By David Herd
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, 1966-1972 and 2018-2022.
By season 1965/66, the dominant Rangers side of the early part of the decade had started to age and break up, and a 5thplace league finish the previous season meant no European football. However, a famous Scottish Cup win over treble-chasing Celtic thanks to a replay goal by Danish full back Kai Johansen earned the club a place back in European competition, and a third ever campaign in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup. The trophy was held by the Germans of Borussia Dortmund, who had beaten Liverpool in the final at Hampden. Rangers manager Scot Symon was probably pleased to avoid having to play in the preliminary round, and when the draw was made for the first-round proper, he would have been equally happy to see his team paired with Glentoran of Northern Ireland.
The first match was played away from home on September 27th 1966, with an estimated crowd of 40,000 crammed into The Oval in Belfast. In a sign of the changing times, Rangers had 3 players making their European debut in Dave Smith, Alex Smith and Johansen as well as fielding John Greig in a more attacking role than usual due to the absence of regular centre forward Jim Forrest. Old warhorse Jimmy Millar started in Greig’s usual right half position, for what would be his last ever European start for the club. It was a match Rangers should have won easily, but they failed to build on a well-worked early goal from George McLean. After passing up several good chances, mostly supplied by the brilliant Willie Henderson, Rangers were made to pay for their slackness in the very last minute when Glentoran’s Glasgow-born player Billy Sinclair scored from a free kick. The 1-1 draw wasn’t well received by the travelling Rangers fans or those back home.
The following midweek, Rangers ruthlessly put to bed any notion the part-timers had of a famous upset, despite Forrest still missing out. The 4-0 Ibrox win in front of over 33,000 saw goals scored by Willie Johnston, Dave Smith, Denis Setterington and McLean again. By the time of the second round in late November the first trophy of the season had been lost, when Rangers dominated Celtic for virtually the entire League Cup final but somehow lost 1-0. The mood amongst the fans wasn’t improved when the opposition in Europe was known, holders Borussia Dortmund would visit Ibrox first in a real heavyweight contest.
Borussia were formidable opponents. Their team included 3 of the West German squad from the recent World Cup in Siggi Held, Lothar Emmerich and captain Wolfgang Paul, as well as another German international Reinhard Libuda who had scored the goal which had won Dortmund the trophy in May. Libuda didn’t start in the first leg at Ibrox, as a crowd of 64,000 saw a titanic tussle. Kai Johansen gave the home team the lead in just 10 minutes with a thumping shot, and Rangers looked capable of adding to their lead when Dortmund equalised in hugely controversial circumstances. Held had run off the field and was behind the goal line when the ball cannoned off Greig and looked to be going out for a corner. The German nipped back on the pitch, crossed the ball and as the Rangers defence stood and watched, Horst Trimhold headed firmly past goalkeeper Norrie Martin. The Spanish referee was immediately surrounded by angry Rangers players, who not only thought Held had broken the rules by standing off the pitch to remain onside, but they were adamant they heard the referee blow his whistle to stop play. The goal stood, and Ibrox burned with a sense of injustice.
The second half was more even, but Rangers grabbed a winner with 15 minutes left when Alex Smith headed home. The 2-1 win had most pundits predicting the holders would advance, with their contentious away goal looking crucial. But Rangers were to prove the doubters wrong, and do it in heroic fashion. At Dortmund’s Rote Erde stadium in front of 40,000 baying home fans, Rangers defended magnificently, with Ronnie McKinnon having one of his best games in a Rangers shirt. The Germans became increasingly desperate to break down the blue wall, and in 38 minutes Bobby Watson was carried off with a bad ankle injury after a shocking off-the-ball lunge by Emmerich. Substitutes were now allowed in domestic football but not yet in continental tournament, but the 10 men held firm for the remaining 52 minutes, goalkeeper Norrie Martin producing one incredible save when the Germans did look like they were going to score. The goalkeeper and Greig both also picked up injuries as the home side’s discipline deserted them, and when the Bulgarian referee ended the match at 0-0, the celebrations amongst the players were deservedly wild. Rangers were into the quarter-finals the hard way.
