By Alistair Aird
Rangers make the short trip to Fir Park to face Motherwell on Sunday. The scheduling of the game on Christmas Eve is far from ideal, but as fans, we are well aware that there are plenty of protagonists in the governing bodies that effortlessly take on the role of The Grinch throughout the year, not just during the festive season.
We travel to Lanarkshire in fine fettle. Rangers haven’t lost away from home in the league since the opening day of the season, and the midweek win over St Johnstone has heaped pressure on Celtic ahead of their home match against Livingston on Saturday at 3pm.
Cracks are starting to appear, and although they’ll be overwhelming favourites to defeat David Martindale’s side, we have had first hand experience this season of how restless natives can have a detrimental effect on confidence and performance. If points are spilled, then we may have an opportunity to top the table on Christmas Day.
There have been a multitude of memorable matches at Fir Park over the years, but the fixture played in February 1978 sticks out for myriad reasons and that’s why it has been brought back into focus for the latest article in the Blast from the Past series.
On 25 February 1978, Rangers travelled to face Motherwell in what was their 25th league match of season 1977/78. After a wretched start that brought back-to-back league defeats and calls for Jock Wallace to be sacked, the Light Blues were buoyant when they arrived at Fir Park.
After losing 2-0 at home to Hibernian on 20 August, Wallace’s side won 17 of their next 22 matches in the league. Only one match had been lost in that sequence, a 4-0 defeat against Aberdeen at Pittodrie that was ironically contested on Christmas Eve.
For the match against Motherwell, Wallace was forced to make some changes to personnel and tactics. Sandy Jardine had picked up a back injury seven days earlier against Stirling Albion in the Scottish Cup, but although Alex Miller replaced him in the XI, it was John Greig who filled in for Jardine at right back. Miller was instead tasked with marking Peter Marinello. There was also a return to the fold for Tam Forsyth, ‘Jaws’ coming back in after picking up an injury in the warm up against Clydebank three weeks earlier.
The match got off to a torrid start. Writing in the Evening Times, Jim Blair counted the concession of 18 free kicks inside the opening 21 minutes and talked of some skirmishes in the stands that required intervention from the police. That crowd trouble would escalate and have, in the opinion of some of the Motherwell supporters, a decisive impact on the outcome of the match.
The home side, managed by former Ranger, Roger Hynd, took the lead after 25 minutes. Marinello’s cross from the right was headed beyond Stewart Kennedy by Jimmy O’Rourke, and Marinello was involved again three minutes later when Motherwell doubled their lead. His pass was pounced upon by Vic Davidson, and although Kennedy thwarted his first effort, Davidson netted the rebound.
The Davidson goal saw the trouble that had been brewing on the terraces bubble over. Hundreds of fans invaded the pitch, and the referee, Eddie Thomson from Edinburgh, elected to take both teams back to their respective dressing rooms.
They returned some five minutes later when calm was restored, but Jim Reynolds of the Glasgow Herald said he ‘would not have bet Monopoly money on the Ibrox club at that stage.’ However, goals from Derek Johnstone and Gordon Smith restored parity before the break and left Reynolds suggesting that Rangers had shown ‘the mark of champions by hitting back in such devastating fashion.’ The goals were also the first that Motherwell had conceded since Hynd took over as manager.
After the interval, there was only going to be one winner. With the Motherwell players standing ‘like a bunch of rejects Madame Tussaud’s’, Davie Copper edged Rangers ahead after 49 minutes before Johnstone scored a splendid goal to make it 4-2. After outjumping Willie McVie in the centre circle, he ran clear and dinked a beautiful shot over Stuart Rennie with his right foot.
McVie’s misery was compounded when he inadvertently scored Rangers’ fifth goal after 62 minutes, turning a Tommy McLean cross into his own net. Davidson’s second goal of the match five minutes later was nothing more than a consolation for a home side that tasted defeat for the first time since Hynd had taken over at the helm.
To his credit, Hynd refused to use the unruly fans as the reason for his side’s loss. ‘We were beaten by a better side on the day’ he was quoted as saying in the Glasgow Herald before adding, ‘the invasion may have affected my players….but they are paid to react to the opposition not the crowd.’
For Rangers, the star of the show was once again Johnstone. In the opinion of Jock Wallace, he was the best striker in the UK at the time. He had now scored 10 goals in the eight league and Cup matches played since the turn of the year, and by the end of the campaign, his total was 38 in all competitions. Why he was overlooked by Ally McLeod as Scotland struggled against Iran and Peru at the World Cup in Argentina in the summer of 1978 remains a mystery.
The win over Motherwell kept Rangers six points ahead of Aberdeen at the top of the league. They seemed to be certainties for the title, but a 3-0 home defeat against the Dons the following week kicked off a dip in form. The Light Blues won only two of their next six matches, and after a 1-1 draw against Ayr United at Ibrox on 12 April, Aberdeen were a point in front with a superior goal difference. Rangers crucially had a game in hand, but there was no margin for error.
The Rangers players kept their nerve. Four wins from the last four games coupled with a draw between Hibernian and Aberdeen on the final day of the season saw Wallace’s side win the title by two points. Having won the League Cup in March, victory over Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup Final completed a second domestic Treble in two years and a fourth overall.
Winning the League Cup against Aberdeen earlier this month means that Rangers are on track to emulate that Treble-winning feat come May. To do that, the players will need to maintain the momentum that has been created since Phillpe Clement pulled them back from the precipice when he was appointed manager. That momentum is gathering pace now and a successful season – a fanciful idea as recently as October – is now a realistic proposition.
Clement has often said that the title race is a marathon, not the 26.2-mile variety but rather a 38-game one. This fixture is number 18 for Rangers which means they will reach the halfway stage of their ‘marathon’ when they play Ross County on 27 December. After that, it’s Celtic at Parkhead.
We’re all keen to see how Clement will fare in an Old Firm game and whether he can once more wave the magic wand he claims not to have and produce another memorable moment. This one could be season-defining too.
But as much as we are all looking forward to watching our heroes face our foes on TV next Saturday, we must align with the Belgian’s mantra of ‘one game at a time.’ We simply can’t cede any advantage that Celtic’s stodgy form of late has given us by frittering away points against Motherwell. Leaving Fir Park with maximum points like we did in 1978 is non-negotiable as the journey from terrible to Treble continues.