JOE CARROLL brings us the next instalment of the 'Before they were famous' series with a look at the fallow years of a Scottish football institution.
The 1990s was a decade of transformation for British football. At the top level, stadiums were knocked down or redeveloped to accommodate compulsory seating; Rupert Murdoch was getting a mere glimpse of the potential of his Sky Sports juggernaut; as a result, the best foreign players from every corner of the globe flooded into the country and footballers were earning more than they could have ever imagined, and drinking and smoking less for the privilege.
But for a kid who wouldn’t reach his 10th birthday till halfway through the 1998/99 season, it felt as though football had always been this way. Manchester United and Arsenal would fight it out for FA Carling Premiership supremacy, Everton would hang onto top-flight status by the tiniest of threads (and some questionable goalkeeping), and Ruud Gullit would always have the coolest hair in football.
Despite the overwhelming changes from the 1980s, football felt like a series of constants and even for a pre-pubescent growing up on Merseyside it seemed that Glasgow Rangers’ dominion over Scottish football was one of them.
The English league was awash with talent, from the enigmatic Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli to the rising stars of David Beckham and Michael Owen, yet the blue behemoth of Glasgow was a tantalising attraction: a club boasting a selection of the finest players from Scotland, England and across the globe. Their star had far-reaching appeal, enough appeal - I recall - for a childhood friend to shun his family of Liverpool supporters and declare Rangers as his team.
Ironically, this friend would have one of his dad’s footballing heroes to thank for Rangers’ success. Graeme Souness won 12 major trophies during a glittering Liverpool career including three European Cups, yet try telling Rangers supporters that his achievements with the Gers don’t eclipse his playing days on Merseyside.
He is, after all, the man who led Rangers to their first Scottish league title in nine years, simultaneously putting to a bed a wretched period in the club’s history while ushering in an exciting new dawn. Other men no doubt played their part, from the boardroom down to the playing staff, but it was Souness’ title triumph as player-manager in 1987 which kick-started a glorious period of success.
Rangers hold the prestigious record of winning the most league titles of any professional football club, in any league in the world. Their 54 is 7 more than city rivals Celtic, while as a percentage of available Scottish league titles, Rangers have won 42.7% (between the Old Firm they’ve hoarded 84.2% of championships, according to Sporting Intelligence). That Rangers accumulated just over 30% of their total championships after Souness’ first in 1987 is remarkable, and an indication of just how giant a club Rangers are, despite their recent relegation and fall in to administration.
A look at the 10 league tables spanning the last decade of the 20th century tells you everything about Rangers’ ambition, not only for recognition on these isles but abroad too. In 1988 the club received the financial shot in the arm to be able to compete at the very highest level, backed by new owner and chairman David Murray. Following his takeover, the Gers won 9 consecutive league titles, surrendering 1st place only once during the entire 90s decade, and took home 11 domestic cups by the end of the millennium. Equivalent glory among their continental peers might not have been forthcoming but their thirst for success was more than satisfied domestically.
For so many, the depiction of Rangers as a club on its knees, a matter of years before Souness’ arrival is difficult to imagine. But for the closing stages of the 1970s and the first six years of the 1980s, the giants of Scottish football had shrunk to a shadow of their true might. When manager Jock Wallace lifted the league trophy aloft in the spring of 1978, jubilant Rangers fans had no way of knowing that they would have to wait another nine years for their next league triumph.
While they wouldn’t have to wait nearly as long for a trophy, the 1980/81 season - in which they clinched the Scottish Cup - represented a campaign shorn of European football and indifferent league form which saw them finish third. Despite silverware, the season was a failure.
Such was the ambition of Rangers Football Club: not even a trophy could satisfy fans or the board. But the paradox doesn’t end with trophies. While Rangers fans will tell you there was some enjoyment in the football being played, others recount their most miserable memories. None could have been more embarrassing than defeat to English Third Division opposition.
