The Decades of Success
In a season where there is so much talk about transition, uncertainty, and desire for progress it seems fitting to re-visit two seasons that signified the end of an era and another that was the pinnacle of a generation.
It is twenty years since Rangers attempted to re-write history and win an unprecedented tenth consecutive league title. It is also the tenth anniversary of Rangers reaching the final of the UEFA Cup, the last Scottish football team to reach a major European final.
Twenty years ago, Rangers had just completed 9-in-a-row (added to the League Cup won earlier in the season). They already had Gascoigne, Laudrup, Goram, Ferguson, McCall, Albertz and a still more than capable McCoist. In came the Italians Porrini, Gattuso, Amoruso and the enigmatic Negri to bolster the squad as well as the experienced Jonas Thern. The team was in transition with 9-in-a-row stalwarts Gough, Brown, Robertson, Hateley, and Steven departing at the end of the previous season. Gough returned to the club after a third of the season when it became clear that Amoruso’s injury was worse than first thought though. Things were looking good for the season to come.
What an eventful season. In 1997/98 we had Negri scoring over 30 goals before Christmas. Amoruso never played, missing the whole season with an Achilles injury. Gazza and Laudrup scored 30 goals less than the previous season with the former leaving for Middlesbrough towards the end of the season when it became clear that we’d seen his best years.
Europe was a disaster, out of the Champions League and UEFA Cup by the end of September only winning two out of six games against GI Gotu (aye, exactly).
Walter Smith announced he was leaving the club in October causing, even more, instability at the club, but he had earned the right to leave on his terms. Fans thought this would be the motivation for a final push for ten-in-a-row. The ageing squad and new signings struggled to maintain the early league form and when two of the last four games were lost the title was handed to Celtic despite only losing one game to them all season. To make things worse Smith’s last game was to be a 2-1 defeat to Hearts in the Scottish Cup Final.
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It wasn’t Walter Smith’s last game. Smith returned in 2007 after the disastrous Paul Le Guen experiment. Stability was restored when he signed a core of hard working Scottish/British players to add to those already there that had been developed through the youth system. A blend of youth and experience from youngsters like Kevin Thomson and Steven Naismith to old heads like David Weir, Lee McCulloch, and Christian Dailly each with familiar traits. Passion, commitment, determination and an unsurpassed work ethic, it helped that most of them had been brought up supporting the club too.
Rangers played 68 games in 2007/2008. To put this into perspective it is almost two full league seasons. The Champions League campaign (with hindsight) was a success. After negotiating two qualifying rounds Rangers started on fire with 7 points from 9 in a group including Barcelona (lost La Liga on goal difference), Lyon (French champions) and Stuttgart (German champions). It wasn’t enough to make the group stages with three losses in the last three games, the hardest to take being a 3-0 reversal of the first game v Lyon at Ibrox.
Although devastating at the time, the Champions League exit led to an incredible run to the UEFA Cup Final in Manchester. Made even more miraculous with various domestic postponements and cup success leading to nine games in three weeks at the end of the season. Rangers preparation for the UEFA Cup Final? Three games in six days then another two days after. Nothing like a governing body supporting its members in European competition. It was a surprise the players could walk let alone compete in the final games of the season, losing the league by three points but they did manage to win both domestic trophies.
The most memorable season in my 37 years for so many reasons. Winning the league would truly have been an astonishing achievement given the enormity of the challenge faced on all fronts by Walter Smith’s men. Rangers playing 20 to Celtic’s 10 games in the title run in from the middle of March, when Rangers had a 10-point lead. And between two key Old Firm games Rangers had the small matter of a UEFA Cup semi-final and a Scottish Cup semi-final, whereas Celtic had an eight-day rest. To still have a chance of winning the league on the last day of the season shows the character and spirit that is required to be a Rangers player. Only time will tell if the current crop of players can demonstrate these essential qualities required to succeed at Ibrox.
Over the course of the season, we’ll look back at individual players to see where they are now (or where they went after Rangers) and memorable events throughout the two seasons ten and twenty years ago. It could be emotional……..but that’s football and that’s Rangers!