Real Zaragoza, the Spanish cup holders, looked to be another huge challenge in the last 8, and there would be more amazing drama ahead. On March 1st 1967, the first leg at Ibrox was won 2-0 in front of another huge crowd of 65,000. This was a few weeks after the infamous defeat at Berwick, after which Rangers decided they no longer would select Jim Forrest or George McLean. Both forwards had prolific Rangers careers, but both were sold within weeks, Forrest to Preston and McLean to Dundee. That Berwick defeat also signalled the start of Sandy Jardine’s Rangers career, and he had kept his place for the European tie. Forrest’s cousin Alex Willoughby had also benefitted from this bizarre decision to ditch 2 proven goalscorers, and he started against the Spaniards after hitting 7 goals in the previous 3 games. He scored again, the second Rangers goal on the night after just half an hour, Dave Smith scoring the first. On a night of driving rain and gale force wind, Rangers outplayed and outfought their opponents, and the 2-0 final score scarcely told of their dominance. The drenched Rangers fans leaving the stadium were certain their team were in the semi-final.
There was a blow before the return match when Ronnie McKinnon was ruled out with a broken nose suffered in the weekend win over Ayr. That meant only a 4th ever Rangers appearance for 20-year-old Colin Jackson at centre half. Beside him at wing half would Jardine, who would have known the long service both would go on to give the club. The match would bring back memories of Dortmund, with constant home pressure being repelled by resolute Rangers defending. But in 25 minutes, Zaragoza took full advantage of a soft free kick award on the edge of the Rangers area by scoring. But that was the only time the Spaniards cracked the royal blue defences, and it looked like Rangers were heading for the last four until the French referee awarded the home team a highly debatable penalty in the dying minutes for an alleged handball by skipper John Greig. The captain was furious, and maintained in post-match interviews the ball had gone nowhere near his arm. But the penalty was scored and the match went into extra time.
There was much more drama to come. First, Rangers were awarded their own penalty when Davie Wilson was brought down in the box only for Dave Smith to see his spot kick saved. Then, after the final whistle sounded with the aggregate scores still level at 2-2, the winners had to be decided by the toss of a coin. It seems incredible that a European quarter-final could be determined this way, but these were the rules at the time, and it was John Greig who leapt for joy when he correctly guessed which way the French 2 Franc coin landed.
The semi-final opponents were Slavia Sofia of Bulgaria, who had reached the last 4 by defeating Swansea of Wales, Strasbourg of France and Servette of Switzerland. This seemed a good draw, Sofia on paper looking the weakest of the remaining sides. The first leg in late April was in Bulgaria, and Rangers returned home with an efficient 1-0 lead thanks to a goal by Davie Wilson, enjoying a run in the side during the absence of Willie Johnston. Wilson became the first, and only, Rangers player to score in the semi-final of 2 different European competitions after also scoring against Eintracht in the 1960 European Cup semi-final, and despite a controversial offside decision denying Dave Smith a second goal Rangers had one foot in the final.
Johnston was back on the left wing for the Ibrox return, Wilson would never play another European tie for Rangers. But the 71,000 crowd celebrated a goal by the man on the other wing, Willie Henderson smashing the ball home just after the half hour. It was match Rangers dominated, hitting the woodwork twice and seeing visiting goalkeeper Simeonov in inspired form. Perhaps the baffling decision to drop the in-form Alex Willoughby and play defender Roger Hynd up front also didn’t help, albeit Hynd did help create the goal. Willoughby, who had hit 17 goals in his last 15 starts, was distraught at being dropped, and handed in a transfer request the next morning, although this would later be withdrawn.
It ended 1-0, Rangers were in their second Cup-Winners’ Cup final, and they learned their opponents in Nuremberg would be the Germans of Bayern Munich, a team very much on the rise after winning their domestic Cup the previous season and who would have the massive advantage of the match being played in their home country. By the time the match was played on the last day of May, Rangers were under real pressure to bring the trophy back home after watching Celtic lift the European Cup the previous week to add to their clean sweep of domestic trophies. The pressure was ramped up even more, when on the eve of the match the club chairman John Lawrence gave an astonishing press conference, where he criticised the team, saying they could never compete with Celtic while they had defenders playing in forward positions! His part in ending the Rangers careers of Forrest and McLean a few months earlier was conveniently forgotten. Lawrence also stunned journalists by announcing that long-serving club chief scout Jimmy Smith, a legendary goalscorer for the club, was being “retired immediately on a pension”. Whether right or wrong to do this, disclosing it in a press conference the day before a European final showed crass timing.