The Anglo-Scottish Cup was introduced in 1975 as another level of competition for clubs who would otherwise be playing in Europe. But despite this the competition failed to stimulate the bigger sides’ interest, while crowds stayed at home. With no European football in 1980/81, it was hoped Rangers’ involvement could give the cup some much needed glamour.
But their progress came to an embarrassing end with quarter final defeat to English Third Division side Chesterfield. A meagre 1-1 draw at Ibrox was bad enough, but a comprehensive 3-0 surrender in Derbyshire was a total humiliation. Former Blue Phil Bonnyman scored twice and Rangers missed a penalty to cap a forgettable night at Saltergate.
For some fans, the stuttering decades of the 70s and 80s are nothing compared to their tumble through the leagues as a result of liquidation in 2012. May 2016 saw them back where they belong with promotion to the Scottish Premiership, yet the humiliation of four years in the wilderness represents their darkest hour as supporters.
Such a level of comparison makes the idea that Rangers were a good footballing side for periods of their demise easier to swallow, and supports the view of many fans: that is, the difficulty of pigeon-holing the 70s and 80s as decades defined by success, or rather lack of it.
After all, Rangers fans had to suffer the sight of their city neighbours lifting the league title a joint record nine times in a row from 1965/66 to 1973/74. An unsuccessful period when you look at the history books but that doesn’t paint the full picture. Rangers fans from the Gersnetonline forum, pick up the story:
“It's no exaggeration to say that Glasgow was as strong a footballing city as any in the world at the time. The other difference between that period (60s/70s) and the early 80s was that we were competitive then. Celtic had a great side and were managed by a genius (Jock Stein), but we were very good too, just not quite good enough. We were arguably watching one of the finest Rangers sides in history at the time. In the early 80s we weren't even second best.”
Again it’s counter-intuitive to recall a Rangers side that didn’t win a single league championship as “one of the finest in history”, but such was the level of competition, with Scottish clubs demonstrating their clout at home and on the European stage. During their famous 9-in-a-row period, Celtic went on to win 10 domestic cups and reached two European Cup finals (winning it in ‘67) under their legendary manager.
Kilmarnock won their first ever league title in 1965 and lost out to Leeds United in the semi-final of the Inter Cities Fairs Cup in 1966. Dunfermline won the Scottish Cup twice (1961 and 1968) and got to a European semi-final of their own, suffering a narrow 2-1 aggregate defeat to Slovan Bratislava in the 1968/69 Cup Winners Cup. And Aberdeen were a regular fixture on the continent from 1968 before their eventual Cup Winners Cup success in 1983. The Pittrodrie outfit performed strongly in the league, pushing the Glasgow clubs with two consecutive second place finishes in 70/71 and 71/72 and secured the Scottish Cup in 1970. Another Gersnetonline user remembers:
“Rangers won their second treble in the 1963/64 season, just before my time. The next ten years saw Kilmarnock win the league, followed by Celtic’s 9-in-a-row. I attended Rangers’ Scottish Cup final victory in '66, a 1-0 replay win. It would be nearly five years before our next cup success. (League Cup). Those five years were hard to endure; however, the opposition were tough.”
And it wasn’t just hard-going at home; Rangers were facing high quality opposition abroad too. They were runners up to Fiorentina in the inaugural Cup Winners Cup in 1961 and were finalists again six years later, falling to Bavarian giants Bayern Munich. Despite not enjoying success in Europe till their Cup Winners Cup win in 1972, Rangers were a club with a proud tradition of competing in Europe. In fact, since making their European bow in the 1956/57 season, they’ve missed out on European football on just five occasions (before 2012). Even during their ‘bad’ spells, fans could at least expect to keep their passports up to date.
Which is why the 1980/81 season tends to stick out like a sore thumb when you quiz Rangers fans about those title-less years. With no European football and an embarrassing early exit from the Anglo-Scottish Cup, fans heading to Ibrox were less than enthusiastic about the club’s prospects.
