His youth work would bring through some players that would go on to huge success.  He would also hold the role of Assistant Manager at Scotland under Berti Vogts.

Walter would take some time once more as an assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. A short spell that left its mark. You only need to listen to Darren Fletcher and Sir Alex talk of how Walter influenced a very young Ronaldo into cutting out the tricks and finding the cutting edge that made him the phenomenon he is today.

Then came the moment that brought everything together. Berti Vogts was removed as Scotland manager after a horrendous tenure in charge. Burns had been an assistant manager and was now working alongside his one-time domestic rival in Walter Smith who had taken charge and also brought in Ally McCoist as a coach.

It was a masterstroke from Walter as he immediately turned around the fortunes of the national side. Pride was restored in a campaign where World cup qualification was lost.  Smith and Burns had improved the ranking situation by a massive 70 places in only 2 years. They had engineered wins over Norway away as well as a memorable victory at Hampden against the former World Champions France in the pouring rain. Scotland had their pride back and 2 men had been instrumental in it.

The national team wasn’t only gaining results, it was also creating a bond between the players that had been missing for a long time. Walter had grown as a coach, as had Tommy. Ally McCoist would share many memorable stories on the laughs they shared as assistant coaches. They were just Glasgow boys who undoubtedly loved their own clubs, understood the game, what it meant to others and also life in general. It was unquestionably a great mix in every sense of the word.

Walter would return to Rangers in January 2007 for a second spell. The lure of his club was simply too good to turn down. For Burns, it was the end of his Scotland tenure, after being overlooked for the top job in favour of Alex McLeish. Walter’s second spell would be just as trophy laden as his first.

On May 15th, 2008, the day after the biggest game of Walters career against Zenit St Petersburg, the news broke that Tommy Burns had passed away tragically at the age of 51 from cancer. It rocked the game as well as broke the hearts of all at the club he served faithfully for almost his entire career.

Walter Smith pay tribute to Tommy Burns
GLASGOW, UNITED KINGDOM – MAY 16: Walter Smith (R) and Ally McCoist of Rangers, carry a wreath as they pay tribute at Celtic Park, to Celtic and Scotland legend, Tommy Burns who died yesterday aged 51 after losing his battle with cancer May 16, 2008 in Glasgow, Scotland. Tommy Burns, was a player with the club from 1974 to 1989, and had a spell as manager during the 1990s. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images) The 4th Official uses images provided by the following image agency: Getty Images ( Imago Images (

One of the images that came from the coming days would remain iconic for years to come.  It was simple in the context, 2 friends carrying the coffin of their friend. Why it was so special was we saw 2 Rangers legends carrying the coffin of a Celtic icon on his final journey. In a society where football is everything, sometimes rivalry in the age of social media can be toxic as well as dangerous, this was the most poignant reminder of what unites us. As heartbreaking as it was, it remains one of the most striking images that will have brought a lot of perspective and healing where it is needed most.

2021 the Rangers support were left broken hearted with the news we had also lost our own icon. The Father of Rangers Football Club had also passed away following illness. Not since Davie Cooper’s tragic passing had I personally felt such pain at losing someone who was a massive part of my life.

Walter Smith was a wonderful ambassador for Rangers FC, Scottish football and also his family. He was quite simply a fantastic Husband, Father, Grandfather and friend to thousands who worshipped him. The BBC programme on December 30th was a fitting tribute to a wonderful man.  What was also special was hearing the family of Tommy share their feelings.  “It was just Dad and his mates having a laugh”. Probably one of the best lines to come from the show.

Walter’s son spoke incredibly well at his public memorial, sharing how a player was alone for Christmas and how Walter had insisted he join his family at the table. That player was a certain Paul Gascoigne. It speaks volumes about the father figure Walter was as well as a manager. He was simply the best in every sense of the word.

I love Rangers FC more than I can put into words. I know this is echoed by my fellow Rangers fans worldwide. Celtic fans will feel equally as passionate about the club they love and rightfully so. The passion is what makes our clubs unique with the greatest rivalry in the world. For 90 minutes I personally have nothing but contempt for our great rivals as I want them crushed. When the final whistle blows, I hope we can all be like Walter and Tommy. 2 individuals who had like the rest of us undoubtedly shared the same passions for their respective clubs. Off the field, they had the dignity and class to teach all of us about how to be better people.

In Memory of

Thomas Burns – 1956-2008

Walter Ferguson Smith – 1948-2021

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