Why I Dislike Rangers II
- 19 July 2012
As I intend to write some things that will be quite critical of Rangers and some of the club’s support, let me first try to establish my bona fides. I certainly can respect Rangers, its traditions and its playing history. Basically this is because I’ve seen great Rangers teams and great Rangers footballers. So I’d like to start this piece with some nostalgia, which so many genuine football fans adore.
The first really outstanding game of football I saw was at Pittodrie in August 1964. It was a league cup game in a mini league at the start of the competition - not that much at stake. But there were over 30,000 at Pittodrie that sunny afternoon – about a quarter of the crowd, I reckon, were Rangers fans. It was hard to tell. No segregation then.
Aberdeen were on fire at the start and they roared into an unlikely, but deserved, two goal lead within 20 minutes. The scorers were the veteran Andy Kerr and Willie McIntosh, a left winger who could be fitfully – very fitfully -brilliant. That afternoon, he scored a wonder goal. I remember one of my mates saying to me: Too good to be true. How right he was.
The incomparable Jim Baxter, who had been anonymous, suddenly decided to impose himself. He’d make a little space for himself and then sweep superlative passes out to the two wingers, Davie Wilson on the left and Willie Henderson on the right. Wilson, who I think was marginally the better player, was majestic and elegant; Henderson was more cheeky, an impish improviser. They both sent in a series of teasing, varied crosses for the two strikers, Ralph Brand and the young Jim Forrest (who a few years later was to play with some distinction for the Dons). These two could easily have helped themselves to ten goals. As it was, they made do with four. The final score was Aberdeen 3, Rangers 4.
There was an enormous amount to admire in Rangers performance that day but what I remember most is the sublime, beguiling play of Baxter in midfield: an unforgettable master-class.
Eight years later, when I was making my way as a young journalist on The Scotsman, I was able, as a sideline, to do a lot of football reporting because the paper then had only one football writer, John Rafferty. He was, incidentally, a Celtic fan and he was lucky that his stint at the Scotsman coincided with Celtic’s greatest ever period. His reporting of Celtic’s games was constantly ecstatic. He was a very fine writer.
In April 1972 Glasgow hosted two huge games on the same night. Celtic were playing in a semi final of the European cup, and inevitably this was the game Rafferty picked. I was lucky to enough to get the other game: Rangers were playing Bayern Munich at Ibrox in a European Cup Winners Cup semi final, second leg. My report of that game was recently reprinted in The Scotsman’s From the Archives section.
Reading it brought back a lot of memories – not least the way Rangers stormed into a two goal lead in the first 25 minutes, before a crowd of 80,000, with goals by young Derek Parlane – not then a first team regular – and Sandy Jardine. My intro read: “Rangers demolished Bayern Munich and strode over the debris into their third European Cup Winners Cup Final.” Bayern were one of the top teams in Europe, led by the peerless Franz Beckenbauer, and crammed with German internationals.
Looking back I much prefer the exceptional Rangers teams of the 1960s and the early 1970s to the later teams, full of vastly expensive marquee signings, of the Sir David Murray era. These Rangers teams from the 60s and 70s were filled with very special Scottish footballers. Some of them could not get into the Scotland team all that often, we were so well off for playing talent then. I know that some Rangers fans do not look back on this period with any great affection, because Celtic tended to eclipse them, especially at the time of their exciting triumph in the 1967 European Cup Final. But Rangers were putting out some really good teams in that era too. It was when John Greig was at his very best. No objective Scottish football fan could deny that in that period, Rangers played a lot of football that was different class. They developed a distinctive style; plenty of power and grit, but with a seasoning of skill and delicacy to add to the mix. The players I singled out for special praise in my report were Sandy Jardine, Alex MacDonald, Tommy McLean and Dave Smith
Dave Smith? Pretty much a forgotten man nowadays. When he first played for Aberdeen in the early 1960s he was described in the language of the time as an attacking left half, a cultured player with a an eye for the penetrating pass. Smith, an Aberdonian who served Rangers well for seven seasons from 1966, when he was transferred from Aberdeen, brings me to my first negative point. When he was signed from the Dons for the ridiculously low fee of £50,000 (this echoes points made by Andrew Sanders in an earlier blog on this site) right at the start of the 1966-67 season, that was bad enough for Dons fans who had seen a succession of fine players depart Pittodrie through the early and mid sixties. But what insulted us was a comment by a Rangers director just after Smith signed.
This director – I forget his name – announced to the Glasgow media that Smith had arrived at Ibrox not properly fit. This infuriated us; it seemed patronising and downright insulting, as everyone knew that Eddie Turnbull, then Aberdeen’s manager, was a martinet on the training pitch, particularly during pre-season training. Smith himself gave the lie to the director’s arrogant and patronising outburst in the best manner possible, a couple of days later, when he starred for Rangers in their first game of the season, against Partick Thistle. Smith controlled the game and scored a goal into the bargain. Not bad for an allegedly unfit player.