Rangers took to the pitch in their usual kit apart from wearing blue socks to avoid any colour clash with the red socks of their opponents. Bayern were boosted by being able to field their deadly striker Gerd Muller only 3 weeks after he broke an arm. The forward, who had scored 4 goals in the semi-final win over Standard Liege, was allowed to play wearing a lightweight cast. Rangers took an estimated 6000 fans to Germany, outnumbered massively in the sell-out 69,000 crowd with virtually all the rest supporting the “home” team. The words of the chairman proved to be sadly prophetic, as they watched Rangers dominate for long periods, but struggle to create decent chances with Hynd at centre forward and Dave Smith at inside left, two players who were converted defenders. Hynd missed a glorious chance in the first half, but Rangers wasted several promising looking situations, and too often tried shooting from distance without troubling goalkeeper Maier.
The deficiencies up front were the opposite of the defensive display, as Ronnie McKinnon shackled the dangerous Muller superbly. The match went to extra-time, with a goal looking highly unlikely. Then in the 106th minute of an uninspiring match, came the decisive moment. A long ball was played over the Rangers defence, goalkeeper Norrie Martin decided to leave his goal to intercept it, but the strong running Franz Roth got there first and flicked it over the keeper and into the net. There was mass hysteria among the German fans, police being needed to clear the pitch as many rushed on to the playing surface. Rangers never looked like equalising, and the fact that there were no fans at Glasgow airport to greet the team back home said everything about the mood of the support. This was a good Bayern team, the likes of Maier, Beckenbauer and Muller would go on to be genuine legends of football. But they were not yet the team all of Europe feared, finishing behind the Dortmund team Rangers had beaten in the Bundesliga table. This was a game Rangers could and should have won. No Forrest, McLean or Willoughby had severely weakened the team and to this day, nobody can explain why manager Symon thought Roger Hynd a centre forward in a European final. It was a case more of Rangers losing the trophy than Bayern winning it.
At one time, a season without a trophy would have meant no European football the next year. But by now there was a 3rdEuropean competition, the Fairs’ Cup, so 1967/68 saw Rangers make their first appearance in the tournament. They were joined in the first-round draw by Dundee and Hibs, with Scot Symon’s reshaped team given a trip behind the Iron Curtain against Dynamo Dresden of East Germany. Rangers had signed centre forward Alex Ferguson, winger Orjan Persson and creative inside forward Andy Penman in the summer to fill the gaps that had been so obvious in Nuremburg, and the team had started the season in promising style, including a league win over Celtic before almost 90,000 at Ibrox 4 days before the trip to Dresden.
It was another new signing, goalkeeper Erik Sorensen, who shone in a match Rangers played poorly but escaped with a 1-1 draw. The Danish goalkeeper had pulled off several excellent saves before Alex Ferguson scored in a rare Rangers attack just after half time. The home team eventually got the equaliser they deserved, but few thought they could now get the win they needed at Ibrox. Two weeks later, Rangers scored early through Andy Penman but couldn’t find a killer second goal their dominance deserved. Some in the 60,000 crowd had started to head for the exits when Dresden sensationally equalised in the last minute with a wonder goal from distance totally out of the blue. It looked like extra-time, but captain fantastic John Greig popped up in the opposition box in the last seconds of injury time to bullet home a deserved winner and seal a 3-2 aggregate win.
It would be a third successive German opponent in the next round when Cologne of West Germany came out of the hat. But by the time the Ibrox first leg was played, Rangers had sensationally sacked manager Scot Symon despite sitting unbeaten at the top of the league table. “Tracksuit boss” Davie White was now in charge, and his first taste of European action as Rangers manager on November 8th 1967 was a resounding success. After a goalless first 45 minutes, the new manager’s half-time team talk worked wonders, as Rangers scored 3 goals without reply from Alex Ferguson (2) and Willie Henderson.
