Image for OUR GREATEST EVER ERA IN EUROPE? – PART 1 – 1957-1962

Our European record in the last four years has been extraordinary – but has it, in terms of the number of games and the quality of opposition, been our greatest period of European endeavour?  Author David Herd investigates and puts forward the case for each of three periods – 1957-1962, 1967-1972 and 2018-2022.


1957 – 1962

When Rangers reached the Europa League final last season, there was some debate on where this achievement sat in the history of Scottish clubs in continental competition. The fact we failed to lift the trophy by the narrowest possible margin ended that particular line of discussion in the media, but as Rangers fans could we possibly be living through the greatest sustained period of European achievement in club history? Seville 2022 came at the end of 4 seasons of continuing improvement and consistently impressive results against many higher ranked teams. The Gerrard and van Bronckhorst eras in Europe deserve at least to be compared with past glories, and this three-part article tries to give the evidence for and against 3 periods of Rangers European history being considered the best of all so far.

Those three periods are 1957-1962, 1967-1972 and 2018-2022.

When Rangers first entered European football in season 1956/57, UEFA only had one competition, the European Cup. Only domestic champions could take part, and there were no seedings or group stages. Straight home and away knockout football with all teams entered in an open draw (apart from the preliminary round which was drawn in 2 geographic regions). There also wasn’t the huge number of small countries in Europe that now have teams in UEFA competitions, so most matches would be against clubs from well-known football nations. That first foray into the continent was just the second ever European Cup, and it ended in the first round, a defeat to French champions Nice in a playoff. They in turn lost to Real Madrid in the quarter-finals, with the Spanish superstars retaining the trophy. 

The following season is the start of the first European era under the microscope, Rangers tasted their first-ever win in the competition by narrowly defeating another French club St Etienne. The first leg was played at Ibrox before an enormous 85,000 crowd and Rangers powered to a 3-1 success. South African forward Don Kitchenbrand scored early on, with second half goals to follow from Alex Scott and a vital late goal by Billy Simpson. That goal was then needed when Rangers went to France, a young Davie Wilson grabbing the crucial goal on the hour as the French won 2-1 but fell to a 4-3 aggregate win for the Scots. 

The draw gave Rangers a daunting task, paired with the might of Italian champions AC Milan. The Italians won 4-1 at Ibrox and 2-0 in the San Siro, the only Rangers consolation in a comprehensive beating was that Ibrox goal scored by Max Murray. The Italians were an excellent team, and powered to the final before going down in extra-time to the great Real Madrid team who dominated the early years of the competition. Rangers had gone out to the second-best team on the continent, there was certainly no disgrace in that. The Italians had hammered both Dortmund and Manchester United in similar style to defeating Rangers, it looks like we just got the wrong draw early on. There is a caveat to the Manchester United result, of course, the Old Trafford team had just lost many of their best players in the terrible air disaster after their match against Red Star in the quarter-final. The luck of the draw back then was best demonstrated by the team Rea Madrid had beaten in the semi-finals, the little-known Hungarians FC Vasas. Their path to the last 4 had seen them defeat opposition from Bulgaria, Switzerland and Holland (Dutch football wasn’t the force back then it would later become). 

Season 1957/58 could therefore be marked down as “unlucky not to go further”, and 1958/59 saw Rangers sit out European football as Hearts represented Scotland after winning the league title. Real Madrid were to win a 4th European Cup from 4 attempts, while Rangers regained their domestic crown. This meant they both entered the draw for the 1959/60 competition, the first season that Rangers really made their mark in the tournament. 

Hearts had been comprehensively knocked out by the Belgians of Standard Liege the previous season, and it was the new Belgian champions FC Anderlecht who came out of the hat in the first round for Rangers. It looked a tricky tie, but Scot Symon was building a great Rangers team, and they won the first leg at Ibrox by the impressive score of 5-2 thanks to goals by Jimmy Millar, Alex Scott, Andy Matthew and Sammy Baird (2). Matthew scored again in the return leg, with midfield schemer Ian McMillan adding a second for a handsome 7-2 aggregate success. Rangers basically employed the same selection and tactics as in domestic matches, with manager Symon likely of the opinion that his team were a match for anyone on their day.

