By Alistair Aird
In the summer of 1964, there was no question about it, Rangers were masters of all they surveyed in Scottish Football. Scot Symon’s side had just won the domestic Treble and it was expected that that side would continue to dominate for years to come. But the reality was somewhat different.
There would be a League Cup win over Celtic in season 1964/65 and a Scottish Cup success over the same opponents a year later but that would be that for the rest of the decade. As Jock Stein reinvigorated Celtic, Rangers became also-rans as their stellar side of the Sixties was broken apart. Jim Baxter was the first to depart, heading south to join Sunderland, and he would soon be followed by Ralph Brand, who left to sign for Manchester City in August 1965. Add to that the loss of Jimmy Millar and Davie Wilson, both of whom joined Dundee United, and Rangers had been shorn of the guts of the team that had reigned supreme.
Scot Symon simply couldn’t find replacements of a comparable standard and the same fate would befall his successor Davie White. White, who aged 34 was viewed by many as being too young and inexperienced for the Rangers job, was sacked late in 1969. Both had not been able to come up with a gameplan to outwit the wily Stein and by the time the world ushered in the 1970s, Celtic had won the last five league titles and the small matter of the European Cup in 1967.
To arrest the slide the Rangers board turned to former winger Willie Waddell and the man who had guided Kilmarnock to the league championship in 1964/65 took his place in the manager’s office in December 1969. Waddell’s impact was immediate. By October 1970 Rangers had their first domestic silverware in four-and-a-half years – 16-year-old Derek Johnstone inking his name indelibly into Rangers folklore with the only goal of the League Cup Final against Celtic – and the following season he guided the club to their only European honour to date, the European Cup Winners’ Cup.
These successes were tangible, but Waddell could not construct a team that was consistent enough to challenge for the league title. In his two full seasons in charge Rangers finished fourth (in 1970/71 when they ended up 15 points adrift of Celtic) and third (in 1971/72 with the points difference now 16 points). He moved ‘upstairs’ following the European success to become general manager, with first team coach Jock Wallace taking over the managerial reins.
Wallace’s impact was immediate. In season 1972/73 Rangers went toe-to-toe with Celtic in the title race but were edged out by a single point. There would be sweet revenge, though, when an infamous goal from Tam Forsyth secured the Scottish Cup following an epic joust that ended 3-2 in Rangers’ favour.
But Wallace’s side then moved from the brink of league glory to the depths of despair. Season 1973/74 was disastrous, with Rangers finishing third in the league, losing to Celtic in the semi-final of the League Cup and being unceremoniously despatched from the Scottish Cup by Dundee who won 3-0 at Ibrox in the Fourth Round.
Pressure was mounting on the former jungle fighter. Celtic had won nine successive titles and stood on the verge of an historic tenth successive crown. Just as it was in the summer of 2020, that prospect was unthinkable and unpalatable for the Rangers support. The title in season 1974/75 therefore fell into the ‘must win’ category.
Initial signs were not good, though. Drawn alongside Hibernian, Dundee and St Johnstone in League Cup Section 2, Rangers were comprehensively beaten 3-1 at Easter Road in their second fixture. Injury denied Wallace the services of striker Derek Parlane, top scorer the previous season with 22 goals, so Richard Sharp, brother of future Everton legend, Graeme, was given his debut. But the home side were 3-0 up after 45 minutes and all the visitors could muster in response was a goal from Ally Scott.
Qualification for the last eight of the tournament as group winners now looked to be an uphill battle but a 6-3 win over St Johnstone and two successive victories over Dundee, coupled with Hibernian’s 2-1 loss against the Dens Park side left Wallace’s side top of the section going in to the last match. That was the visit of Hibernian to Ibrox but, despite being overwhelming favourites, Rangers came a cropper, Alex Cropley scoring the only goal of the game in the final minute.
And when the league season kicked off three days later with a 1-1 draw against Ayr United at Somerset Park, the pressure was mounting and the Ibrox natives were becoming increasingly restless. In fairness, a lack of success on the opening day of the league season was something Rangers seemed to be becoming accustomed to – you had to go back to September 1968 to find a Rangers victory on day one of the title race – and remarkably this was the third successive year that Ayr had been responsible for denying the Light Blues victory.
But those who were quick to reach for the panic button slowly but surely drew their finger away, for what followed was a run of six successive wins. Included in that run of victories was a first at Parkhead since September 1968 – Rangers trailed 1-0 at the interval but young Ian McDougall and Colin Jackson scored in the second half to secure a 2-1 win – and five-goal haul from striker Derek Parlane in a 6-1 thrashing of Dunfermline Athletic at East End Park.
After nine games Rangers topped the table. And although there were blips when Hibernian won at Ibrox for the second time that season and Airdrie won a seven-goal thriller at Broomfield four days before Christmas, the year ended with Wallace’s side only two points adrift of leaders Celtic.
The New Year fixtures would prove pivotal. Both sides of the Old Firm won their respective Glasgow derbies on New Year’s Day – Rangers knocked in four without reply against Partick Thistle at Firhill, while Celtic scored five in their win over Clyde – which meant a three-goal victory for Rangers would be required to supplant Celtic from the league summit when they met at Ibrox three days later.
And that was exactly the margin of victory as Wallace’s side turned on the style in front of an estimated crowd of 70,000. Derek Johnstone got the home side off to a perfect start with a goal after only six minutes and further goals from Tommy McLean and Derek Parlane had the Celtic fans scurrying for the exits long before the game had ended.
