The Years Slip By
Wednesday 21st April, 1993. At around quarter to ten and on seat 70, row 16, Blue Section, Govan Rear, sits a 12-year old boy in tears because his team had failed to win a football match. I had 100% faith that we were going to Munich and I was absolutely devastated. Before heading home the old guy in front said something that has never left me. “Don't worry son, you'll see them do it.” Will I indeed?
It was my first season as a season ticket holder and it probably couldn't have been much better. My old man enjoyed it far more. He had lived through 9-in-a-row, he too had watched on in tears as a boy as they won in Lisbon and he had survived the early 80's. I on the other hand had known no such horrors. My earliest memory of Rangers is Souness posing with that ‘Welcome To Ibrox' sign. As far as I was concerned, Celtic were a non-entity. Aberdeen was a big match but by and large we had the sign over them. In the realm of Scottish football we were the ‘monarch absolute' (with the exception of one season which I was told was due to Terry Butcher breaking his leg). The presentation of the league championship was becoming something of an annual occasion which, like Easter, you knew would be coming every year but didn't know exactly when.
In this environment then, both I and Rangers Football Club were looking towards the stars. Europe and the new Champions League was now our ultimate ambition. We had come so close; surely it was only a matter of time before we broke the door down. We had a great team spirit that could not be shaken (we were unbeaten in that campaign of course) and we had seemingly limitless resources although tempered for a while by the ‘three-foreigners' rule. One extra push was all that would be required to find that promised land.
Not quite, as it turned out. A summer of swagger and optimism induced by multi-million pound signings was always followed by an autumn of disappointment and abject humiliation. As the rest of Scotland and its media took great pleasure in our European plight it was tempered by the fact that we did exactly the same to them. We were bigger than every other club combined during large parts of the 90's. We were certainly more important than the national side. We took great satisfaction in both. But instead of focusing harder on our big goal we allowed ourselves to be drawn into these petty squabbles with the yokels. Instead of looking up to the stars we chose to look down to the gutter. Why? Because it was easier. Battles against the SFA, the Tartan Army, the media, Celtic and any other Scottish club were all ones we could win without too much trouble. We enjoyed the part of the one everybody loved to hate. Although it puffed up our chest it had the same effect on our overdraft as we continually sought to prove who the boss was. Perhaps more importantly we had taken our eye off the ball in world football. Big time.
At the risk of coming across as a twenty-something know-it-all, who thinks that football pre-Sky Sports was nothing more than ‘any-man-in', I think it is hard to deny that the game has changed an incredible amount, for better or worse, during the nineties. It has become more technical although some would argue more sterile and less beautiful. It has definitely become more professional in respect to how players are expected to look after themselves. Managers too have had to adapt accordingly. Coaches who have spent their half-time talks speaking obsessively about details and strategy have done considerably better than those who can give no more direction other than to “get yer finger out yer fuckin arse”. Mourinho or Mike Bassett? It's a no-brainer of course.
This sea-change in our game has been no more evident than in Europe. The introduction of the Champions League has ended the periods of hegemony that characterised the competition previously. Since its inception in 1991/92 no club has ever retained the trophy which is in stark contrast to the eras of Real Madrid, Ajax, Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Milan. (Incidentally there have been 11 winners of the CL in 15 years compared to 18 winners of the European Cup in its 36 years). Scottish football, which in each of the three decades before the nineties has had a European winner and at least one finalist, has been left far behind. The hard-working, hard-playing culture which characterised the game here, and in Britain as a whole, has been shown up. The English, who came out of their ban and immediately won a trophy (Manchester United's ECWC success in 1991), must have thought that they would simply pick up where they left off.
How wrong they were. Many humiliations (one thinks of Romario and Stoitchkov against United at the Nou Camp) and the influx of top foreign players into the Premiership made them sit up and take notice. Where once upon a time a team could eat and drink (and smoke!) what they liked and still become successful, now lager and kebabs were not an option. Training in public parks and cricket grounds was now ever-so passé. Having tailored training facilities was not part of ‘Tomorrow's World', it was standard. English clubs were frozen in time during their UEFA imprisonment and it wasn't until the turn of the century before they thawed out and adapted to the New World of football. Rangers have not managed to shake off the problems of parochialism, a sub-standard attitude and the misconception that shouting and swearing loudly (Archie Knox) should merit a coaching badge. It is a relic and a part of the pre-history of football.
I eventually got to see Rangers play in Munich, some 6 years later and that too is something of a landmark date in my Rangers experience. It was, in my opinion, as far as we have ever got to being a truly modern and respected football club. The football in Advocaat's second year was the best I have ever seen at the club. I was amazed the season previous at the strange notion of attacking football away from home in Europe. This was something lacking from Smith's years (92/93 being an exception) where we travelled and seemed very unsure what to do. At home that much vaunted team spirit and our two star players would see us through. For some reason in Europe, against teams with far less individual ability or price tags, the fact that the team ‘drank together' was not enough to defeat sides who spent the same amount of time on organisation.
In those two early Advocaat seasons only Valencia, who went onto reach the final that year, played us off the park. That memorable night in the Olympistadion we did not simply defend well, get stuck in and try and sneak something on the break. We more than matched them; in fact at times we battered them. You make your own luck of course but we were unfortunate. That season we were described by the Dutch as giving PSV a footballing lesson and by Beckenbauer as scoring the perfect goal against Dortmund. In the end Advocaat's hubris and his under-estimation of the physical threat that Martin O'Neill would bring was his downfall. I was at the 6-2 game as well. He never recovered from that but had given me an all but fleeting glimpse of what life was like at the top.
