Rangers and Rapid Vienna: Rediscovering an Inter-War Relationship

The story of inter-war Rangers is one that has a number of doors still to open. But when many are trying to undermine the stature of this 140-year-old institution, there is no better time to tell the history of one of the greatest Rangers eras.

The ‘Scotch’ giants were pioneers of taking the game across the planet and many in the 1920s saw Rangers as the pinnacle of football under the legendary William Struth. The Light Blues made an historic visit to North America – a trip incredibly well received by Scots migrants there – as well as visits to Scandinavia and Central Europe.

Whilst there are certainly similarities between the famous Austrian ‘Wunderteam’ side of the early 1930s-as explored by the excellent Jonathan Wilson in his book ‘Inverting the Pyramid’-and the short-passing style of the Scots, it is unclear whether the team is directly connected to Struth’s much-acclaimed squad. Interestingly enough, the Austrians disposed of the Scottish national team 5-0 in Vienna – which many say marks the start of the famous ‘Wunderteam’ era.

In the early 1930s, a reported 56,000 crammed into Ibrox – the highest attendance that season – to watch Rangers secure a respectable 3-3 draw with SK Rapid Vienna in a mid-season friendly encounter. The Austrians were touring the United Kingdom and Glasgow was their first port of call. Rapid went on to face Liverpool, winning 5-2, before a trip to London to take on Queen’s Park Rangers.

Both clubs put out strong teams to mark the occasion, Rangers starting with their usual front-five of Sandy Archibald, Bob McPhail, Sam English, Jimmy Smith and Jimmy Marshall. A sign of the quality in Struth’s ranks was that Alan Morton – seen as the best outside-left of that generation – was out of the squad.

The visitors started with - Raftl; Jestrab, Czeika; Wagner, Smistik, Pesser; Wessilik, Kaburek, Bican, Binder, Luef.

Coverage was minimal in those days and it was only on the 23rd that actual reports of the game began to be published. One national newspaper Tagesdoft dedicated only a few paragraphs in their sport section, but described it as an ‘historic adventure for Austrian sport.’

Incredibly, Rangers were 3-1 down in this encounter against the impressive Austrians. Jimmy Smith had put the Gers in-front, only for the Rapid attackers to ‘react to the battle’ by going ahead before half-time. Smith netted a second, whilst Bob McPhail was on the score-sheet, too.

The Austrians were so impressed by Struth’s side that the party took in Rangers’ 3-1 Scottish Cup victory over Arbroath, just two days later. There were only 5,000 fans at Ibrox but the Light Blues came out comfortable winners thanks to goals from Jimmy Smith and a double from Bob McPhail.

Tagesdoft reported: ‘Rangers, in line with their expectations, came out with a 3-1 win. They had made half a dozen changes, and tended not to try in the game, especially, having come out not as safe in their last two matches (East Stirling 3-2/Rapid). The momentum of their attack this night was mainly focused on McPhail.’

Struth was comfortable with a second-string Rangers side in their game with Arbroath, lining up as follows: Dawson, Hamilton, Gray, Meiklejohn, Marshall, English, McPhail, Smith, McDonald, Main, Craig.

On their return home, Sporttagblatt reflected: ‘Rapid should be immensely proud of their adventure in UK, to battle with the greatest side from Scotland is not easy.’

As pioneers of the game, Rangers continued to reach new heights and in the summer of 1933, the club went on a pre-season tour of Germany, where they played a DFB-Select team across the country. Struth’s travelling party played five games in 14 days, winning 5-0 in Berlin, 3-1 in Hamburg, 5-0 in Bochum and 3-2 in Dresden but losing 2-1 in Munich.

There are no archives available until Tuesday 6 June but the Wiener Sporttagblatt’s front page led with ‘RAPID DEFEATS MAJOR OPPONENT’, following a return match against Rangers in which the Austrians came out 4-3 victors. Below, it reads – ‘The Glasgow Rangers Fall – Binder Secures the Hat-Trick – A strange goal.’

Franz Binder, nicknamed 'Bimbo', was certainly a talented marksman in this Rapid Vienna side. He scored 267 goals in 242 club matches with 16 in 19 as part of the famous ‘Wunderteam’ – but interestingly enough, he also played for Germany after the outbreak of war in 1939, scoring 10 goals in nine games.

