Retro Rangers recalls how away days used to be - including the Bears greeting Soviet President Alexandre Kosygin to Kilmarnock!

It was both surprising and disappointing to find Rangers end tickets so readily available at Rugby Park last weekend.  With Ra Sellick having reduced our lead at the top of the SPL table to a solitary point, I'd expected Bears to flock to Ayrshire to inspire the team towards restoring our four point cushion and, although we certainly filled our areas a great deal better than the GFITW at the same venue just a fortnight earlier, with just 10,546 in a ground capable of holding 18,128, I got to thinking about 'the good old days' when every away game sparked off a true blue invasion and generated a capacity crowd.

The record attendance at Kilmarnock was set in 1962 when 35,995 were shoe-horned into the ground to see the Rangers win 4-2 in an epic Scottish Cup tie.  Of course, Rugby Park was much different then, an oval bowl with the Main Stand being the only seated area.  Without remembering a great deal about the game, I'm reliably informed I was there (I have the programme!) and I'll bet there would be no less than 25,000 Rangers fans taking over the place.

Thats how it was back then.  In the days of cash at the turnstilres and carry-outs on the terraces, away days dawned bright and early, with no network of motorways or by-passes criss-crossing the country, the idea was to put some distance between where we're coming from and where we're going to in time for the pubs opening and our first pit-stop.  Travelling from Greenock to Killie usually meant that Largs was the place to get the benefit of our presence.  Then everything would be geared towards arriving in Kilmarnock about 1.30/2.00 for further refreshments before heading for the ground.

Whether it was Rugby Park, Tynecastle, Dens Park or Pittodrie, the place would be transformed into a mass of red, white and blue.  Home fans tended to occupy part of the stand, leaving Bears to take over the other three sides of the ground.  The 'choir' would normally be found on the covered terracing, usually directly opposite the main stand, although at places like Pittodrie, Easter Road and Tannadice, where the main terracing was open, the sing-song session would take place behind the goal.

The atmosphere was really something else.  Invariably the walk from the pubs to the stadium would be something of a parade, the locals would look on in awe, with no hint of the hostility currently directed towards visiting Rangers fans.  It would be noisy, perhaps a bit boisterous, but it would be harmless and the polis were quite content to let it happen, strategically placing themselves at various points along the route just to make sure nobody was tempted to go over the score.

And once inside the ground, the support for the team was total, endless singing and chanting, the sort of backing which tends to be reserved for the European away trips of today.  Having spoken to a number of players from those bygone days of yore, I know they revelled in our vocal support.  There was no such thing as an away game.  Only at the Piggery, where the split tended to be something like fifty-fifty, was there any significant support for the opposition so there was a great affinity between the players and the fans.  After all, the great majority of the guys wearing the blue jerseys were just fans themselves who happened to be lucky enough, and talented enough, to live the dream.

Having been an everywhere-anywhere Bear for something like 45 years, I have a wealth of magic memories.  Of crowds being packed in so tight that kids would be taken off the terracing and sat around the track at places like Cathkin, Brockville and Somerset Park, of taking advantage of movement on the terracing to slip away from my auld man to indulge in some under-age drinking, of listening intently to the new songs, laughing at the lyrics and admiring the brain which could come up with a line like 'Send the Celtic to Vietnam' after their heavy duty punch-up in South America when the Vietnam War was at its height.

A recent topic on the FF Messageboard and a post on Youtube rekindled the memory of Soviet President Alexandre Kosygin being introduced to the players at a Killie v Rangers game in 1967.  The Youtube footage showed the game seen by a near capacity crowd of 31,551, an amazing attendance in itself because the game took place just two weeks after our Berwick debacle.  The buzz around the ground was that Kosygin had been won over by the Gers during the Russian Tour of 1962.  As he shook hands with the Rangers players, a loud shout went up: "Cover yer work Bro!"

"Aye, he must be a right die-hard, comin' a' the way frae Russia for just wan gemme."  Can you picture the same thing happening today, with President Putin indulging in a pre-match handshake with Barry and the boys?  The protocol would be impeccably observed, only for the Man From Delmonte to stir things up and lead the Blue Order in a rousing chorus of 'Yer Only Here Tae See The Rangers.'  LOL!
 
More than Kosygin, my main memory of that game was the continuation of Alex Willoughby's rich goalscoring form.  After Berwick, he'd been drafted into the team and rattled in hat-tricks in 5-1 victories over Hearts and Clyde.  Killie were more difficult opponents, on their way to the semi-finals of the old Fairs Cup, and the game was tight at 1-1 which would have been a big blow to Rangers who were locked in a bit of a battle with the Mockit Ones in the race for the title.  But Alex did the business again with a late winner and there were genuine expectations that we had unearthed a real gem.

Sadly, it didn't work out for Alex, with Roger Hynd amazingly being preferred to him as that traumatic season unfolded.  For what its worth, I reckon the writing was on the wall for Scot Symon from that point onwards.  With him-who-was-aware calling the shots on the dark side of the city, the board began to look a bit more closely at Symon's way of working and, almost inevitably, although the Gers were unbeaten league leaders at the time, he got his P45 eight months later.

Earlier I referred to these as 'the good old days' but we were, in fact, entering a very dark stage of our history.  Yet, despite the team's lack of any significant success, our away days continued to be party events, planned weeks in advance to make the most of the occasion.  With pubs closing at 10 p.m., getting back to the west coast from places like Dundee or Aberdeen at a half-decent hour was a bit of a rush so our club would run a 'late' bus for games at Tannadice, Dens and Pittodrie, staying in town until around midnight.  There were some pretty hairy antics on those trips, believe me, with fresh friendships being forged, marriages broken and new romances entered into.  There might even be a few thirty-somethings out there who were conceived when the Gers came to town...allegedly of course!
 
Somewhere along the way, away day trips became less enjoyable.  All ticket matches, all seated stadia, crowd segregation and over-zealous policing have all taken their bit of the fun out of follow-following.  Where pubs once welcomed us with open arms, many now put bouncers on the door, making us feel as welcome as a fart in a telephone box on a steamy hot day.  Host clubs appear to prefer to have thousands of empty seats when they could be filled with Bears, or is that PC Plod's doing?  Where else in the entertainment world would so much work go into keeping paying customers away?
 
The current generation of fans are herded towards the stadium, packed into over-crowded stands when half of the ground is empty, then bussed out of town in convoy.  Where is the fun in that?  Thankfully, with a much improved road network, we can be home, even from a trip to somewhere like Inverness, with plenty of time to enjoy the rest of the night.  Then again, the lunchtime kick-off, a double-edged sword if ever there was one, plays its part, enabling us to get home at a reasonable hour while also scaring many of us off the trip in the first place.
 
The days of thousands upon thousands of Bears piling into buses and trains to head for Edinburgh or Dundee or Aberdeen are gone for ever.  I suppose the fans of the present era are more focussed on their European jaunts than domestic matters but I can't help thinking they've missed out on some very special experiences which helped to mould my grey-haired generation of fans into the pasionate Rangers supporters we are today.
 
I'm inclined to steal a line from my Dad (or was it my Granda?): "Things ain't like they used to be."  Ho-hum.
 
THE RETRO RANGER