The Rebirth of the Blues

As unlikely as it might sound, one of my most treasured football mementoes is a book by Chick Young.

Now it might surprise you to learn that Chick is capable of writing a book. And frankly, given some of his radio ramblings, some of you might doubt his ability to write his own name. But back in the day, Chick was a star football reporter on Glasgow’s Evening Times. So when the Souness Revolution got under way at Rangers in 1986, he had a front row seat and was perfectly placed to record every twist and turn of the drama for posterity.

The result was hundreds of newspaper column inches and a cash-in book called The Rebirth of The Blues. More than 25 years on, it still has a place on my ‘favourite books’ shelf at home. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a classic piece of literature. Chick writes the way he talks, so the book is filled with inane, convoluted riddles, lame jokes and excruciating puns, peppered with football clichés. But for all his buffoonery he has a way of ingratiating himself with the people who matter, so in addition to all the daftness, it contains interviews with all of the key players: David Holmes, Lawrence Marlborough, Terry Butcher, Walter Smith and Souness himself.

But more importantly The Rebirth of The Blues is a record of a season that sums up everything football should be about. Shock, excitement, optimism, disappointment, controversy and, in the end, sheer, unadulterated jubilation. For nine long years, Rangers fans had suffered one disappointment after another. Not only had they failed to win the league since 1978 but they had also slumped to being the fifth best team in Scotland. The arrival of Souness brought glamour to the dour Scottish game and levels of optimism not seen around Ibrox for a decade. When the title was finally won at Pittodrie in April 1987, there were outpourings of joy the likes of which haven’t been seen since.

I was 15 and had no real memory of Rangers ever winning the league, and for me, that season remains the high water mark of my time as a fan. Of course there were lots of good times to follow – the arrival of Laudrup and Gascoigne, Nine in A Row, the early Advocaat years and especially the road to Manchester – but none have come close to matching the sheer excitement and exhilaration of 1986/87.

So why am I getting all misty-eyed and nostalgic about it now? Well take a look at the photographs from Ibrox when thousands of fans queued up to see the first home game of the season against East Fife. Or the pictures of the massive queues at the ticket office as fans renewed their season tickets in their tens of thousands, despite the club being consigned to Division 3. Or the 49,000 crowd who packed into Ibrox for the weekend’s game against East Stirlingshire – a world record for a fourth-tier league match.

Those images of queuing fans and packed stands transported me right back to 1986 when there were similar scenes at Ibrox every single week. In those days, the season ticket culture hadn’t quite kicked in, so tickets had to be bought for each match. And every week, without fail, thousands of supporters would queue up, whatever the weather, to ensure they had a seat for the next match. There was a real feelgood factor at play, a sense of adventure and optimism that had been missing for so long.

Against all the odds, that same positive feeling appears to have returned to Ibrox. Despite a year of trauma that has seen the club kicked from pillar to post, the fans have followed the lead of their manager and refused to walk away. In fact they have returned in astonishing numbers. At the time of writing, the number of season tickets sold for the coming season stands at just around 33,000. To put that in some context, AC Milan sold less than 20,000 for the coming season.

But it’s not just numbers, as important as they are. There is togetherness in the support that has been missing in recent years coupled with a genuine sense of optimism. Ironically, the traumas that have gone before have injected the Rangers support with a new vigour. The circumstances today couldn’t be more different to what was going on when Souness arrived on the scene 26 years ago, but there is a similar feeling that this is a new beginning; the start of something exciting and different. To use that horrible reality TV phrase, Rangers are about to embark on “a journey” and the fans are desperate to be part of it and enjoy it.

It’s not too surprising really. Scottish football has been a pretty dire place recently. The SPL had become a mundane, repetitive slog with only the Rangers/Celtic rivalry providing any sort of spark of interest. And even the Glasgow derby clashes had become almost unbearable in recent years thanks to the increased levels of poison that surrounded them. Rangers fans have been calling out for change for years, and while a move to the English Premier League or some sort of European League might have been more what they had in mind, the truth is that the drop into the fourth tier is the most interesting thing to have happened in Scottish football in recent memory.

In addition, the perception that Rangers have been badly treated by the authorities has helped foster a siege mentality that Charles Green has cleverly tapped into. Questions remain over his consortium’s long-term plans for Rangers but there’s no doubt that he has done an excellent job in rallying the fans and bringing them together. His strong stance against the SFA and SPL has almost certainly helped shift a few more season tickets as did the signing of players like Ian Black, Dean Shiels and Kevin Kyle. Buying cups of tea and chatting with fans queuing to buy tickets hasn’t done his image any harm either.

Of course not everyone is happy at the feelgood factor in the southside of Glasgow. There’s no doubt that the Rangers fans’ positive response to the harrowing last few months has infuriated those whose ambition was to see the club die. The reaction of rival fans is like a jealous ex who can’t come to terms with the fact that the person they dumped is now happier than ever. Nothing upsets them more than seeing Rangers cheerfully making new friends and developing new relationships and generally getting on with life without them. Especially as they are stuck in the same old rut as before.

But their mean-spirited attitude should be seen as nothing more than a minor distraction on the club’s trek back to the top. Rangers remain big news and Rangers in Division 3 is the big story in Scottish football – in fact it’s one of the most interesting in the world of football at the moment. When media outlets from the USA, France and Germany, among others, came to Scotland to report on the start of the new football season, it was Rangers’ first home game that they covered, not Celtic’s flag unfurling or the Edinburgh derby.

It may well be that the novelty factor of the SFL will wear off quickly for Rangers supporters. The fear would be that the matches become too one-sided and that the lack of competition means they will lose interest. I don’t sense that happening. There’s already evidence that the other Division 3 clubs will treat every game like a cup-tie and make them as competitive as possible – particularly at their own grounds. And simply seeing different opponents at Ibrox for a change generates a certain amount of appeal in itself.

Obviously, it would be naïve to assume that Rangers are now completely out of the mire. This feelgood factor could easily be torpedoed if things start to go badly again off the field. At the moment, Charles Green appears to have won over many of the doubters but questions still remain over who else is involved in his consortium and what their intentions are. After what has gone before, it would be utter folly for fans to allow themselves to get caught up in everything and not continue to ask serious questions of the current regime. And if they have nothing to hide then they won’t mind the questions being asked. The Rangers support have to get away from the notion that demanding answers is disloyal; that’s the kind of attitude that contributed to the shambles the club has found itself in.

However, any doubts should not be allowed to detract from the positive atmosphere that has enveloped the club in recent weeks. It’s refreshing to be able to enjoy the positive things about football and to take a break from the politics that have been suffocating the game. Undoubtedly there’s plenty more of that to come but for now we can just enjoy the journey and see where it takes us.

Let’s hope Chick Young doesn’t think about writing a book about it this time.

 Iain Duff an award-winning journalist with almost 20 years of experience of writing for publications in both England and Scotland. He is the former chief reporter and deputy news editor of Glasgow's Evening Times and for six years was the Scottish editor of the Press Association, Britain’s leading news gathering organisation. He is a lifelong Rangers supporter and has written three books about the club. His first, charting 50 years of Rangers in Europe, was published in 2006. His second, a history of Ibrox Stadium, was released in autumn 2008 and the third, focusing on the Old Firm rivalry, came out in 2010.