Steven Smith's Rangers Under-18 side won the Scottish Youth Cup against Aberdeen at Hampden last night. Before the game, he sat down with the Rangers Review to discuss coaching philosophies, Philippe Clement, the Ross McCausland example to the academy and more.

Steven Smith’s memories of Rangers 4-2 Ayr in the Scottish Youth Cup Final are hazy, and understandably so. The game in question took place before his professional career properly kicked off in 2003 at Hamilton’s New Douglas Park. Smith’s presiding takeaway is that lifting the trophy was more difficult than the scoreline suggests.

Tonight will provide him a full circle moment. Having won the Youth Cup for Rangers as a player, Smith can now do so as a coach when his Under-18 side take on Aberdeen at Hampden.

Smith was the assistant manager in 2022 when Rangers last won the final and in 2023, which featured a painful extra-time defeat against Celtic. Having returned to Ibrox as a coach in 2021 the former player understands the need to develop a winning culture, bridge the gap to the first-team and take opportunities that arise having completed that journey himself.

Ahead of tonight's game, the 38-year-old sat down exclusively with the Rangers Review to discuss how young players can make the grade at Ibrox, Clement’s biggest asset as a coach, why Ross McCausland is a perfect example of “always being ready” to play for the first team, why David Weir is to thank for his coaching career, the balance between over-analysis and problem-solving and why the question posed to young players training with the first team is, ‘Are you willing to be yourself’?

 “Someone told me we’ve only won the Youth Cup seven times which surprised me, I thought that number would be much higher,” Smith says reflecting on tonight’s challenge.

“It also shows how unpredictable youth football can be, much more so than first-team football. However, the expectation will always be there from me that any Rangers team should go and win the competition.

Steven Smith, fourth from left, with the Youth Cup Trophy in 2022

“Four or five players who started last season will be involved this time. There is that memory [of a narrow defeat] and it hurts when you lose on that stage, on that occasion, in front of your friends and your family live on TV. Tonight will be a completely different style of game against Aberdeen but one we’re looking forward to.

“I’m really happy with how the group have developed since taking over in December, they’re in a good place with some good performances behind them. Obviously, there are the usual dips within that because of their age and stage.

“Since I’ve come in I’ve never hidden from the players that the expectation here is to win, while they develop. Whether that is a league game or a friendly. They have to win - that is part and parcel of being a Rangers player.

“What I also constantly remind them of is that the performance level is what gets you the results. Performance always comes first and results will follow. Will there be games you grind it out? Of course. I always set the expectation you have to win but you have to perform.”

Smith returned to Rangers in 2021 after a 16-year playing career that catalysed a subsequent journey into coaching. The former left-back hasn’t waltzed into a job, instead setting up his own academy and starting back at Ibrox with the Under-8s three years ago.

“I initially didn’t know if I wanted to coach when I was playing,” Smith adds.

“A few ex-players who are friends encouraged me to do my badges. Lee McCulloch and David Weir just told me ‘Go and do your B licence, you never know where it might take you’.

“It was only in setting up my own academy I started to develop that real passion for coaching. I started coaching at the Rangers centre in Edinburgh during Covid just to get through the door because that was the only session available. I started with the Under-8s and Under-9s before working my way up to the current age group. This 2006/07 group is boys that I’ve coached since they were 13 or 14. It’s a group I have a really good relationship with. I have progressed my coaching journey with them as players.”

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When discussing the difference in youth football now to his own academy days, Smith comes back to the information now available to young players. Players are desperate for details synonymous with the analysis culture in first-team football. That surge cannot replace the individual, however. The balance of producing problem-solvers is something Smith is very cognisant of.

“Within a year or two these boys could be first-team players, so they want detail. Whether in or out of possession players need tactical information and they crave it. I think 15 years ago people didn’t crave information as much but now players are,” he continues.

Steven Smith in training during his first spell at Ibrox

“Don’t get me wrong, I had some really good coaches who gave really good information but players now crave it more. So much good analysis is provided for them which 23 years ago wasn’t available. Back then there was probably one analyst at the club, if that. Now, we have two full-time for the Under-18s.

“As a coach, you need to balance that dynamic because it’s so important to produce problem-solvers. Things will happen on the pitch that unfortunately the coach can’t help them with. The best players at the highest level are also the best decision-makers and problem-solvers. We give them information but there will be things in the cup final that they need to solve for themselves. There will always be things within a game players aren’t prepared for - so the message is ‘How are you going to deal with that’?

How much of the style of play Smith seeks to implement is modelled on what’s happening at first-team level, especially when there’s change in the dugout?

“You would be very naive if you didn’t look at the first team and the information they give, the way they play, their system, whether in or out of possession,” he continues.

“You’d be naive if you didn’t look towards what the first team are doing as that is what we are preparing them for hopefully. But we’re also preparing them so that no matter what manager comes in, they know how to play different formations, shapes and a variety of circumstances.

“We shouldn’t ever be focused on a set formation, especially in possession. I think in possession players should be free, you want structure behind the ball but the top end needs to be free. The structure is more relevant out of possession than on the ball where players are rotating and finding space."

Rangers have produced a number of talented youth players in recent seasons with Alex Lowry, Leon King and Adam Devine all reaching the first team. It’s been Ross McCausland, someone who didn’t appear destined to make that jump at the start of this season, who’s properly cracked the code, however.

McCausland’s story represents one of the messages Smith reiterates to his group.

“The message from Ross’ situation is that you always have to be ready,” Smith emphasises.

“Ross maybe wasn’t spoken about a lot and maybe felt like he was a distance away from the first team. But he kept himself ready and when that opportunity did come, he took it. You always have to be ready because the circumstances can change so quickly and Ross was always ready for that opportunity when it arrived.

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“There’s also an element of luck. Ross got that break when, unfortunately, someone lost their job. Steve Davis gave him the opportunity but it’s on Ross because he was ready. You never know when that shout is going to come to go and train for the first team - then it is up to you to go and make that impression.

“For me, making the jump to the first team becomes a mentality at a certain age when you’re 18 or 19. When you do get that opportunity to train with the first team, how much are you willing to be yourself? Some of the boys play differently but they need to remember the attributes that got them there in the first place.

“The message from me is ‘Go and show those qualities in a first-team session consistently when you get that opportunity’. One thing that has actually surprised me since I came in as a coach is that players get loads of opportunities to train with the first team. Whereas, back when I played, it was quite rare. The young players are getting loads of opportunities but when they do get them they have to be themselves and remember why they are there. Don’t go into a shell, show you are there for a reason and you are there to take someone’s position, otherwise, there will be fewer.”

Smith was part of the interim management team led by Steven Davis between the sacking of Michael Beale and the appointment of Clement, working with the Belgian towards the start of his tenure. So what stands out from watching Clement on the training pitch and around the Rangers Training Centre?

Smith, second from right, with the interim Rangers coaching team last October

“He’s just very clear about what he wants and what he looks for,” Smith adds on the Rangers manager.

“Whether that’s behaviour in the building or on the pitch, he’s very clear. Everything is very detailed, simplified and clear. As a player, if I think back that’s all you want, to know your job and what your manager wants, to be able to play to the best of your ability. The manager has brought a standard which I like because that is how it has to be at this football club. If there are no standards there is no point.”