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BRIAN LAUDRUP: Walter Smith was the best coach of my career

Walter Smith restored my love of soccer. It was a precious gift, but not the only one he gave me. He listened and worried.

It changed what was possible. He was the best manager of my career and one of the most incredible human beings I have ever met. It is a privilege to be able to say that I met him.

During my years in soccer, I met people of immense talent and great reputations. Walter, however, was of a different race than all of them.

Walter Smith and Brian Laudrup celebrate the Rangers' ninth consecutive league title in 1997

Walter Smith and Brian Laudrup celebrate the Rangers’ ninth consecutive league title in 1997

In some ways he was more than a manager. I think many of those who played with him would agree. In my time at Rangers, we played for the club, we played for the fans, and we played for ourselves. However, most of all, we play for Walter. I think that sums it up. Like everyone who knew and loved him, it breaks my heart to learn of his passing. But the memories will last.

For me, they started in 1994 with perhaps the most important car trip of my life. I met Walter at Ibrox when Rangers wanted to sign me from Fiorentina. We talked for a bit, then he said, ‘Let’s go for a ride. I’ll take you to Cameron House and show you Loch Lomond.

During those 40 minutes we talked about many things. I told him about life in Italy and what it had been like for me and my family.

We started talking about soccer. Walter told me, ‘Brian, you will have all the freedom you could want in the park. The only thing I want in return is that you have to make a difference. ‘

It was a turning point in my career. Definitely. I have already mentioned many times that I spent two very difficult years in Italy. I wanted to be in a place where I could enjoy the game again.

Laudrup enjoyed a rebirth with Smith at Rangers after a difficult period in Italy

Laudrup enjoyed a rebirth with Smith at Rangers after a difficult period in Italy

Laudrup enjoyed a rebirth with Smith at Rangers after a difficult period in Italy

Walter made that happen. Starting in 1994, a lot changed in terms of how I felt about football and also how successful I was. I loved working with him at Rangers and that also influenced how I played for Denmark.

Walter was always personally interested in the big picture of your life. He immediately knew the names of his wife and children. He understood that if your family or loved ones were happy, then the chance that you would meet in the park would be higher. It sounds simple, but it takes a certain type of person to do that. And Walter did it with dedication.

In fact, we lived close to each other in Helensburgh. The two houses were only about 100 meters apart. Nicolai, our son, would go talk to his sons, Neil and Steven.

At the end of each season, Walter and his wife, Ethel, would invite my wife and me to dinner. It was just to say thank you for that season.

Isn’t it amazing? So unique. But that’s what Walter was about. He would recognize it if he got it right and was willing to tear down brick walls to take care of his players. The deal was that you had to give him the same respect in return. It was a very honest relationship and I think that’s why you saw so many players playing with their skin to try to live up to their expectations.

Walter Smith, who died at the age of 73, delivered success to the Rangers for two spells.

Walter Smith, who died at the age of 73, delivered success to the Rangers for two spells.

Walter Smith, who died at the age of 73, delivered success to the Rangers for two spells.

When Barcelona approached me, not long after I joined the Rangers, I was a little worried that Walter might think my head had changed. So I called him right away to ask if we could meet in the lobby of the Moathouse Hotel.

I explained to him what had happened and that I was not interested in going to Barcelona. He looked at me and, with that great sense of humor, said, “So, are you more interested in Falkirk this Tuesday night?”

Walter didn’t have to raise his voice to get his message across. When the volume turned up, I knew I was in trouble. I only heard him be really angry maybe two or three times.

More common was the famous Walter staring and nodding. Usually with hands in pockets. And usually with just one word for the recipient: “Office.” OMG it felt like a long walk while you waited to find out what the summons was about. A lot could be said behind closed doors, but he would always stand behind his players in public. I loved that.

Nine in a row was Walter’s holy grail in that first spell in charge. You could see the relief on his face that night in Tannadice when I scored and we passed the line. He always wanted to give that achievement back to the fans.

We both parted ways with the Rangers a year later. I probably would have stayed if Walter had, but he didn’t.

Smith celebrates the success of the 1996 eight-in-a-row title with Archie Knox and Paul Gascoigne

Smith celebrates the success of the 1996 eight-in-a-row title with Archie Knox and Paul Gascoigne

Smith celebrates the success of the 1996 eight-in-a-row title with Archie Knox and Paul Gascoigne

From Denmark, it was great to see him return to the club and achieve many more successes, particularly in the race to the 2008 UEFA Cup final.

In my time at Rangers, the criticism was that we were good in Scotland but we didn’t do it in Europe. Walter erased it in his second spell. He is alongside the best coaches in the history of Scottish football, there is no doubt about that.

Over the years, we kept in touch from a distance. When I was elected to the Danish Soccer Hall of Fame, Walter stepped up to deliver a speech and make the announcement. That was special.

We went out to dinner again and I felt like we were going back to those days in Scotland.

I spoke to Archie Knox when I returned to Ibrox the other week for the Hearts game. He told me that Walter was not doing so well, but yesterday’s news was still devastating.

My thoughts are with his family. They can be very proud of what he accomplished and, more importantly, the kind of man he was.

As for me, I would like to say the same as many others, be they players, teammates or fans. Thanks, Walter.

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