The Sporttagblatt pointed out a Rangers ‘over-flow in attack’ in the second half that caused the Austrians all-sorts of problems at the back. In particular, English came in for some interesting attention, with the paper describing the record-breaking Rangers centre-forward as ‘unplayable with his collection of skills’.

It added: ‘We have the different Scottish methodologies in memory; short passing game from man to man, the calculated system and no ball playing aimlessly, even long crosses avoided as far as possible. Well, that was, and no longer seems to attract practice. Is there at all yet a Scottish example? In Scotland, apparently not, perhaps elsewhere.’

Rangers were flying the flag for British football under the legendary Struth and in their next clash against Rapid on 14 August 1934, the Light Blues were coming off-the-back of two consecutive league championships. From November (1933) to August (1934), Rangers didn’t lose a single match but they were dealt a hammer blow in the summer, losing talented inside-half Sandy Archibald.

However, forward Jimmy Smith was beginning to reach his peak, scoring 41 goals in 32 league matches in 1933-34 and he would go on to net 36 in 32 in 1934-35. His overall tally at Ibrox eventually hit 300 goals between 1928 and 1946. Three days before the Rapid match, Smith scored six goals in a 7-1 win over Dunfermline on the opening day of the 1934-35 league campaign.

For Rapid’s second trip to Glasgow, a crowd of 50,000 gathered at Ibrox. The Light Blues lined up with a strong spine – but Struth opted for a fresh frontline against Vienna: Dawson; Gray, MacDonald; Meiklejohn, Simpson, Brown; Main, Macaulay, Smith, McPhail, Nicholson.

The visitors followed a similar formation with: Raftl; Jestrab, Czeika; Wagner, Smistik, Luef; Ostermann, Kaburek, Bican, Binder, Pesser.

The setting could not have created a better impression to the Austrian guests. Rangers had 12,000 ‘season-ticket’ but admirably decided to share the 48,000 ticket sales, which helped cover Rapid’s travel in Scotland. A variety of superlatives were used by the Austrian media when describing the match, including, ‘a propaganda festival for football’, ‘a sporting sensation’ and interestingly, ‘After all, the game was also a financial success, including the wonderful weather may have contributed also some.’

And Sporttagblatt continued: ‘Before the match, the two national anthems played and a prolonged applause thundered, as the teams entered.’

Rapid started well with Kaburek ‘waiting too long’ in the first chance for the Austrians in the second minute of the match – having just been dealt the unfortunate task of playing into the blazing sun. As Rangers began to dominate, Rapid made an interesting tactical switch, moving to a ‘W-Formation’ and ‘in this way, they were able to withstand the stronger, imposing attacking play of the Scots’.

Smith’s ‘unstoppable shot’ early on forced a great save from the Rapid keeper, which prompted rapturous applause from the home supporters. The Light Blues were in front soon after with McPhail crossing for Smith who headed into the net. Two more goals from Nicholson and 19-year-old Macaulay put the Rangers 3-0 up at half-time against their stunned Austrian counterparts. Rapid could only manage one consolation goal in the second period.

Just three days after their defeat to Rangers, Rapid Vienna suffered a 5-1 hammering by Heart of Midlothian in Edinburgh.

The outbreak of the Second World War meant that a number of Rapid’s gifted stars were swooped up by the German national team during the Nazi’s occupation of Austria.

In December 1954, Rangers scraped a 1-0 victory against Rapid at Ibrox with John Prentice scoring the only goal of the game. A decade later, the two sides clashed in the European Cup Last 16, with Davie Wilson giving the Light Blues a 1-0 lead to take to Austria. Scott Symon’s side were too strong in Vienna, coming away with a 3-0 aggregate victory.

Highlights of the return match in Vienna are available on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4jVUdgP-lnA

Ross Dunbar is a freelance football writer from Glasgow and features on the WATP Podcast. He has written about Rangers' tours in North America and the Soviet Union on his blog (http://semperparatusblog.wordpress.com). You can find his work regularly on MirrorFootball, STV Sport, and others. He is on twitter @rossdunbar93.