Statistically speaking, season 1985/86 was the worst in Rangers' history. Statistics, however, can be misleading at the best of times. Grim though 85/86 was, it did throw up a few positives, not least being the imminent arrival of Graeme Souness. Aside from the obvious though, football fans tend to look deeper than most people for crumbs of consolation and one result over Celtic in particular that season - while having no bearing whatsoever in the grand scheme of things - did mean the Bears had at least one celebratory night during that season.
A victory over your bitterest rivals is always welcome, especially when it temporarily brightens what seems to be constant gloom and despair. None were to be forthcoming in season 2003/04 which saw Rangers humiliatingly finish the season with five defeats to Celtic and a pathetic one goal to show.
1985/85 season also saw a fairly encouraging crop of youngsters emerging. Derek Ferguson, Iain Durrant and Robert Fleck all played major roles in the subsequent capture of the League Title the following season. 2003/04 saw Rangers hive off their youth development set up in a ludicrous move that now means Rangers have to bid for what are effectively their own players. No longer can the followers of younger level players be confident in asserting that any particular young player will progress through the ranks to the Rangers first team.
The preceding paragraphs are just two examples of the pitiful state Rangers found themselves in last season. They're all that are needed, nonetheless, to argue that last season was the worst one for Rangers in living memory, surpassing even the likes of 1982/83 and the various empty ones of the early 1970s.
It all began so promisingly, though. The 50th League Title presentation against Kilmarnock on a gloriously sunny Summer afternoon at Ibrox presented a wonderful spectacle. The football was of a high calibre and the atmosphere in the Stands was a reminder of what things were like before the advent of all-seated, all season ticket stadia.
We were, obviously, watching a new Rangers team to all intents and purposes from the one that had performed above all realistic expectations to win the Treble the preceding season. However, a certain Larkhall Bluenose was extremely prophetic in his words as the season was discussed in the Summer: "We punched well above our weight last season; we'll really struggle to get anywhere near that standard next season."
During the close-season, the manager had to rely on bringing in free transfers and dabbling at the cheaper end of the transfer market due to the reckless, irresponsible financial policies of previous years. To add to the difficulties faced by the manager, mainstays of the Treble winning team were also to depart: notably Lorenzo Amoruso. For all his flamboyance and occasional errors, he was a presence in the Rangers team that could inspire not only those around him on the park but the supporters in the stands and terracing as well. Love him or loath him, his departure always left a big hole to fill and it's debatable whether or not it ever was.
Zura Khisnashvilli, however, was brought in from Dundee and throughout the course of the season was to prove one of the manager's few successes throughout the course of the season. A cultured, assured player with speed, vision and control, he may well have a rewarding career ahead of him. And to look to the future rather than the past for a moment, it's very much to be hoped that the manager stops shifting the player's position on the park and plays him as a centre half where he stands out. However, to return to this review, he was one of the few positives in a quite appalling nine months or so for the Rangers support.
The same cannot, sadly, be said for another then newcomer. Nuno Capucho certainly had all the credentials when he arrived at Ibrox. Unfortunately, he never lived up to what he promised and certainly never reached anywhere near the heights of the player he had been brought in to replace, another Summer departee, Claudio Canniggia. There had been a suspicion among some elements of the Rangers support that Capucho had been brought in on account of one admittedly superb performance for Porto against Celtic in 2001. Whether such stories have any foundation is open to question; but the blunt truth is that Capucho's time at Ibrox was a shambles. It was no surprise at all when he was shown the exit door. Ironically, even though Alex McLeish was responsible for bringing the player to Ibrox, he does deserve some credit for his admission that one of his transfer dealings did not work out and for the way he moved the player out the door. It was a refreshing change from the attitude of his predecessor.
Another new arrival was the Brazilian, Emerson. Doubts about the wisdom of this player arriving at Ibrox were expressed in many quarters, given his time spent in England and his propensity to go missing. As it turned out, he was another player who promised much and delivered very little, if anything at all. The observer may in fact ask if it was a complete shot in the dark by the manager in bringing the player to Ibrox. Dealings like this in which the manager openly admitted he had never actually seen the player in action prior to signing him leave him wide open to all sorts of questioning and criticism. It's to be hoped he learns from it; and learns quickly.
It's a lesson in football that out of the three players mentioned in this rant that the two whose reputations preceded them departed with their tails between their legs having palpably failed to live up to their promise while the one who arrived from another SPL team performed more than adequately and ended the season as one of the few who would offer some promise for the future. It proves that reputations do not win games and that the manager will be reviewing his transfer policy of bringing the likes of Capucho and Emerson who were basically looking to top up their bank balances before retiring.