The next round, which was the round of 16 in modern terminology, pitted Rangers against the Czech champions Red Star Bratislava. This was seen as an easier tie than the previous one, probably because few fans had really heard of them. But they were a team full of good players, which would be seen a few years later when the Czechs reached the World Cup final. An entertaining 4-3 home win at Ibrox featured goals from McMillan and Millar again, with strikes also by wingers Alex Scott and Davie Wilson. That meant a perilous trip to Czechoslovakia, which Rangers survived by drawing 1-1. Alex Scott was the scoring hero, Rangers surviving a late Jimmy Millar sending off and a last-minute equaliser. The quarter-final draw contained some powerful looking potential opponents, such as Real Madrid Barcelona, Eintracht and Wolves so Rangers fans weren’t upset at being paired with the Dutch side Sparta Rotterdam.

The Dutch had beaten our friends from Linfield very easily in the opening round, but Rangers were confident of progressing and it seemed they had all but secured a semi-final spot when they returned from the first leg in Holland with a 3-2 lead with goals from Wilson, Baird and an eventual winner by stand-in centre forward Max Murray. Strangely, the draw had already taken place for the semi-finals, and many Rangers fans already had eyes on who was going to emerge from the Eintracht v FC Wiener tie, as dreams of a home final were growing stronger with the final venue being chosen as Hampden. The second leg, in front of 80,000 at Ibrox, wasn’t the procession envisaged. Rangers huffed and puffed, and were hit by a sucker punch with just 20 minutes left when the Dutch scored a breakaway goal. In 1960, a deadlock on aggregate meant a playoff match, and the venue was agreed as Highbury in London. If this match was drawn, there was the prospect of the European Cup semi-finalist being decided by the toss of a coin!

It was another tight affair, but Rangers earned a deserved 3-2 win, despite the shock of conceding an early goal. Sammy Baird was the hero with a double, with Jimmy Millar scoring the third. It would be Eintracht Frankfurt v Rangers for a place in the final at Hampden. Most Rangers fans thought it was a tie Rangers could win, despite the league season being a disappointing one. But Rangers were to find out the hard way that they were playing a team who were a class above anyone they had yet faced. Over in Frankfurt, Rangers reached half-time with the scores level at 1-1, Eric Caldow converting a penalty after the Germans had earlier missed one. But in the second period the roof caved in. Rangers conceded 5 times, their reluctance to change from their attacking approach in the face of an Eintracht onslaught showing the lack of tactical awareness in these early years of European football. Eric Caldow described their opponents as the best team he had ever played against, and the second leg to come at Ibrox was looking like a dead rubber.

Despite the scoreline in Germany, Rangers raised admission prices and still saw 70,000 flock to the stadium. They saw another depressingly clinical display from the Germans, who went in at half time 3-1 up, and who were now toying with their hosts. In the end, Davie Wilson (2) and Ian McMillan became the second and third Rangers players to score in a European semi-final, but a 6-3 defeat and a 12-4 aggregate couldn’t be dressed up as anything other than a hammering. Many of the 70,000 stayed behind to cheer their visitors from the pitch, with the majority inside Ibrox convinced they had just seen the team who would finally take the European crown from Real Madrid. Some of them went to Hampden for the final, and witnessed an all-time classic, the Spanish giants taking home their 5th successive European Cup after demolishing Eintracht 7-3. Fair to say that both finalists were still on a different level from a Rangers team who were not yet at their peak, but who had reached the last four.

Rangers did salvage some silverware in 1960 by winning the Scottish Cup for the first time in 7 years, and that meant season 1960/61 would see the club enter the newly created second UEFA tournament, the European Cup-Winners’ Cup. As the name suggested, this would be a competition for the domestic cup winners of each country, with Rangers joined in the inaugural season by just 9 other teams, albeit some well-known names amongst them. There were no entrants from Spain, Portugal or France as some domestic associations doubted the attraction of the competition. There were also some who bent the rules slightly, with Hungary and East Germany entering their league runners-up instead.

