Almost 40 years ago, Rangers granted me the privilege and honor of writing a series of interviews with some of the biggest names in the club’s star-studded history for the Days of match.
Many of those heroes of yesteryear came from when Bill Struth ruled Ibrox and Rangers did the same in Scottish football. Willie Waddell, Willie Thornton, Willie Woodburn, Tiger Shaw, Bobby Brown Jimmy Smith and Bob McPhail were just a few of those heroes who regaled me with their memories of playing for Struth’s Rangers.
These memories stretch from the early days of the manager in charge, during the Roaring Twenties a century ago, through the 1930s and 1940s and into the final seasons of the Iron Curtain team in the early 1950s. It was folklore on an epic scale. And what a joy it was for this then still young sportswriter to listen to their stories open a window to a bygone era and smuggle Bill Struth’s appeal through the years.
Much of what they told me became part of the inspiration for the first book to be written about the great old man, my defining biography of him, “Struth: The Story of a Legend of ‘Ibrox’. What was evident to me listening to these great stars of yesteryear tell their stories was how much Rangers of the 1980s owed to the foundations, first laid by the club’s original manager William Wilton and then built by Struth, who quite rightly was a commercial stonemason.
Now, what is even more astonishing and yet equally evident here in the third decade of the 21st century and 65 years after his death is the fact that the building blocks of Struth still stand firm against the march of time. The Rangers class, something first highlighted by Bill Struth, remains the touchstone of what it means to be part of the Rangers, both on and off the park.
Take the example of Jimmy Smith, whose association as a player and then a coach lasted more than 30 years. Smith, a giant of a man, an exuberant centre-forward in the days when football was a much more physical game, was known to Ibrox legions as the greatest centre-forward in the world. It came at a time when Rangers had just won another league title and added the Scottish Cup to their roster, crushing a 25-year-old Hampden hoodoo.
Recalling that time, Smith said: “Struth had been the manager for eight years and he’s already shown what a cunning bird he was. He knew that the best way for a young player to start getting along with the established stars was for the team to live together for a while. Remember, it was many years before it became fashionable for teams to attend pre-season training camps.
“Struth was ahead of his time in that regard and what he did was organize a summer to tour America and at the time that meant crossing the Atlantic in an ocean liner.
“Another thing about him was that he was a great motivator. Before he went down the tunnel on a Saturday afternoon, he made us all believe that we were the best players in the world. I always believed that I was the best centre-forward in the world, not because Bill Struth told me, but because of the way he treated me, which made me think I was special.
“There were all kinds of little things he did that made you feel special. Like when we walked in at halftime there were people waiting there to scrape the mud off your boots and clean your knees and there was a new band waiting for you to change into.
Think of the modern game with the biggest clubs in England and abroad employing highly paid sports psychologists and compare that to the clever little mind game tricks that Struth played to get into his players’ heads and piss off opponents, and you’ll soon find out why Jimmy Smith and so many of those alumni all insisted that Bill Struth was ahead of his time.
Take one of the greatest players to ever wear Rangers colors, Bob McPhail, who was the oldest Ranger when I interviewed him and whose book, Legend, written with veteran journalist Allan Herron, is required reading for fans. His view of how Struth has earned respect is slightly at odds with the myth that he is a swift.
McPhail said: “He gained a reputation for ruling with an iron rod, but that was from people who only thought they knew him. He was never ‘boss’ or ‘blunder’ for us, but always Mr Struth. He said his job is to get you fit and motivated and make you realize the importance of playing for Rangers.
“We were told to always dress well in a dark suit with a plain white shirt and tie and to wear a bowler hat on match days, while Celtic players wore a gallus workman’s cap. When we won the Scottish Cup in 1928 my bonus was £20, which was a huge sum at the time.
Another example of Struth ahead of his time was employing a sprint coach. These days every major club has one. But it was Struth who started the trend. And, as McPhail explained, Struth’s philosophy of nothing but the best for Rangers was underscored by the man he picked.
McPhail said: “Eric Liddell had won an Olympic gold medal at the Paris Olympics in 1924 and when the manager wanted to speed us up, it was Liddell he asked to come and train us.”
Liddell was of course immortalized in the Oscar-winning film ‘Chariots of Fire’. It was surely another way for Struth to make his players, or his boys as he often called them, feel special. In this field, he himself was an Oscar winner.
George Young, who succeeded Jock Tiger Shaw as captain and stood like a colossus in the Iron Curtain, summed up Struth perfectly, saying: “He was a master of psychology and he could read and understand people like no one else. It meant that when he walked into the dressing room he knew exactly what to say, even if it meant putting logic on his head. He said things with such confidence that we believed him.
In many ways, what so many players of Struth’s era said about him was echoed last year by more recent past stars recalling after his tragic death how Walter Smith treated them. Just as Smith could join his players to let off steam in the back room of a downtown bar as the team played nine in a row in the 1990s, Struth had his big names in his Copland apartment Road on a Sunday. evening for refreshments as they gathered around his piano for a song sixty years earlier.
One man who provided a direct link from Struth to the very edge of this more modern area was Willie Waddell, a star on the right, a senior manager and managing director before becoming managing director and the brains behind the new Ibrox, with three stands built between 1978 and 1981.
In some ways, these stands are as much a monument to Bill Struth as they are to Willie Waddell, as it was Struth’s vision that built the magnificent red-brick Main Stand, which now bears his name. There are many iconic images of the Ibrox Stadium, but none are as powerful, none make the hair on a Rangers fan’s back stand on end and none are as majestic as the view from this main stand.
And no wonder.
Because Struth insisted that only the best enter his building. At this time the finest shipbuilders in the world plied their trade on the River Clyde and Struth ensured that the main hall and marble staircase were as elegant and lavish as the ballrooms and fixtures and fittings from any of Cunard’s luxury ocean liners.
The influence Struth had on Waddell, and which Waddell in turn had on Rangers in the later part of the 20th century, was evident when he said: “Throughout my time as a Rangers player, Rangers were all my life. And to me, Mr. Struth was Rangers, because Rangers were his whole life.
“It was evident as he grew older in the late 1940s and into the 1950s, when he took great delight in reminiscing and telling stories about the escapades some of his great players had made in the past. He liked to talk about Sandy Archibald, Billy McCandless, Tully Craig and Archie ‘Al Capone’ McAuley.
“Above all, though, he liked to talk about Torry Gillick, who I had played with and who was a terrific character. The old man would throw his head back and laugh and laugh as he remembered Gillick’s antics.
Stories of Struth were also told when Waddell, his great attacking teammate, Willie Thornton and Bob McPhail, all of whom were still involved with Rangers, met in the late 1980s to oversee Rangers reserves. The Struth ethos was their bond.
What is often forgotten about Bill Struth is that he was born in 1875, a year after Winston Churchill, when Queen Victoria ruled over a quarter of the world’s landmass and the Rangers of the Gallant Pioneers were only three years old. Yet today, in this third decade of an already turbulent 21st century, and the year of their 150th anniversary, Bill Struth-built Rangers are the most successful football club in the world.
The predictions of sportswriters are like the best plans of mice and men. However, this veteran sportswriter confidently predicts that when Rangers turn 200, Bill Struth’s name will still resound triumphantly, extolling his virtues and those of Rangers through the ages.
The Rangers Review is making its exciting first foray into print with an 84-page glossy souvenir magazine to mark the club’s 150th anniversary.
With exclusive new interviews with club legends, in-depth reviews of the greatest games the club has ever had and stories you’ll probably never hear before about the club’s long history, this is a magazine Rangers fans will want to keep forever.
Click here to get your copy.