One shining exception to this was Henning Berg. A total professional throughout his short stay at Ibrox, his performances cannot be faulted and he'll leave Ibrox with the best wishes of the support. It's debatable if the same can be said for Egil Ostenstad! Dreadful, abysmal, shocking - there are many words like that yet still do not do justice to just how bad he was.
Ultimately the buck stops with the manager for his signing. Ostenstad was a bad, BAD error of judgement by McLeish. People are obviously going to question whether or not he has the ability to manage a Club the size of Rangers when he produces the likes of Ostenstad. Sometimes it's better to struggle on with what you have rather than plump for a has-been - or never-was - and hope for the best. Tactics like that may be acceptable at Motherwell or Hibs but NOT at Ibrox. Simply put, he's making a rod for his own back by signing players like that and if he hasn't learned from it then he'll be out of a job.
Frank de Boer also arrived during the season, more than anything to ensure he was fit for Euro 2004. Doubtless, the player had all the pedigree a player could have; but short term fixes for mercenaries are not going to advance the Rangers cause. Bizarrely, at his last Ibrox game he was presented with a bouquet of flowers and received an ovation from the crowd. For what? He was at Ibrox for four months and contributed very little in the grand scheme of things. Talented player though he may be, Rangers should never allow themselves to be used as a training ground by anybody, no matter the merit of their ability.
But, on that glorious day as the Flag was unfurled, there was little indication of the shamble that was to unfold before us in the weeks and months to come. An easy 4-0 win over Kilmarnock was followed by another five straight wins that included a quite sensational performance at Tynecastle where Hearts were destroyed 4-0, a scoreline that could quite easily have been doubled. That was to be the last point in the season where Rangers fans had any hope of building on the preceding season's Treble.
When Celtic arrived at Ibrox in the first weekend of October, Rangers were sitting atop the pile with a 100% record in the league, but this was to be surrendered shamefully as ninety minutes were to elapse in which Rangers never created one single shot at the Celtic goal. As it was, Rangers lost 1-0 and never again in the league produced a performance that was of the standard expected of a Rangers team. Draws with Motherwell and Livingston followed, along with a scrambled win at Rugby Park that was the first in four consecutive wins in the League.
While an undefeated run is of course welcome, we arrive back at the theory that statistics can be misleading. The record books show Rangers drawing and winning games, what is hidden is the absolutely terrible performances that were getting served up. It really was dire stuff the Rangers support was treated to. The team looked like a collection of misfits who had only met for the first time during the warm ups for some of the games and it showed in a truly appalling 2-0 loss to Dunfermline in mid December.
A generation of Rangers fans had grown up not knowing what a League defeat to Dunfermline tasted like, given that the last one took place some THIRTY years ago. It was a measure of how far Rangers had fallen from the previous season in that nobody could complain about the result.
Two more wins over Hearts and Dundee separated the debacle at East End Park from the second game against Celtic that season. What followed at Parkhead that day was possibly the lowest point in a catastrophe of a season. A gutless, insipid, disgrace of a performance was served up by a Rangers team who were quite simply a disgrace to the Colours. Even in what were the dark days of the early 1980s, nobody could say they witnessed a Rangers team surrender so shamefully to Celtic. It had better never happen again.
One can only wonder at Jock Wallace witnessing that shambles from on High and wondering at how eleven players in Rangers jerseys could appear to have accepted defeat before the game had even started. One thing's for sure: the character he instilled into his teams would ensure such a pitiful performance would simply not have happened. If McLeish wants to be spoken about in the same glowing terms as Jock Wallace then he could do worse than adopt some of the Big Man's tactics with regard to motivation.
As it was, that defeat ended any real possibility of Rangers landing the major prize and had to play out the season with the League out of their reach. It's not as if the performances improved, though. Three uninspiring 1-0 wins against Motherwell, Livingston and Partick Thistle and a 2-0 win over Kilmarnock preceded a trip to Pittodrie. Again, Rangers were to produce a terrible performance and were highly fortunate to emerge with a draw.
It was obvious that the season's end couldn't come quick enough for the Rangers support, a fact never more clearly displayed than the quite amazing statistic that at Tannadice at the end of February, a pay at the gate facility was employed at a Rangers away game for the first time since April 1988. Those that were present again witnessed an awful Rangers display and saw their team lose 2-0.
As the season dragged on to a painful conclusion, the only consolation the Rangers support could hope for was to get a win over Celtic. The chance to do so at Ibrox was squandered by the team in the penultimate game against them and it was becoming clear that a season in which Rangers lost every game to Martin O'Neill's thugs was unfolding before the Bears. The worst nightmare was confirmed soon after as Rangers went down to a last minute goal at Parkhead on May 8th. Defeat to Hearts and a win over Dunfermline at East End Park brought the season thankfully to an end.