Rangers were one of just 4 clubs who played in the first round, the other 6 all going straight into the quarter-finals. The draw saw Hungarian title runners-up Ferencvaros paired with the Scots, the first leg to be played at Ibrox. By now, the immortal Rangers side of the early 1960s was taking shape, with Jim Baxter having arrived from Raith Rovers in the summer. The allure of the new European competition only drew 36,000 to the stadium, but they saw an entertaining match that came to life in the second half. The physical Hungarians enjoyed a 1-0 interval lead, but it was a more purposeful Rangers who took the field after the interval, running out 4-2 winners thanks to goals by Harold Davis, Jimmy Millar (2) and Ralph Brand.

It was a lead Rangers needed at the Nep Stadium 2 weeks later, as the Hungarians had swept into a two-goal lead on the night by the hour, scoring either side of half-time. With the tie now level on aggregate, the Scots showed their greater will-t-win and imposed themselves on their opponents in the final half hour. The goalscoring hero was Davie Wilson, the left winger firing the ball home in the 70th minute to give Rangers a 5-4 aggregate win.

The last 8 paired Rangers with the relatively unknown (at the time) Germans of Borussia Monchegladbach, who had won their first-ever national honour by winning the 1960 German Cup. The first leg in Germany attracted a big crowd with many British soldiers serving in the area given leave to attend. They saw a game that Rangers won easily, but overshadowed by some dreadful refereeing and violent indiscipline. Goals by Jimmy Millar and Alex Scott in the first half hour had Rangers cruising, although they Goalkeeper George Niven had to save a penalty just before the interval when the Yugoslavian referee penalised Eric Caldow for a perfectly good tackle. The German tackling became increasingly reckless, until all hell broke loose when in a melee following another horrendous challenge Harold Davis sorted out the perpetrator with a left hook that would have floored the best heavyweight boxer. The German left winger left the field on a stretcher and ended up in hospital where his two loose teeth were tended and an x-ray showed no jaw break.

It was now mayhem, with the referee totally lost, and in amongst the scuffles and bad-tempered play that followed, Ian McMillan showed that football was still being played when he scored a delightful third goal. The match ended 3-0, and fair to say there was no love lost between the sets of players.

The return at Ibrox was played on St Andrew’s night, with Rangers in no mood to show Scottish hospitality to their visitors, the events of the first match still fresh in the mind. This time, however, it would only be a football lesson given out. In the pouring rain, almost 40,000 fans witnessed a massacre. By half-time Rangers had ran in 5 goals without reply, Baxter starting it all off within 2 minutes. The Germans, in their first ever away European match, looked completely out of their depth, and by the final whistle Rangers had enjoyed the biggest win in continental football, with Scott, Brand (3), Millar (2) and Davis all finding the net to add to that early goal. 8-0, not a result we are likely to ever see again against a German opponent.

So, for the second successive season, Rangers were in the last 4 of a major European tournament. The opposition would be a huge test, Wolverhampton Wanderers the FA Cup holders. The English club were regarded as one of the giants of the British game, having won 3 league titles in the previous 7 years. The previous season had seen them runner-up in the league by just a single point as well as FA Cup champions, and when the teams clashed they were again challenging for the league title against a great Tottenham side. The interest in the Battle of Britain first leg at Ibrox was huge, an all-ticket crowd of 80,000 selling out quickly.

On March 29th 1961, an injury-hit Rangers took to the field minus star men Ian McMillan and Jimmy Millar, and with Millar’s deputy at centre forward Max Murray also out, manager Scot Symon tried centre half Doug Baillie as an emergency striker. Wolves were also without their usual number 9 as Peter Broadbent was also unfit. Within 10 minutes, things looked bleak for this unusual Rangers line-up, Harold Davis picking up a muscle injury that meant he would play the remaining 80 minutes as a limping passenger out on the wing with substitutes still several years away from being introduced.

But this was a Rangers team who refused to lie down, and they took the lead after half an hour with a brilliant Alex Scott strike. The English threw everything at the home team in the second half, goalkeeper Billy Ritchie pulling off some good saves, and Ibrox erupted with just 6 minutes left when Ralph Brand grabbed a vital second goal. A 2-0 win against all odds, and Rangers looked on course for a first-ever European final appearance by a Scottish club. There is a decent argument that this was the best win for Rangers in European competition in the first decade of continental competition.