He was an ever present for Rangers that season, and went on to play over 300 games for the club. He was outstanding in the Cup Winners Cup final in Barcelona in 1972, against Moscow Dynamo. But that game brought shame on Rangers, and to some extent on Scottish football too. The team played superbly, but a significant minority of Rangers fans spoiled it all by invading the pitch at the end of the game. The Spanish police were no doubt excessive in their reaction. A full- scale riot ensued and some Rangers fans indulged in well documented thuggery. Unfortunate, depressing, appallingly negative images flashed round Europe. The presentation of the trophy had to be abandoned. Rangers were banned from Europe for a season.
This obviously disgraced the club. It was then that I began to regard Rangers as a club with a split personality. On the hand proud, strong and upholding much that was best in sport. On the other hand, a club that had a nasty, even vicious, underbelly.
There was also a lot of wholly unnecessary trouble when Rangers went to Manchester much later, for the final of the 2008 UEFA Cup. I have spoken to several Rangers fans who were there and I have been told, time and again, that only a small minority of fans caused the very considerable mayhem. Well, that might be technically correct, as it was estimated that well over 100,000 fans descended on Manchester. A small minority out of 100,000 plus could be as many as 15,000 thousand people– enough to cause many hours of serious disorder, and even terror. And that was what Manchester suffered that night.
In the aftermath of the carnage, several English pundits declared that Rangers must never, ever be allowed to play in English football. Rangers own chief executive described the violence as “dreadful”. The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, a football- loving Scot, condemned the behaviour of Rangers fans as “a disgrace”.
Decent fans of Rangers, and worse, the whole of Scottish football, were tarnished by this appalling episode.
Rangers fans must face up to the fact that the fans of Celtic and, Aberdeen have shown that they can go to European finals out with Scotland and behave impeccably. Why can Rangers fans not do so too? It’s not for me to answer that question, but it’s a valid one.
As I mentioned in my previous blog, I was brought up in Aberdeen. In the 1950s and 1960s Aberdonians had a special affection for Glaswegians, for during the Fair Fortnight, every July, Glaswegians arrived in Aberdeen for their summer holidays in huge numbers. Of course they also went to places like Blackpool and Rothesay. But Aberdeen, with its long beach and many other attractions, was probably their favourite destination.
Aberdonians greatly appreciated the Glaswegians, with their humour, their mischief and their liveliness. It would have been churlish for Aberdeen not to welcome the Glasgow invasion, for each summer these visitors brought a lot of money into the town - and they made it, for a short summer season, a more extrovert and exciting place. Even as a kid, not knowing much about the world, I was aware of the contrast between these two weeks in the summer – and the two days in the football season when Rangers and Celtic came to town. I was not a football fan then but I was aware that the whole city – or what seemed the whole city – disliked these visits.
Many of the people who came to the city for their summer holidays were no doubt Rangers or Celtic fans, but they were welcomed wholeheartedly. When they came to follow their football clubs, they were much less welcome. Indeed their visits were resented. Why? Simply because they often behaved badly.
Rangers supporters had a slightly worse reputation, but both sets of fans were disliked. They strutted noisily around the streets, many hours before the game, often far from Pittodrie. There may not have been much actual crime but there was menace and intimidation and triumphalism. They were like visiting armies, determined to make their imprint on an alien place. They were most certainly not on any kind of diplomatic mission. They wanted to impose themselves on the city. Why? And why was the behaviour of the Old Firm fans so different from that of the holidaymakers during the Fair Fortnight – when they were no doubt sometimes the very same people?
What I remember very clearly from these years in the 1950s –before, as I say, I was a football fan – was that the city of Aberdeen was collectively convulsed with real delight when Rangers or Celtic were beaten at Pittodrie (as they often were). For a day or so, a kind of celebratory glow infused people who had not the slightest interest in football, who’d never been near Pittodrie in their lives. Aberdonians, in short, had learned to differentiate between Glaswegians as holidaymakers and Glaswegians as football supporters
In Aberdeen, and no doubt other towns and cities in Scotland, a generalised, slow- burning dislike of both Rangers and Celtic festered. I am stressing that both Old Firm clubs were disliked. But I’m pretty sure that the stronger dislike was reserved for Rangers. Why? I cannot say, beyond the fact that some of their supporters probably behaved with a bit more arrogance, a bit more aggression.
Of course Aberdeen fans have at times behaved disgracefully over the years. I recall once when I was at Ibrox, quite a few years ago, being appalled by some particularly obnoxious chanting and singing coming from the relatively few Dons fans present. Few football clubs do not have at least some supporters who are an embarrassment. It’s just that at Rangers the proportion has always seemed unusually large.