So how did a season that opened so promisingly end up what this Bear considers to be the worst one in living memory? A combination of factors are evident. The first, obviously, is the financial constraints the manager is forced to work under. The ludicrous over-spending of recent years has come back to haunt Rangers in a major fashion and the manager has to be given a certain leeway when dissecting a season such as the one under discussion.
If he's not given the tools to do the job then he has legitimate grounds for complaint when things do not work out. However, he has to take responsibility for the way he tells his team to play. The dubious quality of a number of his signings has already been discussed. Some of his team selections and tactics were baffling, not least his deployment of Zura Khisnishvilli at right back in some games. Also, his lack of knowledge in what to do to combat Celtic was and remains highly concerning. Playing out time for a 0-0 draw at Parkhead is not the policy I want to see a Rangers manager adopt, particularly when they were very much there for the taking. Yes, McLeish is open to some highly deserved criticism; however, one school of thought is that his opening eighteen months bought him some grace. He is bringing in players for NEXT season having studied them in far greater detail than those that arrived last Summer. One thing is imperative: that we hit the ground running. Capitulation like last season will see McLeish out the door.
Of course, he wasn't helped in any way by the shocking behaviour of Barry Ferguson, the Rangers Captain and major reason of 2002/03's success. Having helped Rangers qualify for the Champions' League, Ferguson, in an act of betrayal to his position as Rangers Captain, decided his future lay elsewhere. Not at a team that challenges for honours in England but to perennial strugglers, Blackburn Rovers, where success is based on ending the season outside the relegation places.
It remains unclear just why Ferguson chose to hand in a transfer request but somebody from his background should have been aware of just what an honour it is to Captain The Rangers, especially when one considers the roll of honour his predecessors establish. Noises emanating from down south suggest he wants to come back to Ibrox. Given his relinquishing of the position of the most prestigious honour a player can have, he must be rejected in any proposed return. His successor as Captain of Rangers, Craig Moore, has hardly covered himself in glory either.
While having a certain sympathy with his views that Rangers need to bring in players of a high quality this season, his announcement that he was off if they did not meet with his approval was not the behaviour the Rangers support expect from a Rangers Captain. Moore needs to learn the lesson that no man - including him - is bigger than the wonderful institution we call The Rangers. His statement seems to indicate he's of a differing view so if he thinks he can dictate Rangers policy to suit himself, he can feel free to follow Barry Ferguson to the obscurity of relegation struggles in England. Going by the performances of last season, he'd hardly be missed at any rate.
To return to the topic of Europe, however, at a time when the season still offered promise, Rangers were given what appeared to be a stern task to qualify for the Champions' League in the shape of FC Copenhagen from Denmark. After the dreadful exit to the relatively unknown Viktoria Zizkov the previous season, it was imperative for Rangers to progress this season. A tense 1-1 draw was played out at Ibrox, meaning Rangers faced an even tougher mission to qualify.
However, in front of a magnificent travelling support, Rangers claimed a superb 2-1 victory in the Danish capital, the winner coming from Shota Arveladze near the end of the ninety minutes. It was a moment that will live long in the memory of those who witnessed it, and meant that Rangers have a record of played two, won two in the Parken Stadium, one of the finest arenas in world football.
The subsequent draw for the group stages saw Rangers pitted against Stuttgart, Panathinaikos and Manchester United. On paper, a tough draw but second place should have been well within the bounds of Rangers' capability. Sadly, in what has become an all too frequent scenario, Rangers blew it. As is par for the course, Rangers got off to a flying start, only to falter badly when it really mattered. Stuttgart were defeated at Ibrox in the opening game; then it all went pear shaped in Greece. Leading 1-0 against ten men, Rangers contrived to lose an equaliser almost at the end of the game.
It was to prove highly costly. The double header against Manchester United, while valuable in terms of prestige and finance, also had a significant downside: the gulf between Rangers and a genuinely top class European outfit was painfully exposed, particularly in England. Both games were lost, the first a 1-0 deficit at Ibrox but it was at Old Trafford that the chasm that exists between Rangers and the level they aspire to was emphasised as Manchester United cantered to an easy 3-0 win. Progress was still possible, however, but a 1-0 loss in Stuttgart meant that the consolation prize of a UEFA Cup spot was all that remained with regard to Europe.