By the time Rangers made the journey to Cologne, Davie White had made a perfect start with 5 wins from 5 games, and the team was full of confidence that their 3-goal lead made the second leg a formality. It was anything but that. In driving rain, and on a muddy Mungersdorf Stadium pitch, they were a goal down in 30 seconds, scored by that fabulous midfielder Wolfgang Overath. They seemed to weather the storm, however, and with just 20 minutes left no further damage had been done. Then the roof fell in, with 2 quick goals conceded, the second from a free kick inside the Rangers area when Sorensen was adjudged to have taken too long to release the ball from his hands. 3-0 meant extra-time, with Cologne rampant. But a clever tactical switch by the new Rangers manager made all the difference, withdrawing Ferguson for an extra midfielder in Bobby Watson, and Rangers avoided the lottery of a coin toss when Willie Henderson scored in the 117th minute.
Strangely, the third round now had 12 teams in it, which meant 4 received a bye into the quarter-finals. Rangers were one of the lucky 4, and got to look on as 8 other teams fought out their matches. A first-ever Fairs’ Cup quarter final now beckoned, and it produced the toughest-looking draw possible when Rangers and Leeds United were paired together. Don Revie’s team were runners-up the previous season, had already knocked out Hibs in the previous round, and were genuine title challengers in England. They won the League Cup, beating Arsenal at Wembley just a few weeks before the Ibrox first leg, and were viewed by many as an emerging force in Europe.
The first leg at Ibrox in late March 1968 saw a massive 85,000 pack the stadium, with Rangers still undefeated in the league and their only domestic defeat since late August being a Scottish Cup defeat at Tynecastle. Manager Revie gave Rangers total respect, setting up his team to be as hard to break down as possible, with their Scottish captain Billy Bremner forming an impressive barrier alongside Jack Charlton and Norman Hunter. Rangers had most of the chances on a rainy Govan night, but Leeds got the result they were looking for when the teams left the pitch with no goals scored.
Rangers took a huge travelling support to Leeds for the away match, and there were a further 45,000 inside Ibrox watching the game beamed back on large screens. Sadly, they would only witness disappointment. After a promising opening, Rangers were hit with 2 quick goals and never looked like then recovering. Irish international Johnny Giles scored the first from the penalty spot after a handball, with Scotsman Peter Lorimer hitting the second after a defensive mix-up. Rangers tried everything they could to find the goal to get back in the tie, but it wasn’t to be and a first ever Fairs’ Cup campaign ended. Leeds would go on to complete a Scottish hat-trick in the semi-finals by beating Dundee, before they lifted the trophy in a two-legged final win over the Hungarians of Ferencvaros.
Rangers suffered further agony at the end of the season when a last-day defeat to Aberdeen saw them end as league runners-up, despite this being their only loss in 34 games. This meant another Fairs’ Cup campaign the following season, which started with early elimination in the League Cup by Celtic but then a hugely impressive 4-2 win at Parkhead in the league. The European run would begin just 4 days after that thumping victory, with a home match against Vojvodina of Yugoslavia. Although not a household name, this was a tough draw, the Serbs having been unlucky against Celtic in the 1967 European Cup quarter-finals to go down 2-1 on aggregate. They left Glasgow feeling aggrieved again, Rangers 2-0 win coming courtesy of a disputed first-half penalty scored by John Greig and then a late header from Sandy Jardine.
That looked enough of a lead to take behind the Iron Curtain, and so it proved when Rangers lost the second leg 1-0. That hardly tells the story of a shameful match, which saw bottle hurled at Rangers players, and the Romanian referee allowing brutal tackling by the home team. The only goal came midway through a second half that was more like warfare than football, with the evening summed up with 10 minutes left when Vojvodina player Trivic punched John Greig and was ordered off. Somehow the Rangers captain was deemed to also be guilty and he was also sent from the field to another barrage of missiles, meaning he would miss the next match in the tournament. Davie White said after the game Vojvodina had been “the dirtiest team I have ever watched”.