The second leg came just 4 days after the annual England v Scotland home international match, a game that was a humiliation for Scotland and for the Rangers players who took part. England won 9-3, a result that prompted great English delight as well as much scorn for the Scottish game in the press south of the border. The newspapers in Scotland were full of articles hoping Rangers could restore national pride at Molineux. In a match made famous by the song “Wolverhampton Town”, Rangers fans descended on the city in their thousands, and marched through the city centre to the ground before the match. They packed into the away end, and they saw a match that started with both sides making chances. As the clock ticked towards half-time with no scoring, Ralph Brand and Alex Scott combined beautifully before Scott lashed the ball into the net. There was mass delirium in the Rangers end, and Wolves now needed 3 goals to salvage the tie.

Billy Ritchie would then be the Rangers hero, and just a minute after the goal at the other end.  Wolves poured forward, desperate to get back level before half-time, and left half Ron Flowers struck a vicious shot from the edge of the area that looked a scorer all the way. Incredibly, Ritchie dived full-length to tip the ball round the post before being submerged by his defenders who could hardly believe what they had just seen. It was a save that knocked the heart out of the Englishmen, and although they did manage a second half equaliser from Peter Broadbent, they never looked like pulling the deficit back. Rangers were in the final, and “the football it was grand”!

The Italians of Fiorentina would be the opposition after their 4-2 aggregate win over Dinamo Zagreb. The final would be played over two legs, the only time in the competition’s history this was the case, with the crucial first leg at Ibrox on May 17th 1961. By the time the match was played. The league season had been concluded, with Rangers taking their 32nd title after a last-day win over Ayr United by 7-3 featuring an Alex Scott hat-trick. Although Scotland’s international right winger, Scott was temporarily playing at centre forward due to the continued absence of Jimmy Millar. He continued in the position for the first match of the final, in a forward line that saw Davie Wilson moved to outside right and back-up man Bobby Hume on the left wing. Another 80,000 crowd packed into the stadium, the initial reluctance of countries to take part in this new European competition now looking foolish as 2 teams packed with international players fought it out to claim the prize.

It was a night of “what might have been” for Rangers. Playing in a change strip of blue and white stripes, Rangers immediately had a packed Italian defence to break down, with the visitors using any tactic available to stop the Ibrox forwards. Then, with virtually their first venture upfield, Fiorentina scored when Luigi Milan took advantage of a slack backpass to find himself through on goal. He easily beat Ritchie and the Italian celebrations showed just how much it meant to them. This was Fiorentina’s second European final, they had lost to Real Madrid in the 1957 European Cup final which had been played at the Spaniards’ home ground. Here they were again on enemy territory in a final, determined to go one better. 

Just 6 minutes later, Rangers had the perfect chance to reply, when the Austrian referee awarded a penalty for a foul on Ian McMillan. Captain Eric Caldow took the kick, but sent it past the post, distracted by goalkeeper Albertosi rushing from his line as he was about to strike the ball. His appeals for a retake fell on deaf ears, and the visitors grew in confidence after this major escape. Rangers threw everything they had at the resolute Fiorentina defence, the Italians having 3 players booked for their often cynical defensive play. Then, with time running out and some fans heading for the exits, Milan grabbed a second goal to give the Italians a scarcely deserved 2-0 victory. 

Not for the last time in European competition, Rangers had been mugged, and the trophy now looked like it was headed for the beautiful city of Florence. But there was a second leg still to play, and Rangers got the boost of a returning Jimmy Millar in Italy, his first start since mid-January. Again in blue and white stripes, Rangers made a brave attempt at rescuing the situation, but they really needed to score first but instead conceded after just 12 minutes when Milan got his third goal of the tie. The 50,000 crowd were already celebrating victory, but to their credit Rangers never stopped trying to get forward and they gave themselves a slim lifeline when Alex Scott scored a fine goal on the hour. He will always go down in the history of the club as our first ever goalscorer in a European final.