Victory at Ibrox over the Greeks, Panathinaikos, was all that stood between Rangers and further European involvement. What unfolded at Ibrox, however, was not consolidation of third place in the group; but rather a disgraceful capitulation made even more unforgivable by the fact Rangers were actually leading 1-0 and looking like certainties to enter the UEFA Cup. It's no exaggeration to suggest that the 3-1 loss will be remembered by all those who witnessed it as being one of the worst performances produced by a Rangers team in the European arena for almost a generation. Comparisons with other nightmares such as St Etienne, Porto, Osasuna, Levski Sofia and others on a list too painfully long to continue with were obviously made.
What the blunt truth was that Rangers had scandalously blown it and the European adventure was over with the amateurish manner in which Rangers played that night. One of David Murray's quotes from the past centred round how the Rangers support were to judge him on Europe. He, as much as anybody, has to accept blame for the disgrace of a performance that was offered against the Greeks. Financial stupidity had reduced Rangers to finishing bottom of a group that, in all honesty, should not have provided a problem for even a semi-decent outfit.
As it was, with the League looking ever more unlikely to stay at Ibrox, the two domestic trophies were all that remained for Rangers to salvage some pride. Both were also to be surrendered. A penalty shoot out loss to Hibs in the League Cup semi final and another defeat at Parkhead in the Scottish Cup meant that Rangers were to finish the season trophyless. There are parallels here: in 1977, Rangers ended the season empty handed the season after a Treble success. However, that's where the comparison ends. Then, Rangers were not saddled with a horrendous debt. That is not the case today.
It's simply not good enough for anybody connected with Rangers, be they board member or supporter to suggest that we're experiencing a cyclical move in football with the balance of power in Scotland having swung back to Parkhead and assuming it'll automatically arrive back at Ibrox in the fullness of time. For one thing, it shows a dangerous level of apathy to simply 'sit tight and wait for things to get better.' For another, it shows an ignorance of developments in football in general.
Leagues in Europe these days tend to be dominated to an even greater extent than in past years by a small number of teams. England and the Netherlands are prime examples. What the danger in Scotland is, with the paucity of genuine rivalry that it will in the not too distant future, mirror the Norwegian League. With the start they have just now given the state Rangers are in, guess who is in pole position to assume the role of Rosenborg. Is that hysterical, fantastical, extreme? Perhaps. But if Rangers allow the current situation to manifest itself then it's well within the realms of the possible that the Scottish League will go the way of its Norwegian counterpart. To say that things will be better in time is simply not good enough. This situation needs rectified immediately.
This brings us on to the present incumbents of the Board at Ibrox. They seem to be a collection of individuals without the slightest grasp of what an honour they are privileged to hold with regard to their positions. Time after time this season, the Rangers fans have been insulted through words and actions from the Board and the entire institution of Rangers FC has been slandered with no reaction from the Board.
The AGM in September gave a frightening insight into the workings of the Board at Ibrox. Any criticism, no matter how deserved or constructive, was dismissed with either a cursory wave of the hand or by the particular Board member answering the relevant question resorting to self pity. Martin Bain, when cornered on his admission in the press that he won't employ Rangers fans sought refuge, not for the first time by him or another member of that Board, behind Alex McLeish. John McLelland claimed the debt would be £100m more were a supporter to be on the Board. Both these examples serve to indicate just how much contempt the Board hold the support in. It's a different story when season ticket renewal forms are being sent out, and patronising platitudes are bestowed on those that were otherwise subject to ridicule. In a season of lows, the attitude of the Board must rank down with the worst of them.
To emphasise how little respect they have for Rangers FC, one example will serve to indicate how crystal clear this is. The Sun, a comic that masquerades as a newspaper, made a scandalous reference to the sad and tragic death of the Rangers legend, William Wilton. The response from Ibrox? The same as when other dead Rangers people have been subject to lies, scorn and bigotry within the media: absolutely nothing. No action was taken. The slur against Mr Wilton remains unchallenged. This is a serious bone of contention with the Rangers support.
The hypocrisy of the Board in ignoring serious slander in the press while publicly maintaining a ban on the Rangers fanzine sums up their attitude of indifference to the history and culture of Rangers FC. To compliment this, the absence of David Murray from the AGM smacks of utter indifference to the plight of the Club and feelings of the fans. Murray is fond of (falsely) stating that there were no complaints about the spending undertaken by Rangers in the past; with that in mind, if he was keen to accept the plaudits then, what is stopping him accepting the criticisms when merited? Nonsense like him being the Honorary Chairman and John McLelland being the Chairman proper and therefore the proper attendee at the AGM should be dismissed completely out of hand. If Murray has nothing to do with the running of the Club, why is he appearing on Real Radio to ask the support to stick with him? Why is he commenting on Club policy if he feels he has no need to address the shareholders at the Club's AGM?