The match was played out in pouring rain on a pitch that looked as if a farmer had ploughed several furrows on it. But the game was won thanks to the tactical nous of Wallace. He earmarked his captain, John Greig, to nullify the probing and prompting of Kenny Dalglish and it worked a treat. Rangers had hit the front and there would be no stopping them now.
Seven wins and two draws from the next nine league games set the stage for Rangers to reclaim the title for the first time in 11 years. Easter Road was the venue, 29 March was the date and a draw would be sufficient to confirm Rangers as champions. How ironic that the opportunity to clinch the title came at the ground where earlier in the season a damaging defeat had many questioning the validity of Rangers’ championship credentials.
But Wallace took his side to the nation’s capital with his captain, the talismanic John Greig, struggling for fitness. Greig had played just four times for the first team in 1975. He had been troubled by a hamstring injury and also had to serve a three-week SFA suspension. He had returned to action three weeks prior to the Hibernian match but the following weekend had limped off early in the second half as he tried to inspire his side to victory against Dundee at Dens Park.
Greig’s performance in Dundee epitomised what he brought to the Rangers side. Trailing 1-0 and down to ten men he showed passion, desire and commitment as his team tried to redress the balance. Playing at left back, he broke free from a defensive cocoon on a number of occasions to surge forward and prior to his departure thudded a shot against the post. Although no longer on the field of play, Greig’s endeavour had galvanised his side and his replacement, Alex Miller, created the equaliser within minutes of coming on. And the points were secured when Derek Parlane scored six minutes from the end.
Herculean efforts such as that from Greig were nothing new. He was the only man in that pool to have tasted success in the league championship and throughout that doleful period where Rangers had played second fiddle to Celtic, he had had been a colossal figure and would always, as the popular Rangers song says, ‘fight until the day is done’. But, although Greig had played, and scored, in a reserve game in the week leading up to the match in Edinburgh, Wallace elected not to risk his skipper, instead listing him as one of his two substitutes.
One man who did make the starting XI, though, was Colin Stein. Signed for £100,000 on 31 October 1968, Stein had a stunning start to his Rangers career, scoring hat tricks in each of his first two league appearances and adding a double on his European debut against Dundalk. He was a real fans’ favourite and had cemented his place in Rangers folklore when he scored the opening goal in the European Cup Winners’ Cup Final in 1972. However, within a matter of months, Stein was sold to Coventry City. He had submitted a transfer request which was granted and he headed south in a deal worth a reported £175,000. Quinton ‘Cutty’ Young came to Ibrox as part of the deal.
Injury had blighted Stein’s time at Highfield Road and, for that reason, his Ibrox return was initially announced as a loan deal. In essence Stein had a month to prove his fitness but Jock Wallace, himself a fitness fanatic, was in no doubt that come the end of the month the deal would be a permanent one.
This was indeed how it all panned out but Stein was yet to find the net since his return. He had drawn a blank in the three league matches he had played and also been ordered off after 37 minutes of the 2-1 win over Dundee at Dens Park. But he redeemed himself and broke his duck second time around and, in the process, carved another niche in Rangers’ history that afternoon at Easter Road.
But things did not go the visitors’ way from the outset. There was a nervousness about Rangers and they fell behind a minute shy of the 20-minute mark when Ally McLeod netted a header. And the compound their agony, Sandy Jardine, soon to be crowned Scotland’s Player of the Year, struck the post with a penalty kick.
Rangers needed a hero, someone to steady the nerves and they found one in the returning prodigal, Stein. After 61 minutes Bobby McKean’s measured cross was attacked Stein and he bulleted a header beyond the Hibernian goalkeeper. Thereafter it was all Rangers but they couldn’t eke out a winning goal. That mattered little – they only needed a point to seal the title – and there was a lovely gesture from Wallace in the closing minutes when he brought Greig off the bench to revel in the glory.
There were still four league games left but Rangers’ lead was unassailable. By the end of the campaign, they were seven points clear if runners-up Hibernian and 11 ahead of deposed champions, Celtic. And Wallace’s side boasted the best defensive record in the country – just 33 goals conceded in 34 league games, with six of those coming after the title had been secured – and thanks primarily to Parlane, Johnstone and McLean, they were Scotland’s top scorers too, scoring 86 times.
If season 1974/75 represented the start of a successful epoch for Rangers, it signalled the end of era for Scottish Football. This would be the last season of the old 18-team First and Second Divisions, with league reconstruction ushering in a 10-team Premier Division. Just as they had been the first champions of the First Division, sharing the honours with Dumbarton in 1891, Rangers would also claim the first Premier Division title. This would be part two of the domestic Treble – a League Cup win over Celtic having secured the first part in October 1975 – and the third leg was duly clinched with a comfortable 3-1 win over Hearts in the Scottish Cup Final.
To put that achievement in to context the domestic Treble had only been annexed twice – both, incidentally, by Rangers, since it became a possibility with the inception of the League Cup in season 1946/47. But not content with doing it once this Rangers side, with the addition of Davie Cooper, Gordon Smith and Bobby Russell, did it again in season 1977/78.
But those successes were built on the foundations laid by that championship win in season 1974/75. That got the monkey off the back, ended the long, painful wait for the supporters. Rangers were once again Scotland’s number one club. But few could have forecast as they drank in their triple success in 1978 that the club would be set for another spell in the football wilderness.