The Italians were briefly unsettled, and reverted to their ultra-defensive tactics from the Ibrox match as Rangers went for broke. Time was against them, however, and Fiorentina grabbed a breakaway winner with just 7 minutes to play when their £70,000 Swedish internationalist Kurt Hamrin, the man who is still the club’s all-time leading goalscorer, beat Billy Ritchie with an excellent finish. The 4-1 aggregate score was harsh on Rangers, but it was hard to argue that the better team over the two legs had won with Fiorentina having that extra clinical quality when they needed it.

With a semi-final and final appearance in the last 2 seasons, Rangers were back in the European Cup in season 1961/62 and were fancied to go far. The first round was a trip to the millionaire’s playground of Monaco, and the Scottish champions put on an exhibition of champagne football for the occasion. Somehow, the French title winners escaped back to Glasgow only 1 goal behind, the 3-2 scoreline a travesty in a match Jim Baxter underlined his imperious ability. He scored the first goal and created a second for Alex Scott, the 2-0 half-time score a fair reflection on a one-sided contest. But the Ibrox men seemed to decide to play exhibition football after the break, and their slackness allowed their hosts to pull level with 2 goals inside 13 minutes. But Rangers then awoke from their slumbers and dominated the closing stages, with Scott’s winner coming with only 5 minutes left from a header.

The following midweek saw over 67,000 inside Ibrox to watch a repeat scoreline. That was about the only similarity to the first match, as Rangers without Jimmy Millar to lead the forward line were a shadow of the confident team who had outplayed their hosts in the south of France. In a match littered with fouls and stoppages, Monaco cancelled out the Rangers lead within 20 minutes, and when the half-time score remained 0-1 the Ibrox crowd weren’t slow to let their heroes know how unsatisfactory a performance they were watching. Rangers had youngster Jim Christie at centre forward, and he equalised in 48 minutes with a well-taken goal. 

With their lead restored, Rangers then looked to have killed the tie midway through the second half when Christie scored again, taking advantage of a terrible blunder by the Monaco centre half. That should have been that, but the Rangers defence were punished for their own slackness with under 15 minutes to play and it was 2-2 on the night. Monaco lost a player to injury shortly after, and Rangers took full advantage of the extra man to score a winner with the scorer yet again being Alex Scott, a winger with a magnificent scoring record in continental football.

The last 16 draw sent Rangers behind the Iron Curtain, with East German champions Vorwaerts Berlin the opposition. The trip to the other side of the Berlin wall took place on November 15th 1961, and came at a time of hectic fixtures for the team. They had just drawn with Hearts at Hampden in the League Cup final, meaning a replay date needed found, then four days before the match in Berlin had sensationally gone down 5-1 to Dundee at Ibrox. The East Germans were a team made up of players from the army, and represented a well organised but technically limited opposition. Jimmy Millar was back up front by now, although seemingly not quite firing on all cylinders yet, and when Alex Scott picked up an early injury that hampered him for the rest of the game, Rangers found their attacking force blunted.

The Germans scored first in 27 minutes, but had no time to settle on their lead when almost immediately the injured Scott was flattened in the box for a blatant penalty that Eric Caldow converted. The goal that decided the match came right on half-time, some sublime Baxter skill preceded a pinpoint cross, Ralph Brand could hardly fail to score from a few yards out. A 2-1 win was satisfactory given all the circumstances, but there was a problem with the home leg, as the UK authorities refused the East Germans visas to enter the country, this being at the height of the Cold War. It meant the home match was moved to outside the UK, with Malmo in Sweden chosen as the venue.

Rangers playing Germans at home in Sweden was farcical enough, then the match itself became more of a farce when thick fog descended forcing the referee to abandon the contest at half-time with Rangers leading 1-0 through teenage sensation Willie Henderson who had replaced the injured Scott. It meant the match had to then be played the following morning, with the 10 a.m. kick-off not enough to prevent just under 1800 hardy souls from coming along to watch. Rather cheekily, the East German bosses had asked UEFA to decide the match on the toss of a coin, their argument for this getting little sympathy.

When the match eventually did take place, it was eventually something of a stroll for Rangers once they found a way through a resolute and packed defence. There were 4 second half goals, starting with an own goal forced by some mesmerising play from young Henderson. Ian McMillan then grabbed 2 more, before the wee teenager on the right wing got the goal his sparkling play had deserved. The only blot on the scoreboard was an unfortunate own goal at the other end, scored by Eric Caldow in between the McMillan strikes. Despite suffering further injuries to Millar, Wilson and centre half Bill Paterson, Rangers cruised through 6-2 on aggregate to reach another European quarter final.

