Michael Mols - Fifteen years on

Last updated : 03 November 2014 By THE RETRO RANGER

 In the week or so after the match, I watched my recording of the action three or four times and just couldn’t figure out how the Rangers had got nothing out of it.  Fifteen years on, I brought the old VCR down from the loft, stuck the tape into it and, guess what, I still can’t work out how we lost that game.  Seldom can Bayern Munich have endured a more nervous 90 minutes at the old Olympic Stadium than they did on that long ago night, yet they got the result they needed, the Rangers were out and my frustration is only aggravated by the wider ramifications which befell our club both on and off the park.

On November 3, 1999, Dick Advocaat’s Rangers travelled to Germany needing only to draw with Bayern to qualify from Group F.  Valencia were already sure to progress with nine points in the bag, having drawn both games with Bayern, beaten us at home and away and drawn 1-1 v PSV Eindhoven.  We had seven points, having done the double over PSV, Bayern had six from their draws with Valencia and a victory over PSV, with the pivotal game being the 1-1 draw between Rangers and Bayern at Ibrox.  We had battered them that night, gone ahead through Jorg Albertz and missed several guilt-edge chances, then been left to rue our misses when they grabbed a last minute equaliser from a contentious Michael Tarnat free-kick.

Still, we were in the driving seat going into the final game and, playing well on the domestic front, headed for Europe brimming over with confidence.  Something like 12,000 Bears made the trip, arguably the Champions League’s biggest travelling support outwith a final – the 15,000/20,000 who descended on Barcelona in 2007 doesn’t count as less than half  got tickets for the game – and the fans were rewarded with a very positive display from Rangers who, after a few early scares, really took the game to the Germans.

A cute chip from Michael Mols beat Oliver Khan but landed on the roof of the net, the keeper made a good save from a long range Jorg Albertz shot, some brilliant trickery from Mols presented Van Bronckhorst with a great opportunity only for Gio to blast the ball over the top, then Gio took a pass from Barry Ferguson and sent a great cross to the near post, Mols got in a superb diving header but saw it rebound from the post.  It was all going so well, it looked like it would only be a matter of time before the Gers went ahead.

Then the game turned.  In the 28th minute, Rod Wallace beat Bayern’s offside trap and set off after a through ball but Oliver Khan was alive to the danger, he sprinted from his line, got to the ball first and knocked it towards the touchline.  The goalkeeper then found himself in a race with Michael Mols to get to the loose ball, Khan got there first and succeeded in bundling it out of play.  Khan promptly trotted back to his goal area while Mols was left writhing on the sidelines.

Over the years I’ve been very hard on two of that fateful night’s leading characters and, with the great benefit of hindsight, I accept that I have been unfairly critical of both.  Firstly, Oliver Khan was totally blameless for Mols’ injury.  Having sprinted from his line to thwart Rod Wallace, he was a long way from home and, having initially failed to make clean contact with the ball, he was duty-bound to go after it to see it safely out of play.  This is what he did, he made no contact whatsoever with Michael, the damage was done when our guy landed awkwardly when he hurdled Khan to avoid a collision. 

The damage done to the ligaments Michael’s left knee was horrendous.  Three operations, several false stars and the best part of a year out in the cold denied him the opportunity to fulfil all the promise of his very impressive first few months at Rangers and the timing could not have been worse.  We had Bayern Munich on the rack, we would at least have got the draw we needed, of that I have no doubt and, with the financial rewards for progress in the Champions League, who knows how the future might have unfolded?

Just a couple of minutes after Mols had been replaced by Jonatan Johansson – the other ‘villain’ unfairly bad-mouthed by me over these past fifteen years – Stefan Effenberg pushed a pass through to Mehmet Scholl, Gio Van Bronckhorst was clumsy with his challenge and the referee pointed to the penalty spot.  Stefan Strunz opted to hit it right down the middle, Stefan Klos got a touch to it but the power in the shot was too much for our keeper and we were behind.

Yet we could have been level before half time.  Rod Wallace got in a great shot from an Artur Numan cut-back, only for Khan to get a hand to it, enough of a touch to divert the ball on to the underside of the crossbar and it was then scrambled clear.  Despite being frustrated by events, we’d had enough of the game in the first forty-five minutes to approach the second half in an upbeat frame of mind.

As Rangers continued to dominate, the television cameras frequently panned to an agitated Franz Beckenbauer in his seat in the stand.  Clearly the Bayern legend’s night was no more comfortable than that of Ottmar Hitzfeld’s team.  Khan twice saved from Albertz, Gio smashed a 20-yarder off the post with the keeper beaten and Wallace managed to slip the ball past Khan, only for Scholl to get back to clear.