All this has been swirling around my grey matter since New Year's Day. It is pointless to go over the same old ground in too much detail. Firstly because it has been covered ad finitum by us all. Secondly because we don't, and never will, know all the facts. For me, searching for the details surrounding this sorry situation is something of a red herring. What was and is important for this bear is what it all represents.
Many reasons have been posited as to explain our European failures and our recent domestic predicament. Financial implosion, a poor domestic league that puts off big-name players, the club's infrastructure and the ‘Scottish football culture' being non-compatible with continental technique, being the usual favourites. One more has come to mind in these dark January days; Us. Or to be more accurate, most of us. Football fans complain that they have little power but most managerial casualties come as a result of supporter pressure. This was most certainly the case at Fir Park and beyond. The Rangers support and its reaction to the Ferguson crisis, PLG's departure and the arrival of Walter Smith has been as noticeable as it has been alarming.
The Ferguson debacle split many on the message boards but in the mainstream the support for the ‘captain' was huge. For me it was clear that the vast majority of the support were prepared to back a man who ignored instructions on the park because it did not suit his own ego, ignored instructions about Christmas piss-ups, baulked at the idea of early and double training sessions and caused deep unrest in the Rangers dressing room. Now of course we all have to take a stance based on limited evidence but I'd be prepared to believe more rather than less of the above. I'm prepared to believe that there remains a highly unprofessional culture at the club which embraces drink, unhealthy eating and limited training. I'm not in denial. A huge percentage of the support is and the fact that it accepts such an attitude and insubordination is highly worrying. The only reason I can fathom for the Ferguson support is that he is a ‘Rangers Man' who was simply wearing his heart on his sleeve. I don't question Ferguson's emotional attachment but the ‘captain' should have worn his brain there too. Surely there would have been enough room.
There will be no ‘messiah' ladies and gentlemen. No chairman, manager or player will turn the club around alone. PLG certainly could not but I believe now as I did in July, that what he represents in terms of style and approach is something we need to embrace if we are to make to step up. Many fans have under-estimated the job in hand. I'm not talking about moving a few players in and out or spending more money. He needed to completely change the entire mindset of the playing staff. That is a long-term task that would need slightly longer than half a season to complete. Also it would not be a seamless transition. There will always be early internal battles to contend with before we can start to fight those on the park. Early results were bound to suffer. It needed strong leadership from the club and foresight, nerve and patience from the support. None were in evidence and I don't blame the man for walking. Nor would I blame any other manager who has a good record at the top level for not touching the club in the near future.
In 1998 every Rangers fan to a man agreed that Walter Smith had gone as far as he could as manager of the club. Domestically a huge success although if we refrain from being too misty-eyed we could say that his lack of ruthlessness saw an ageing side fail to land the Ten. What is not up for discussion is that in Europe there were far too many disasters. I'm not talking about Juventus and Ajax. I'm talking about Levski, AEK, Bucharest, Grasshoppers, Gothenburg etc. I'm talking about turning up for away games like “holiday-makers”, playing centre-halves at right-back as a long-term measure, playing Duncan Ferguson at left-wing at all, a long line of foreign signings mocking the preparation. It was time for a new manager. A new way of thinking designed to make us a force in Europe. So tell me brothers, why nearly a decade on am I supposed to be delighted about this appointment? Why in seemingly every media outlet are there Rangers fans expressing such enthusiasm?
The starry-eyed ambitions that I grew up with have been eroded to being simply better than Celtic. I've been told often that Le Guen failed primarily because the continental way (presumably meaning a focus on technique, organisation and professionalism) simply cannot work in Scotland. Well if this truly is the case then we may as well lock up the stadium. If we no longer want to reach for the very top then what is the point of Rangers Football Club? This is the case as it appears to this fan tonight and it saddens me a great deal. And what saddens me the most is that it is our support and its reaction over the past months that represent this decline. We have been drawn back into the parochial dog-fights that we know so well, but should be thinking beyond. We have retracted back to the worn-out narrative when we should be daring to choose something new and stick with it for long enough to reap the rewards. If we want our club to change then so must we.
People always bring up the case of Alex Ferguson in times of managerial casualties. I realise that no two situations are equally comparable but the principles remain the same. They backed him with time and he was allowed to make mistakes. Some awful results and awful signings but there was long-term vision and it was realised, by the skin of its teeth. True, United hadn't won anything of note for nearly twenty years when Fergie went there so one could argue that against the backdrop of such long-standing poverty they would be more accepting to take a risk. Do we have to wait that length of time before we are prepared to completely trust a manager and not sit in judgment of performances and signings after only 5 months of competitive football?
Opinions are the life-blood of a football fan and Rangers are no different. I believe those views to be a powerful tool in shaping the direction and choices made by a club's leadership and I believe we have got it wrong this time. I believe we lack the ambition after so many disappointments. I believe we lack the foresight and vision because we cannot bear to be behind Celtic even temporarily. I believe we lack the critical mind as a collective group to rule the natural emotion we all share for the club. Only the truth sets you free after all. If, and it is a huge ‘if', we are ever in the position again whereby we have a manager with a genuine European track record in the office we must show more nerve and intelligence. We must dare, as a support, to be the best.
The majority of the support believes it has identified the club's ailments, established the prognosis and prescribed the best treatment possible. Physician, heal thyself.