Standard Liege were the draw for the last 8, a team who had won the Belgian title, were challenging at the top of their league again, and who had a very good recent history against Scottish clubs, hammering Hearts in the European Cup a few years earlier when they reached the quarter-finals. They represented stiff opposition, but weren’t a team regarded as among the favourites for the trophy. Rangers were confident.

But the match in Liege turned out to be something of a disaster. Rangers were without 2 hugely important players in Eric Caldow and Ian McMillan, manager Symon deciding to play teenagers Bobby King and John Greig in their place. He also had decided not to make the trip to Belgium to watch their opponents prior to the game, unlike his counterpart Jean Prouff who had been taking copious notes from his seat at Ibrox the previous Saturday when Rangers played Airdrie. Some might say that Rangers were underestimating their opponents, and if they did then they paid a hefty price.

In a mudheap of a pitch, Rangers found themselves 2-1 down at half-time in front of a jam-packed crowd of 37,000 which included hundreds of spectators on the running track around the pitch as they spilled out of the densely populated terraces. Davie Wilson had scored a Rangers equaliser after an early onslaught by the home team had seen them take the lead, and they had restored that advantage through Irishman John Crossan. If the manager did attempt any tactical alterations at half-time they were impossible to spot, and by full time Crossan had scored again before a free-kick heading wide of goal cannoned off the unfortunate Harold Davis and flew into his own net. Standard had won 4-1, Rangers were slaughtered by the Scottish press, and they had a mountain to climb to stay in the competition.

Caldow and McMillan were back the following midweek, and almost 77,000 were inside Ibrox to see if the team could pull themselves out of the deep hole they had dug for themselves. But missing was Willie Henderson, who had failed to reach the stadium on time after being caught in traffic, Alex Scott returning despite not being fully match fit. With the injuries, then the crazy first leg own goal, and now this last-minute disruption to the team, it seemed the tie was jinxed for Rangers. But they tried manfully to haul back their 3-goal deficit against a team who played with a massed defence and who made no pretence they were at Ibrox to play any sort of attacking football. 

There was some hope for the huge crowd when Ralph Brand scored in 28 minutes, but the game slowly slipped away, as chances were missed, time was wasted, and frustrations grew. There was a late glimmer when Rangers won an 87th minute penalty which Eric Caldow coolly stroked home, but a last gasp assault on the Belgian goal came to nothing and the 2-0 win wasn’t enough. The damage had been done in the first leg, Rangers were out, and out to a team who weren’t going to win the competition. Predictably, Liege were thrashed 6-0 on aggregate by Real Madrid in the semi-finals, although they in turn lost in the final to Benfica, Eusebio and all.

The Rangers team of the next two seasons dominated domestically, winning a double and then a treble, but their European results were poor, hammered in both seasons by Spurs and Real Madrid in early rounds. So the first period of relative European success had ended, 1957 to 1962 having 4 seasons in continental competition and seeing Rangers reach a final, a semi-final and a quarter-final.

Overall, the record for these 4 seasons was as follows:

Home W 8 L 4 D 0 F 34 A 23

Away W 5 L 6 D 2 F 22 A 25

Neutral W 2 l 0 D 0 F 7 A 3

Overall W 15 L 10 D 2 F 63 A 51

We have to bear in mind there were no qualifying rounds, and very few “minnow” countries back then. In the 4 seasons in question, the teams who knocked Rangers out were runners-up, runners-up, winners and semi-finalists. On the negative side, it has to be said that the team took a few heavy beatings in the matches they did lose. 

Rangers knocked out teams from France (twice), Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Holland, Hungary, West Germany, England and East Germany. The teams who got the better of Rangers came from Italy (twice), West Germany and Belgium. Three of these 4 seasons were in the European Cup, meaning the majority of the opposition were the best teams in their respective countries. That is why 1957-1962 is the first of the candidates as the best era of European football for Rangers thus far.

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