When Rangers were paired with the Irish side Dundalk in the next round, it looked like the perfect draw when the captain was missing the first match. As it turned out, Greig was able to play anyway after the referee failed to submit his match report. The first leg at Ibrox showed the massive gulf between the teams, the Irish part-timers overwhelmed 6-1. The match was played just a few days after a dismal defeat to Aberdeen in the league, with Rangers determined to make the fans forget about that horror show. Willie Henderson was the star player on the night, his first-half double setting the tone for 4 second half goals by Greig, Ferguson (2) and an own goal.
The next day, Davie White showed his annoyance at some mixed domestic form when he paid a Scottish record £100,000 fee to Hibs for centre forward Colin Stein. To say the striker hit the ground running would be something of an understatement. He scored a 4-minute hat-trick at Gayfield on his debut, then followed it up with another treble in his Ibrox bow against his former club. Dundalk were next in his sights in the away leg. This time Greig really was suspended, the Romanian referee’s report presumably having been sent by pigeon. There was also no Ronnie McKinnon through injury, but it mattered little as Rangers eased to a 3-0 win at a canter, Stein scoring twice to add to Willie Mathieson’s opener, before he hit the outside of the post late on as a third hat-trick just eluded him. The match was also notable for the introduction of 16-year-old Alfie Conn in the second half, at the time he became the youngest ever Scottish player in a European match.
Rangers added another future legend to the squad just after the match, signing Alex MacDonald from St Johnstone. MacDonald wasn’t in the team for the next round of Europe, when Rangers travelled to Holland in January 1969 to meet DWS Amsterdam, conquerors of Chelsea in the previous round. The team were in buoyant mood, their recent New Year win over Celtic completing a league double over their great rivals. Their confidence was justified, goals either side of half-time by Willie Johnston and Willie Henderson giving Rangers a comfortable 2-0 win with the home leg to come. The job was completed at Ibrox with a 2-1 win, all the goals coming in the first half as Dave Smith opened the scoring early on before Colin Stein grabbed the winner after the Dutch had equalised. Many viewed DWS as poor quality opposition, but it’s worth noting that 2 of their team that night would go on to play in the 1974 World Cup final for Holland in a team regarded by many as the best World Cup side not to win the trophy. 21-year-old left winger Rob Rensenbrink and 28-year-old goalkeeper Jan Jongbloed wore the DSW colours in both matches.
Rangers were in the quarter-finals again, and this time they were given Spanish opposition. Athletic Bilbao had to travel to Ibrox first, a team who would win the Spanish Cup that season but finish mid-table in La Liga. On March 19th, the Spaniards were no match for a rampant Rangers team who were now on a long winning run and very much in contention for the title. Early goals by Alex Ferguson and Andy Penman had the 63,000 Ibrox crowd in full voice, but they were silenced when Clemente pulled a goal back before the break. John Greig then missed a second half penalty and it looked like Rangers may only have a slender lead to take to Spain as time ticked away, but substitute Orjan Persson changed the tie completely by scoring a third then creating a fourth for Colin Stein in the closing minutes.
Just as well there was such a rousing finish, as Rangers would need that 4-1 lead. The team were into the Scottish Cup final by the return leg, but league title hopes were badly damaged by a shock defeat to Airdrie. There was also a devastating SFA decision to ban Colin Stein for 5 weeks after a sending off for retaliation against Clyde, meaning the striker would miss the cup final and the rest of the domestic season. He could still play in European competition, however, and took his place up front in Bilbao. The home team needed a 3-goal win to stay in the competition, and they scored close-range efforts in each half to lead 2-0 with much of the second period still to play. But a determined Rangers held out, not before more disciplinary woes when Willie Johnston was sent off along with Spanish full-back Betzuen for retaliating after a series of heavy tackles.
Newcastle United would be the semi-final opposition, a very good team but not of the class of the Leeds team who had beaten Rangers the previous season (and who were now about to be crowned English champions). It was a dispirited Rangers who would take to the Ibrox pitch for the first leg match on May 14th 1969. Without Stein leading the line, the league challenge crumbled with a series of poor results, then the domestic season ended on the most embarrassing low when the team were dreadful in a 4-0 Scottish Cup final loss to Celtic. It meant a second Celtic treble in 3 seasons as well as yet another year with no domestic silverware at Ibrox, and the supporters were in an unforgiving mood after the Hampden fiasco.
