Rangers v Ayr United Preview – A Treble In The Ayr?

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By David Herd

Rangers take a brief break from their assault on the league title this weekend with a Scottish Cup last-sixteen tie at Ibrox against Ayr United. No doubt much of the pre-match publicity will centre around the recently arrived manager at Somerset Park, and little doubt Scott Brown will be Public Enemy inside the stadium once the match gets underway. But the appearance of Brown is just a minor sideshow in a much bigger picture, and he is hardly worthy of too much attention. A manager sacked by Fleetwood Town and whose only job offer was from a struggling team in Scotland’s second tier. Saturday is all about a rejuvenated Rangers, under the guidance of a genuinely impressive manager, as they look to add to the silverware already in the Ibrox trophy room.

With the gap at the top of the table now closed and the race for the title a sprint to the line between now and May, many Rangers fans must be harbouring thoughts of the most unlikely of trebles. If they have a look at the history books, there is some justification for wondering if a cup clash with The Honest Men of Ayr points towards that dream becoming reality. The omens are there, which I will now explain.

It’s been too long since Rangers won all three of Scotland’s major trophies, and it’s a source of great pain to have watched our bitter rivals overtake our treble record in recent times. The last three Ibrox trebles were achieved in 1993, 1999 and 2003 under Walter Smith, Dick Advocaat and Alex McLeish. Different managers achieving the ultimate in domestic domination, with Scottish football also very different from now. But all three of those clean sweeps had something in common. In each season, Rangers won a cup competition after defeating Ayr United. And just like this season, they defeated Ayr in their second game of the tournament.

In 1992/93, Walter Smith’s Rangers would not only take all the domestic honours, they came within one win of the Champions League final in an incredible unbeaten European season. In the Scottish Cup, a tough away draw at Motherwell in the Scottish Cup was safely negotiated, and their second Scottish Cup match saw Ayr United come out of the hat. It would be a match with a fixture similarity to the present day. Just like 2024, in the midweek before the game, an injury-hit Rangers played Aberdeen in a vital league match, and dug deep to earn a narrow win. With regulars Richard Gough, Ian Ferguson and Dave McPherson all ruled out, Walter Smith selected this team to take to the Somerset Park pitch on Saturday 06 February 1993:

Andy Goram, Gary Stevens, Davie Robertson, Dale Gordon, Scott Nisbet, John Brown, Trevor Steven, Stuart McCall, Ally McCoist, Mark Hateley, Alexei Mikhailichenko.

The Ayr line-up contained a hugely popular former Rangers player, with veteran Bobby Russell in midfield. It was a match played in difficult conditions, and one that Rangers never looked like losing while also struggling to break down a stubborn home team. Player-manager George Burley had his side well organised, and it took almost 40 minutes for the breakthrough to arrive. It may have been a surprise that the First Division team held out as long, but there was no surprise at the goalscorer. Ally McCoist was the holder of the European golden boot, and on his way to retaining the award again. He could hardly have missed, goalkeeper Cammy Duncan parrying a Trevor Steven shot straight to his feet just four yards out in front of an open goal.

The second half was a story of mainly Rangers pressure, dogged Ayr resistance, with a scattering of baffling decisions from referee Andrew Waddell for the fans to rage about. Then just as the game entered the last fifteen minutes, “Disco” Dale Gordon smashed home a loose ball from ten yards out and treated the away end to his impressive dance moves in celebration. 2-0, game over, and the treble juggernaut moved on. The season ended with a 2-1 win over league runners-up Aberdeen in the cup final, a treble secured at Parkhead as the Bears sang The Sash in the jungle.

By season 1998/99, the first Walter Smith era had ended and the club’s first overseas manager was in the dugout. Dick Advocaat’s expensively assembled Rangers would end the season with a memorable treble, with both the league and the Scottish Cup won against Celtic. But those two days of utter joy were preceded by a League Cup campaign that had started with a routine home win over the minnows of Alloa before Somerset Park became the venue for the second game of the tournament. In a sign of the times, Advocaat’s starting eleven contained just one Scot, a marked difference from the Rangers side of his predecessor.

Lionel Charbonnier, Sergio Porrini, Lorenzo Amoruso, Craig Moore, Tony Vidmar, Barry Ferguson, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Jorg Albertz, Gabriel Amato, Rod Wallace, Jonathon Johansson.

On September 08 1998, there was a familiar face to the Rangers support in the home dugout, with former striker Gordon Dalziel now in charge at Somerset. And there was also a pantomime villain for the fans to boo, with ex-Celtic forward Andy Walker up front for the home team. And before a quarter of an hour had been played, Walker was being serenaded, after a brilliant turn and shot by Argentinian striker Gabriel Amato found the bottom corner of the net from twenty yards. This should have signalled an easy night for Rangers, but they struggled to add to their tally and the home side grew increasingly confident. The visiting fans were starting to get nervy as time ticked on with just that single goal separating the teams, with Advocaat introducing some more Scottish blood with Charlie Miller and Colin Hendry replacing the injured Jorg Albertz and Craig Moore.

Moore’s injury had been picked thanks to a late tackle by Walker, the good-natured banter towards him then changed to something more hostile. With just five minutes to play, those in blue finally were able to relax. And it was one of the homegrown substitutes who killed the game, Charlie Miller smashing the ball into the net from the edge of the penalty area after a corner was only partially cleared.

Two trebles, two wins at Ayr in the second tie of a successful cup run. And in season 2002/03, history repeated again. Under Alex McLeish, Rangers were the holders of both cup competitions and in a titanic head-to-head battle with Martin O’Neill’s Celtic for the major honours. In the Scottish Cup, an easy opening win over Arbroath preceded a trip to the Ayrshire coast. Most expected this to be another straightforward afternoon, but on February 22 2003, Rangers found themselves in a real battle. Few would have predicted this free-scoring Rangers eleven would have had such a close encounter:

Stefan Klos, Kevin Muscat, Craig Moore, Lorenzo Amoruso, Arthur Numan, Barry Ferguson, Bob Malcolm, Mikel Arteta, Shota Arveladze, Ronald de Boer, Neil McCann.

Ayr were now managed by former St Mirren goalkeeper Campbell Money, and he had a vastly experienced squad at his disposal, with many of his team in the Ayr side who had lost to Rangers the previous year in the League Cup final. He certainly had his team fired up for the occasion, never letting their famous visitors settle and giving them no time on the ball. There was one controversial incident in the game, which saw Lorenzo Amoruso accused of spitting at James Grady during a heated confrontation between the pair.

What few chances Rangers were creating were missed, with the closest to a goal being a Ronald de Boer effort that struck the crossbar. But with just eleven minutes left, the classy Dutchman finally found the target. A cross from substitute Stephen Thompson found the head of de Boer, and the roar from the Rangers fans packed into Somerset Park was as much in relief as joy. The 1-0 win was instantly forgettable, unlike the incredible final day title win against Dunfermline which sent Chris Sutton to the land of paranoia from which he has never returned. Amoruso scored the winner in the final against Dundee to clinch the clean sweep, his last goal and last appearance for the club.

21 years have passed since that treble, and it’s still the seventh and last treble in the illustrious roll of honour of Rangers FC. In those intervening years, we have seen some glorious triumphs, and experienced some of the most desolate lows. We have had managers of great stature, and one or two who should never have been anywhere near the honour of Rangers manager. Now, in 2024, we have a formidable leader off the pitch, and we face Ayr in another cup tie. It’s our second match of the competition. We have the first trophy in the cabinet. Is it too much to think the omens all point to another treble in the Ayr?

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