To Barcelona and Beyond - Book Review
Updated Wednesday, 5th July 2006
Paul Smith: To Barcelona and Beyond the men who made Rangers champions of Europe.£14.99 Breedon Books 192pp
It's customary to begin the begin, as REM once put, and consider a review from the Introduction onwards, but this new, and very refreshing, tome from Paul Smith poses an interesting dilemma from its title: the inspiration, as it were, comes from a Rangers News article of the period but is something that may prove awkward before people even come to open the book.
But open it they should, for this is an interesting trip down memory lane and much more. It not only cherishes the memory of that European Cup Winner's Cup campaign of season 1971-2 but places it in context and makes a case for both the achievement, and the men responsible for it, being slightly under-appreciated by the present Rangers family. The format puts the players at the forefront, with each man's life story being presented within a single chapter, from McCloy to Johnston, one to eleven, after an introductory essay on the game and the preceding campaign. The author is, of course, the son of Dave Smith, a man who made such a telling contribution that season and would later collect the Scottish Football Writer's POTY award, providing a neat symmetry to events and allowing some of the personal insights to be less readily susceptible to error or whimsy.
It is not an account of the Barcelona story, which can be found elsewhere in print, but of the people who comprised the team. The structural approach works well in isolation, but may prove slightly off putting to those digesting the book at one sitting, as there is inevitably an element of duplication. Despite the fact that the eleven individuals who won the ECWC did not all go on to play together as a collective, a great number did serve Rangers well together over a similar period of time and the great matches and contributions of the period can only sustain so many attempts at reinvention or personal touches. It is often the case that the more interesting chapters focus on what could be labelled the 'less famous' individuals as Smith himself notes, there is attached to it a great difficulty in describing with fresh prose the story of John Greig as Mr Rangers or detailing the contribution of the teenage DJ. That said: the new interviews do provide some valuable insight.
For all that the majority do not begrudge modern players their riches, or wish to labour the point that things were so much better in the old days, common themes of disenchantment do occur. Both author and players alike feel that the achievement of 24 May 1972 may not in the present day be granted the praise it deserves. Greig makes the point that, 'People can still rattle off the names of those who played in 1964, which tells its own story, but I feel the European team of 1972 is in the same bracket (and) didn't get the recognition it deserved.' Alfie Conn, never short of an opinion, puts it in less diplomatic prose, stating that the club had never won a European trophy previously nor since, despite the great teams and the great expense, and 'We were part of Rangers history, nobody is looking for anything except to be remembered for what we achieved for this club.' Smith's introduction finds great sympathy with this view, and the frequent space allowed to express such sentiment is proof positive of his leanings.
The fondness for this group of players is tangible. As is a theme often returned to throughout: that of the importance of a keen Scottish, dare I suggest, Rangers supporting base. The description of the Rangers line-up for the Artmedia match last season, two Scots in the starting eleven, is not one dripping readily with enthusiasm. The triumph in Barcelona did not arrive so quickly after great sadness at Ibrox in 1971, a game in which eight of the eleven participated, and the author is keen to state the case for the strength of opposition encountered on the road to the Catalunyan heartland.
The Bayern team, of course, would retain many of those defeated by Rangers as they went on to dominate European football in the mid 1970s while the core of the team would help Germany lift the 1974 World Cup, and had filled the national ranks during a recent 3-1 defeat of Alf Ramsay's England side. Nor is Smith slow in defending the behaviour of the assorted ranks of fans who follow followed; similar pitch invasions by Celtic fans in 1967, by Ajax followers in 1971 and, ironically, by victorious Bayern fans after beating Rangers in the ECWC of '67, had seen no serious sanctions imposed. Even the home referee in Barcelona would state that the fans were 'exuberant' and not violent. The players all make reference to the disappointment of receiving the trophy in the bowels of the stadium and the anti-climatic show at a rainy Ibrox. These tinges of regret help prevent the work from becoming a sanitised and saccharine production.
Much of this book will be a stat man's dream all players seem to have their career milestones and details covered with true attention to detail, and the work benefits from the generous selection of contemporary photographs, ranging from the sublime (Colin Stein in full flight) to the ridiculous (Colin Jackson in a car rejected by the makers of Wacky Races). It comes into its own, however, when the personal anecdotes, charm and belligerence of the players is allowed to break through the narrative.
Smith senior, herein always labelled David, has some harsh words about Jock Wallace and his style of play and offers no diluted version of the fall-out between the two men. Willie Johnston, unsurprisingly, is very outspoken on the subject of modern players being discouraged from expressing themselves, citing the infamous Pires penalty incident at Highbury as an example of something the game too often lacks in the modern age. And scathing over the role of Argentina 1978 team mates in the continuation of the drugs scandal as a recurring theme, claiming that At least I always told the truth.' But it is Alfie Conn who proves one of the more entertaining subjects, displaying a sense of pride in the achievements and a fondness for the club, or at least his own role at it, that some younger readers may struggle to understand, although they will relish his tale of sitting on the ball while at Spurs, a habit seemingly rife among the Barcelona squad.
Certainly, the fondness of the players for the club is something that Smith allows to flourish. Many had long careers at Ibrox and others wished for a greater stay. Willie Mathieson provides a delightful tale of his Grandson being asked to bring in something to school the next day for a school project. The lad produced a programme from the 1970s, explaining that the photograph of Mathieson was his Grandad and that he was very proud of him. The section on what it meant to Willie, and to all of his family, for him to be a Ranger will swell the chest and put a tear in the eye of even the most stoical of fans. Alex MacDonald helps explain how important it was for him, as a representative of his peers, to represent Rangers at this point in our history and Colin Stein offers some interesting thoughts on the nature of the Rangers support and their often critical approach to centre forwards and a cautionary tale for all who undertake the duties of best man at a wedding and compliment them with tending goal in a 0-6 reverse, three of the goals coming from the groom.
In a book on Rangers, with one event at its heart, it is interesting to note that many of the more developed stories centre on times spent at other clubs. Derek Johnstone's colourful spell under Bates at Partick Thistle, Jardine's renaissance at Hearts and the coupling of former team-mates in management (At Hearts and at Berwick) are generously outlined and illuminated. Little tit-bits of information, such as Dave Smith being voted the Player of the Millennium at Berwick, and Stein's bowling club exploits driving the locals to consider a way for him to return to football, provide an interesting mix with the well-established elements of each player's story. However, for all the efforts elsewhere, as player or manager, at home and abroad, it is clear from most that the Rangers were always the main event, both for those who retreated from the game after hanging up the boots and those who continue to play a part in the game today.
Smith's work is only 192 pages, but it crams in a lot of facts, figures and opinion. It is also somewhat of a rarity in a modern market crammed with books on lesser teams, clubs and perverse mythology and thus must be welcomed. Older readers may delight in the personal stories and contemporary view of those they once idolised. Younger, keen enthusiasts of recent history will find much to interest them, as will the general reader, although, as suggested, the nature of the narrative will put off some who have already familiarised themselves with the common themes and events of the period.
Those men who participated in earlier rounds of the ECWC expedition are rounded up in a final chapter, along with the management team and other staff. It is perhaps regrettable that they too could not have, where possible, been given a voice but that may have affected unduly the central structure. Nevertheless, in a tome not reaching 200 pages space was not a concern. The author writes warmly and with the grace befitting a trained journalist and his enthusiasm for the subject does not intrude or take over.
The central thesis, that this team may be underrated and due some greater gratitude and wider recognition, may be addressed as the plans for the 2007 World Supporters' Alliance testimonial come to fruition. In the meantime, approach this work with a happy attitude and take from it what you can.
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