There were still over 75,000 in Ibrox for the Newcastle game, Stein now back out of cold storage with Alex Ferguson binned. Rangers were without the injured Ronnie McKinnon as well as the suspended Johnston, and in a tight match in which Newcastle’s priority was defence, Rangers wasted a gilt-edged chance to take a first half lead when Andy Penman had a penalty kick saved. The game ended 0-0, with Newcastle almost snatching a totally undeserved win in the last minute when German goalkeeper Gerry Neef pulled off an excellent save to deny Bryan “Pop” Robson.
St. James’ Park was a 60,000 sell-out for the return, and Ronnie McKinnon was risked at centre half. Meanwhile, outside the ground, thousands of fans without tickets had been allowed to congregate, and several hundred managed to force their way in by breaking down a gate. It would be a night all at Ibrox would want to forget. In a frenzied atmosphere in front of 2 sets of fans who had undoubtedly enjoyed plenty alcohol during the day, a clash between McKinnon and home centre forward Wyn Davies saw fists raised and a first mini-invasion of the playing surface. It always looked like a match where the first goal would decide it, and Newcastle scored it after 53 minutes through Scotsman Jim Scott. The home fans invaded this time.
The Welsh referee asked for a tannoy announcement to tell fans any further invasion would see the players taken off the pitch, so when Newcastle made it 2-0 with not too long left, some in the Rangers end thought getting the game abandoned was the only hope left. Not the cleverest move, the invasion this time saw a police response with dogs, bottles flying, and the players taken off until order restored. The defeat was bad enough, but the front page headlines afterwards made grim reading for fans of the club, the Irish vice-president of FIFA Harry Cavan saying that there could be a ban on Scottish clubs due the following season. Rangers, while disgusted at the behaviour of a minority of the enormous travelling support, were also furious at Cavan who had entered the team’s dressing room at half-time to tell the players their behaviour had to improve.
Newcastle won the trophy, meaning for the third successive season Rangers had fallen to the competition champions. And despite Cavan’s threats, there would be no bans forthcoming and Rangers entered the 1969/70 European Cup-Winners Cup due to being Scottish Cup finalists. They also entered the tournament with a familiar face back at the club, with under-pressure manager Davie White bringing the legendary Jim Baxter back to Ibrox. Baxter helped inspire a League Cup group win over Celtic at Ibrox, but a defeat in the return at Parkhead meant elimination again. The league campaign also stuttered with a shock loss at Ayr, so European success in the first-round tie with the Romanians of Steaua Bucharest was imperative. The 44,000 crowd got what they demanded, a comfortable 2-0 win. Willie Johnston grabbed both goals in a three-minute burst just before half-time, and although the visitors looked well organised and occasionally dangerous, nobody expected them to trouble Rangers enough to threaten a second leg shock.
The pressure ramped right back on White a few days later when Celtic left Ibrox with a 1-0 win in the league to already put the title challenge in danger. But In Bucharest a terrific defensive display with John Greig and Ronnie McKinnon in inspiring form, meant Steaua could find no way through in the 90 minutes and a 0-0 draw secured progression. But more league points were spilled in the coming weeks, and a second-round trip to Poland to play a dangerous Gornik Zabrze team looked like potential trouble unless form improved. With the hugely gifted forward Wlodzimierz Lubanski in their team, the Poles were confident before the first leg. That proved to be justified, as they tore into Rangers from the first whistle and were 2-0 up after just 11 minutes, Lubanski scoring the first. Rangers rallied, however, and the game became a far more even contest. Orjan Persson scored what seemed a crucial away goal in the second half, but the match ended as it had begun when Lubanski scored again to make the final score 3-1.
With a 2-goal deficit, Rangers knew they had to go all-out for goals in the return match. The mood on the terraces wasn’t improving, a draw at Morton a few days before the match increasing the discontent. Rangers now sat in second place in the table, 2 points behind Hibs, with Celtic a further 2 points behind but with a couple of games in hand. Around 70,000 still went to the game, and when Baxter supplied an early goal it looked like the comeback was on. One more goal and Rangers would lead on away goals. But they contrived to miss some very presentable chances, and when the Poles then suddenly went on the attack in the last half hour, they ran riot. Gerry Neef picked the ball out of his net 3 times, Lubanski again amongst the scorers. The Poles were applauded from the field by those who were still there, but the Rangers players and management were left in no doubt how angry the fans were. By the morning, Davie White was sacked.