Seasoned observers of Murray have, however, noted what they consider to be his worst performances in the public domain coming on Real Radio this season. Perhaps it indicates an individual running out of spin and realising that he is manipulating less and less people than he was able to before with his admittedly once very convincing public utterances. The fact remains, though, that he is able to command the unflinching support of too many Rangers fans who will accept absolutely no criticism of him at all.
It remains a depressing aspect of the Rangers support that there appears to be a sizeable contingent which views criticism of any nature as somehow being an act of disloyalty. This much be challenged. People must be removed from office if the welfare of the Club depends on it. It is simply not an answer to waffle on about protest with those in charge not being in keeping with what is expected of a Rangers supporter.
The counter to that may well be that blindly accepting what the unelected power holders tell us is in itself not part of what being a Rangers supporter is all about. Great Rangers men of the past prided themselves on a capacity to think for themselves and to set themselves standards. Meekly submitting to the will of those who have proven themselves unfit to wear the mantle of Rangers office bearers is a betrayal of what Rangers heroes of the past stood for.
What are the alternatives? One school of thought is that the Board is comprised of people who combine to buy out the major shareholder. Given the stature Rangers enjoy, and the part they play in so many lives, it is not at all inconceivable that such a number of individuals exist. One thing is for sure: a completely new direction is needed for the Club to prosper.
Anybody bored enough to have read all the way through this will have noticed the absence thus far of any plus points to emerge from last season. The reason for this is obvious: the troughs were by far deeper than the peaks were high. That's not to say there is no hope at all for the future. The likes of Chris Burke and Allan Hutton, not to mention Hamed Namouchi and even Bajram Fetai all suggest there might be a glimmer of hope with the youth at Ibrox. However, this is tempered by the proposed sale of Steven McLean, who surely merited at least a chance, given his record on loan at Scunthorpe. The real prospect is that this may well be a decision that will haunt Rangers in the future.
Other than the young players, few covered themselves in glory this season. It should be no surprise at all if Stefan Klos wins every player of the Year award that's going. There simply are no other contenders.
Off the park, one heartening feature was the propulsion of the Rangers Supporters' Trust into the public domain. One major concern was that Ibrox Park was being touted about for a leaseback deal in order to help Rangers' financial difficulties. Under absolutely NO circumstances should this state of affairs ever be allowed to materialise. There were too many developments, however, for it not to have at least been considered inside Ibrox. The resignation of David Murray's friend, Gavin Masterton, from a company that organises leasebacks shortly after Murray stated he'd never use Ibrox in such a way does draw the observer to a conclusion that a deal was in the offing. By bringing this to the attention of the public, the Trust deserves credit for ensuring that Ibrox Park will never be touted to compensate for the financial policies undertaken by David Murray.
The fact that the Trust continues to conduct itself in a dignified, orderly and intelligent manner speaks volumes for the organisation. While Murray's defenders in the media, laughably the repulsive Chick Young being one of them, resort to type with childish insults and ill informed invective aimed at the Trust's motives, the Trust continues to build its membership and getting involved in projects to benefit not just Trust members, but the Rangers support as a whole.
When the history books are written and read in years to come, the Rangers Supporters' Trust may well be viewed upon as being the organisation that started the process of delivering Rangers back to those the Club really belongs to: the past, present and future generations of Rangers supporters.
As ever, though, the support will anticipate the new season. Players have departed and will be replaced by others. Without sounding too hysterical, the manager is very much in the last chance saloon. The gap with Celtic MUST be addressed and progress in Europe must also be achieved. Accepting the mantra that it's impossible to be successful both domestically and on a wider stage is not an option. Yes, Rangers are starting in a none-too-favourable position after the season just witnessed, but there is no alternative.
Failure this season could very well consign the Club to the footballing wilderness. It may be a blow from which the Club will take generations to recover from. It's the way football is these days. The rich continue to get richer while the rest are left to fight for scraps. Rangers MUST be seen to be dining at the top table. If there are some at Ibrox who do not share the ambitions of the support then the exit doors are very clearly marked.
To conclude this overlong analysis of the past footballing season, it would be improper not to pay tribute to Tommy and Flo Rodger who both sadly passed on recently. The bar they ran, Annie Miller's in the City Centre, was and is a popular meeting place for Rangers supporters both from Glasgow and beyond. The bar holds special memories for this particular Bear as it was in there the League Clincher at Parkhead in 1999 was witnessed.
Condolences are naturally offered to Tommy and Flo's family and both will be fondly remembered by all those fortunate enough to have come into contact with them.
Yours in Rangers now and forever,
Ayrshire Billy Boy