While some of those out on the pitch had already written their names into club folklore, some were simply not good enough. Peter McCloy was part of Rangers’ 1972 Cup Winners Cup side, alongside Sandy Jardine, but nearly ten years on, these loyal servants were approaching their twilight years with no sign of top young talent coming through. The pair were part of the XI who played in that infamous defeat to Chesterfield but the consensus from match-going fans is that the players making up the rest of the team simply weren’t good enough.
Youngsters like John McDonald and Gordon Dalziel just didn’t match up to those who had gone before them and they were being outshone by those from Celtic and Aberdeen (Gordon Strachan, Alex McLeish, et al), playing for clubs who were building youthful sides with a hunger for titles. When Rangers met Aberdeen in the 1982 Scottish Cup final, there was no place in the starting line-up for then highly rated Eric Black (who would go on to net against Real Madrid in Aberdeen’s Cup Winners Cup final success a year later), while Rangers’ bench was made up of 35-year-old Tommy McLean.
Another memory of that time from Gersnetonline sheds some light on a dark period in Rangers’ history:
“The comparison between those fallow times (early-mid 70s) and the early eighties would be the latter period was hard watching. Mostly, the team was turgid, and got worse as the season progressed. I was home on leave in January/February 1980/81 and managed to see two home games against Morton and Dundee United. Both were played on hard pitches on a Saturday and Tuesday evening. Both attendances were under 20,000, both defeats 0-1 and 1-4 respectively, and we were comprehensively demolished in football terms. Out thought, out run, out played,(…) down and out inside our most modern new stadium.”
The ‘most modern new stadium’ referred to was a redeveloped Ibrox, officially re-opened in September 1981 against Celtic. A series of disasters at the stadium culminated in the Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975 being passed, and Rangers took it upon themselves to radically redevelop Ibrox. The old bowl shape, complete with steep terraces - which were blamed for Rangers’ second stadium disaster in January 1971 - was replaced with three all-seater stands: safer and modern. 66 people died on staircase 13 of the old east terracing in 1971, but two of British football’s most tragic stadium disasters were still to come, before these warnings could be heeded.
While capacity was cut to 44,000, attendances in the early 80s got nowhere near full. Redevelopment cost the club £10million, money that managers of the period John Greig and Jock Wallace would otherwise have spent on player recruitment.
This re-distribution of funds is cited as one of the main reasons for Rangers’ slump during this time. The stadium works were funded by the Rangers Football Pools, the largest club-based scheme of its kind in Britain, and it’s thought that no other club could have afforded such squad negligence in favour of its stadium. Let’s not forget that the Taylor Report, recommending the conversion to all-seater stadia wasn’t published until 1990. While the top tier clubs in England were forced to redevelop, aided by increased revenue with the inception of the FA Premier League, Rangers were already ahead of the game and doing it at their own expense.
But this foresight took its toll on an ageing squad which struggled to keep up with the on-field success of Celtic, Aberdeen and Dundee United, all of whom won the league title at least once between 1978 and 1986.
“I stood on the terraces in the late seventies on the cold winter nights with only 15,000 disgruntled fans watching crap football”, says one Gersnetonline user. “Willie Waddell (vice chairman) was taking a lot of stick for not investing in the team. I remember some fans shouting there was no point in building a new stadium if there were no fans left.”
With dismal attendances and a deteriorating squad, Rangers failed to win the league in eight attempts until Souness’ arrival in 1986. They only finished runners up once (in 78/79) but they did, however, collect six domestic cups and contested in Europe in every campaign but one.
Finances gradually returned to their pre-Ibrox redevelopment level by the middle of the 1980s and with the appointment of Souness as player manager, Rangers were finally in a position to return to their rightful place in Scottish and British football. With English clubs deprived of European football, some of the game’s brightest talents including Terry Butcher and Chris Woods were tempted north of the border and the promise of football at the highest level.
By the beginning of the 1990s, their transformation back into British super heavyweights was complete but in a familiarly paradoxical turn, it was English football that was about to start its own journey as the most exciting, most prolific and most competitive league in world football. Scottish football on the other hand was destined for a future of two-horse title chases that many argue has been to the detriment of the league and Scotland’s national team.