Gornik reached the final, defeating Roma in the last 4 before going down to a fine Manchester City team in the final in Vienna by 2-1. Rangers appointed legendary former player Willie Waddell as the new manager, and in his first full season in charge in 1970/71 Rangers were back in the Fairs’ Cup after another trophyless season. The first-round draw could hardly have been less kind to Waddell, with old foes Bayern Munich the opposition. The Germans had lost their Bundesliga title to Borussia Monchengladbach the previous season, but represented the toughest of challenges with a team packed full of talent.
Waddell had given several younger Rangers players their chance, with the likes of Graham Fyfe, Alfie Conn and Alex Miller regular starters in the early weeks of the season. All 3 of them started in Munich, against a team sprinkled with stars from the recent World Cup finals, including the tournament’s top scorer Gerd Muller. He gave a scathing pre-match interview in which he claimed Rangers centre half Ronnie McKinnon was “overrated”. The Ibrox man made him eat his words with a superb marking display that left Muller on the outskirts of the game all night. But his German international teammate Franz Beckenbauer wasn’t to be denied, scoring a magnificent 20-yard goal in the first half. Rangers held their own, and were unlucky on a few occasions not to score. It ended 1-0, with all to play for at Ibrox.
Over 82,000 were at Ibrox for the second leg. Manager Waddell surprised everyone by switching Colin Jackson up front beside Colin Stein, but although this certainly gave the Bayern defence a physical problem, they dealt with his presence well. Chances did come, though, and the crowd got to see why Sepp Maier was the German international goalkeeper. Bayern’s strength of squad was perfectly demonstrated in the first half when Franz Roth, the goalscorer in the 1967 final between the teams, was taken off injured. His replacement Paul Breitner became one of Germany’s greatest ever players. Rangers would also bring on a substitute destined for greater things, 16-year-old Derek Johnstone replacing Jackson after an hour for his first European appearance, not long after a scoring debut against Cowdenbeath.
Rangers continued to make chances, but as time started to slip away they conceded the away goal that ended their chances, and it was hugely controversial. Muller was fouled by McKinnon some 19 yards out. The Rangers players all thought the referee had signalled an indirect free kick, so were amazed when Muller struck the ball straight into the net past Peter McCloy and the goal was given. That meant 3 goals were needed in 10 minutes. Colin Stein equalised within a minute, but the task was impossible, and Bayern held on to win 2-1 on aggregate. Rangers had suffered a first-round exit in Europe for the first time since 1963, although to opposition that would have beaten most teams in the competition. Bayern reached the last 8 where they fell to Liverpool, but it was Leeds who won the trophy, the last ever Fairs’ Cup before the competition was renamed the UEFA Cup.
At least 1970/71 finally saw a trophy back in the Ibrox cabinet, young Derek Johnstone’s goal in the League Cup final win over Celtic being part of club folklore. And season 1971/72’s European campaign sits right at the top of that folklore. Rangers endured another dismal trophyless domestic season, but were inspired in a tough European Cup-Winners’ cup campaign that saw them lift the trophy in Barcelona on May 24th 1972 after defeating the cup winners from 5 powerhouse European nations – France, Portugal, Italy, West Germany and the Soviet Union. Perhaps the inspiration came from a desire to honour the 66 souls who had perished at the stadium at New Year 1971, but whatever possessed the team during this series of tough matches it ended in the greatest triumph in the club’s first 150 years.
The 1971/72 run has been massively covered elsewhere, so I’m not going to go into as much detail as other seasons here. But it is worth reminding everyone of a triumph that involved 9 difficult and hard-fought games, all against very good opposition. In the first round against Rennes, and also the quarter-final against Torino, Rangers showed great organisation and spirit away from home, both ending 1-1 and both seeing Willie Johnston score the vital away goal. In between these, came the surreal and high scoring second round battle with Sporting Lisbon when Rangers lost a penalty shootout then were declared winners anyway after the rulebook confirmed their 4-3 defeat after extra time in Portugal meant an away goals victory following the 3-2 win at Ibrox.