Rangers also have had a nasty habit of shooting themselves in the foot, as it were, at the very moment when some general goodwill is being shown to the club. When the Souness revolution started, in the summer of 1986, the first fixture for the “new” Rangers was at Easter Road. Before the game there was, as I recall, an atmosphere of generally benign curiosity .Football people in Edinburgh, where Souness came from, like so many great Rangers servants, were definitely aware that something special, something very ambitious, was stirring at the Ibrox club. This was before David Murray arrived on the scene - the Marlborough family still owned and ran Rangers. On that day in August 1986 there was huge interest in how the much trumpeted Souness revolution was going to develop. Well, the game degenerated into shameful scenes. Souness got himself sent off for a very nasty foul and a full scale brawl ensued. The new era started amid nastiness, rancour and utterly unnecessary controversy.
One final point, and perhaps the most controversial one. Ally McCoist had a pretty good press for several weeks in the early phase of the current crisis. His cheeky chappy persona survived a bumpy, rocky journey that might have broken lesser men. He bravely, tirelessly tried to hold things together.
Yet should he have been the constantly available spokesman for the club? Sometimes he seemed out of his depth; sometimes, inevitably, the strain showed. Eventually, after a few weeks, the mask slipped. For many this was the time when Mr McCoist revealed a deep underlying arrogance; he suddenly seemed to speak with a kind of vengeful fury. Others, including myself, were not quite so condemnatory; but we too thought that he had made a very serious error of judgment and that the club, if it was to continue to solicit public sympathy, should have immediately found someone else to speak for it.
I refer of course to the moment in mid-April when Mr McCoist publicly demanded, in a show of angry petulance at best, spiteful fury at worst, that the three members of the Independent Review Panel (which had recommended that the club should face severe sanctions) should be publicly named. He himself “demanded to know” who “these people” were. Rangers supporters, he said, also “demanded to know” who they were. The word demand in itself implied arrogance at a time when arrogance was very much the wrong tone to strike. Even worse was the unavoidable implication that the trio were cowering in anonymity and if they were real men they would stand up publicly and face the indignant wrath of the massed ranks of the Rangers support.
This was a terrible moment for Rangers. With a few ill-chosen words, Mr McCoist threw away a great deal of the sympathy – and there was without doubt a lot of it around – that many supporters of other clubs were still prepared to give Rangers. From that moment, for many people, Rangers no longer had the benefit of the doubt, as it were. Their charismatic spokesman was now seen by some as no more than a bully boy. And few people, if any, could still regard him as statesmanlike figure, trying to preserve as much dignity and decency as possible as the club he loved suffered humiliation after humiliation.
In the days following Mr McCoist’s outburst, I heard many folk saying things like: “Things are different now. Rangers are reverting to type. They are just trying to intimidate and bluster when they should be trying to salvage what they can from the residual respect for the club.”
Over recent weeks I have discussed the Rangers crisis with a lot of different football-minded folk. I think the phrase I’ve heard most often has been “trying not to gloat”. That is significant. Decent people understand that of course they should not be gloating, that Rangers were a fine club, that its demise is not something to be welcomed or celebrated. This temptation to gloat, for so many ordinary, honest, well meaning Scottish football folk – not bigots or tribal fanatics - is undoubtedly there, but it’s tempered by the belief that it should be resisted.
Many people can discard the animosities that are so potent in football. But there’s something else in the air now, a vague feeling that maybe the club is finally getting what it deserved. And yet, even at this late stage, many Scottish fans of other clubs are reluctant to go that far. It might amaze Rangers fans to read this, but I can assure them that fans of other clubs have been agonising throughout this spring and summer. And it’s not just because they think the collapse of Rangers will take a lot of cash out the game. No, for perhaps surprisingly, most of them seem to be prepared to accept a poorer, more impoverished league.
I am sure that even now, there is still some lingering empathy for what Rangers fans are going through. But sometimes I wonder if Rangers people want any sympathy. They certainly don’t want to be patronised, and I can well understand that. But is a kind of eternal, splendid, unthinking defiance in the face of all reality really the answer?
Let me conclude by writing that no club deserves what Rangers have been through. At the same time, try as they may, many sincere football folk have not quite managed to resist at least some satisfaction as the squalid saga has unfolded. I cannot explain exactly why that’s the case, but what I’ve written above may explain at least some of it.
Please click to read the response to this article from Alasdair McKillop.
Harry Reid is a former editor of The Herald. He is the author of ‘Outside Verdict: an Old Kirk in a New Scotland’ and ‘The Final Whistle? Scottish Football: The Best and Worst of Times’