Jonatan Johansson had a great chance to grab the equaliser with a brilliant turn which opened up the route to goal but he slashed his shot wide of the target from ten yards.  My big beef with JJ has always been that, given the same opportunity, Michael Mols would have buried it.  Using Mols as the yardstick is an awesome standard to set any player, Johansson always gave one hundred per cent but, like just about every other player in the game, he did not have the MM magic.  Ten minutes from time he had another chance, curling in a shot from the edge of the box, it looked bound for the corner of the net but Khan stuck out a hand to paw the ball round the post.  I’m afraid, it just wasn’t JJ's night, nor was it Michael Mols' night or Rangers' night, we had more than matched one of the top teams in Europe, only to be left with nothing but regrets.

Where today the Champions League adopts a two-legged knock-out format after the group stage, in 1999-2000 the last sixteen were broken into another four four-team groups, with the top two in each group making up the quarter-finalists, guaranteeing each club a minimum of a further three home games with all the accompanying lucrative spin-offs.  What difference would another three games have made to Rangers’ finances at a time when Tricky Dicky - with the full support of the Minted One! - was in the midst of a spend-spend-spend fit?  Would our situation have become more stable or would the man at the head of the house have played even more fast and loose with our club’s future?

On the field, how would qualifying from such a difficult group have lifted the mood of the team?  Rangers were so far ahead of the rest of the pack, they were seldom tested domestically and rarely got any credit for some top quality football.  But to be rubbing shoulders with the elite of Europe in the second group stage and, with a fully fit Michael Mols on fire, even the most critical observer would surely sit up and take notice, the reputation of Scottish football would have been enhanced and the club may well have gone on to push through what had become something of a glass ceiling in Europe.

Sadly, the story of Rangers in European football is one peppered with what-might-have-beens.  What if Eric Caldow had scored from the penalty spot in the inaugural Cup Winners Cup Final, how would things have panned out if Jim Baxter hadn’t suffered a leg break in Vienna in 1964, would the inclusion of Alex Willoughby in the team for the 1967 Cup-Winners Cup Final have been enough to win the trophy?  Surely Newcastle United were there for the taking in the 1969 Fairs Cup semi-final, could our Barcelona heroes have successfully defended the trophy they won in 1972, what if Derek Johnstone had been fully fit for the European Cup quarter-final against Cologne in 1979?

Terry Butcher’s leg break was a savage blow to our 1987-88 European Cup hopes, what if UEFA had been quicker to rumble Marseille’s dodgy dealings in the 92-93 season, did Advocaat’s teams ever get a lucky break in Europe?  Big Eck’s side was very unlucky against Feyenoord in 2002 and surely deserved better against Villarreal four years later, what if Walter Smith had urged his team to really go for it against Zenit in Manchester?  Good God, the catalogue of possibilities is heart-breaking.

It is worth noting that back in the 1999-2000 season, despite struggling to qualify from our group, Bayern Munich went on to top their second stage group which involved Real Madrid, Dynamo Kiev and Rosenborg, registering home and away victories over the Spanish giants in the process.  The Germans then overcame Porto in the quarter-finals before Real Madrid got their revenge in the semis and went on to beat our Group F opponents Valencia in the final in Paris.

Rangers, meanwhile, had to pick up the pieces after their Champions League exit.  While everything was hunky-dory on the home front, we were beaten on penalties by Borussia Dortmund when we dropped into the UEFA Cup and struggled to recover from the loss of Michael Mols.  Billy Dodds was brought in as his replacement (no laughing at the back!), Rod Wallace soldiered on for another season or two, Gabby Amato was still on the fringes, the unjustly maligned Jonatan Johansson chipped in with a right few goals and Albertz, Van Bronckhorst, Kanchelskis, Reyna and Ferguson could be relied upon to hit the net now and again.

But none could match the craft and sharpness of Michael Mols.  In my humble opinion he was as good as Kenny Dalglish with his back to goal, holding off defenders, then swivelling those hips to get his shot in.  His trademark check and turn was a joy to behold, defenders knew it was coming but just couldn’t do anything about it, he was well nigh unplayable in and around the box.  They say you never miss the water until the well is dry.  Well, Rangers certainly missed Michael Mols badly, we were only just getting used to seeing him turn on the style when he was carried off the Olympic Stadium pitch and, looking back over subsequent events, the team was never quite the same again.

Yes, Michael Mols came back into the side a year or so down the road but was he ever the same player?  I don’t think he was, the Caat Man spoke of Michael ‘being at war with his knee’, every little twinge, every heavy tackle, every juddering challenge, brought back memories of the agony he had suffered, there wasn’t the same boldness to his play and, although he scored again in the Champions League, rattled in a couple against FC Semtex and helped win a few more trophies for the Rangers, the pre-Munich superstar who made us think all things were possible would not be seen again.

He stuck around until 2004, taking a hefty pay cut along the way as the exciting, ambitious club he had joined degenerated into a debt-laden shell.  Michael always speaks very highly of our club, he is a frequent visitor to Ibrox and regularly turns out in Rangers Legends matches, having only recently given the Scum Of a bit of a chasing in Dubai.  He is indeed a Rangers legend but all our affection for him is tinged with that niggling regret that we did not see him in his pomp for long enough. 

 Sadly, the Michael Mols story is just another in Rangers' infuriatingly long list of if-onlys...