Those Sporting Lisbon games saw Colin Stein score twice in both matches with Willie Henderson grabbing the third Rangers goal both times. These would be wee Willie’s last 2 European games for the club, Willie Waddell freeing him before the final in an act that even now seemed heartless as it meant a great club servant didn’t travel with the team regardless if he was going to play. His extra-time goal in Lisbon was the one that allowed Rangers to get through, his contribution to the eventual cup victory shouldn’t be forgotten. Similarly, another wonderful Rangers player started his last match for the club in Lisbon. Ronnie McKinnon suffering a broken leg in his 487th and last appearance in royal blue. His heartbreak meant opportunity for someone else, Dave Smith replacing him on the night and becoming a vital part of the defence for the rest of the competition.
The semi-final was part 3 of a trilogy against Bayern Munich, who had triumphed narrowly the other twice. Another backs-to-the-wall heroic defensive effort in Munich saw Rangers grab a 1-1 draw thanks to a crazy own goal. This meant a never-to-be-forgotten home leg on April 19th 1972 in front of a capacity 80,000 crowd. Despite losing skipper John Greig to injury, Rangers roared out of the traps and were in front within a minute through a Sandy Jardine 20-yarder. Then midway through the first half 18-year-old Derek Parlane, playing right half in place of the captain, sensationally scored a second goal. Despite the best efforts of a truly world class German team, Rangers held on quite comfortably, Smith being immense. That night must surely represent the greatest ever knockout result by any Scottish team in European competition, Bayern had the nucleus of the German side who won the European Championships that summer and who then went on to win the World Cup in 1974. The majority of their team were still there to win 3 successive European Cups from 1974 onwards. Even now, German football fans revere the likes of Maier, Beckenbauer, Hoeness, Breitner, Schwarzenbeck and Muller who all played that night and who all played when Holland were defeated in the World Cup final.
So to Barcelona 1972. Colin Jackson, who had played in all but 1 of the matches in the competition, suffered an injury ruling him out. This meant 18-year-old Derek Johnstone moving back into central defence from the midfield role he had filled in previous rounds, and a starting place for Alfie Conn, who hadn’t played in any of the ties since the Lisbon match. John Greig did play, nowhere near fully fit but determined to lead his team to glory. Colin Stein scored one, Willie Johnston two. Despite a Moscow comeback that had everyone in palpitations, the massive Rangers travelling army invaded the park in elation when the referee ended the match as a 3-2 win. May 24th would forever be a date associated with this night.
Sadly, the overreaction of the Spanish police and the battle it prompted, meant Rangers were denied the chance to defend the trophy, and when they did return to European competition in season 1973/74 the glories of this recent era could not be recaptured.
1966 to 1972 is an obvious and very strong contender to be considered the greatest European era in Rangers history. It is the only period that includes a trophy win, and it also saw Rangers reach another final, a semi-final and a quarter-final.
Overall, the record for these 6 seasons was as follows:
Home W 15 L 1 D 3 F 39 A 11
Away W 3 L 9 D 7 F 16 A 25
Neutral W 1 L 1 D 0 F 3 A 3
Overall W 19 L 11 D 10 F 58 A 39
As in the previous article on 1957-1962, there were no qualifying rounds, and very few “minnow” countries back then. In these 6 seasons, the 5 teams who knocked Rangers out were tournament winners 3 times, runners-up once, and quarter-finalists. The record at Ibrox was massively impressive, although away wins were very rare. Overall, less than half the games played were won, although often Rangers were defending a lead away from home so didn’t have to win.
Rangers knocked out teams from Northern Ireland, West Germany (3 times), Spain (twice), Bulgaria, East Germany, Yugoslavia, Ireland, Holland, Romania, France, Portugal and Italy. The teams who got the better of Rangers came from West Germany (Bayern twice), England (twice) and Poland. None of these campaigns were in the European Cup, however, so there is an argument that few matches were against the very best teams in other countries. It was a golden era not just for Rangers, with Celtic also winning and losing a final, as well as Dundee, Kilmarnock and Dunfermline reaching a semi-final.
This is why 1966-72 is the second of the candidates as the best era of European football for Rangers thus far.