THEY gathered in mourning and memory, yet also in celebration. They gathered to say goodbye.

The front doors of Ibrox have played host to many significant moments in Rangers’ history as heroes have been welcomed, triumphs toasted and villains castigated.

On Wednesday, supporters were there for one man as Walter Smith made his last journey along Edmiston Drive. As he headed for his final resting place, his position in the hearts and minds of those he left behind was forever enshrined.

From the blue sky above, a warming glow bathed the famous red façade of Ibrox. The autumn air was cold, crisp and filled with a sense of loss that has never faded since Smith’s untimely passing last week, aged just 73.

The tributes at the gates at the Broomloan and Copland ends, and at the statue of John Greig which stands as a memorial to the Ibrox Disaster, have steadily grown in number over the last week. Those that were placed in the hours after Smith’s death was announced are now amongst thousands more.

Flowers have been gently laid amongst the sea of shirts and scarves. The messages – no doubt written with a trembling hand and through a tear-filled eye – convey the grief that has struck the Rangers support.

As fans waited for his cortege to take him past those famous front doors for the final time, stories were shared of the days – almost too many to count – that Smith gave them memories which will forever be amongst Rangers’ most significant.

Some came alone, others travelled to Ibrox with family or friends. Strangers were united in grief as the legacy of Smith became a unifying force.

The generations were bridged. Some were children of the glorious, trophy-laden nineties, while others had only seen Smith’s managerial mastery during his second spell at Rangers.

The words and deeds of Smith will be passed down through families like so many heroes before him. Those that were once regaled with tales of Baxter or Greig will now have the privilege of informing others about the man known simply and affectionately as Walter.

The lines – three or four deep in most places and many more in others – stretched the length of Edmiston Drive. At the front door, club staff joined the crowds as a hush settled.

A ripple of clapping from the distance silenced the crowd as heads were bowed and eyes started to bubble. As Smith’s cortege moved solemnly towards the front door, the applause grew steadier and louder.

No words were said, but none were needed as the cars paused at the main entrance. Smith was home once again, home for the last time.

Scarves and flowers were thrown from the pavements. Some would rest on the bonnet and the roof of the lead car, while other landed on the road that was soon filled with mourners as Smith disappeared from view and into the distance.

As supporters dispersed, one young girl, aged no more than three or four years old, stopped to pick up a solitary red rose. One day, she will understand why it was there and just what Smith meant to the thousands that turned out for a fitting send off.

The loss of Smith has hit the Rangers support hard and even those that didn’t know him personally or never met him have been affected by his tragic passing. Few deaths, outside those of family or friends, will have such a profound impact on so many.

As fans made their way back to their cars, many stopped to take in the red, white and blue sea of memorials that will continue to grow. One day, they will be cleared and life will move on, but Smith – the man and the manager – will never be forgotten.

Before heading for home, scores stopped to take pictures of the commemorative bricks and paving stones that surround Ibrox and thoughts perhaps turned to Absent Friends on the day the Rangers family said farewell to a father-like figure.

Each engraving carries a personal sentiment. Some are well-wishes, others remember supporters for whom Rangers was a way of life but that now watch on from their own blue Heaven.

In time, a more permanent memorial to Smith may well come to fruition. If it does, there would be nobody more deserving of a statue or a stand than the man who delivered such incredible success and did so with the class and dignity expected of the office he held.

Like all such memorials, it would be entirely fitting to see Smith remembered in such a manner. The regret, though, is that it was not unveiled whilst he was still here to see it.

The gathering at Ibrox was a public show of grief and gratitude, yet it was those closest to Smith – his wife, sons and the grandchildren that he doted on – that were in the thoughts and prayers of all those who stood and waited. They had been let into Smith family’s day and were grateful for the opportunity to mourn with them.

A private funeral was held on Wednesday, while a larger memorial service will take place on Friday, November 19 as the football world and the general public pay their respects to a legend of the game and one of Scotland’s most dearly cherished figures.

Rangers fans have naturally been at the forefront of the tributes to Smith and the display at Ibrox last week – one which read ‘For deeds done and glories won. Thank you Walter’ – was fitting as renditions of ‘Walter Smith’s blue and white army’ reverberated around the stands once again.

Smith was the manager. In his words, his actions and his achievements, he encapsulated what it meant to be a Ranger, what made this club and this institution so special to so many.

Smith was the embodiment of Rangers and the sadness that has enveloped Ibrox over recent days is testament not just to his standing in the game but his presence as a man.

He is gone but will never be forgotten. May he rest in peace, forever in Rangers’ history and in the hearts of those who said goodbye one last time.