Season 2010/11 – End Of An Era and Seven Old Firm Games

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By Alistair Aird

Season 2010/11 will forever be a seminal one in the history of Rangers Football Club for a number of reasons. Firstly, it witnessed the end of the second Walter Smith era, with the totemic Smith announcing his intention to retire at the end of the campaign. By then he would have collected the twentieth and twenty-first honour from his two tenures thus cementing his status as one of the greatest-ever managers the club has had.

The season also witnessed SEVEN Old Firm fixtures, a glut of goals from Kenny Miller in the first half of the campaign, and the dawning of a new era that would soon enough threaten the very existence of one of the most successful and renowned football clubs on the planet.

This would be the fourth full campaign of Smith’s second spell. Having come back and revived Rangers following the ill-fated Paul Le Guen era, Smith had guided the Light Blues to the UEFA Cup Final in 2008 and two successive league titles. There were Scottish Cup wins in 2008 and 2009, and success in the League Cup in 2007 and 2010 too. The latter triumph had seen Rangers defeat St Mirren 1-0 with only nine men following the dismissals of Kevin Thomason and Danny Wilson.

The summer of 2010 saw a few notable departures. Nacho Novo joined Sporting Gijon after his contract was not renewed, and despite being made an offer to stay, Kris Boyd also sought pastures new at the end of his contract. Boyd signed for Middlesbrough and joining him at the Riverside Stadium was Kevin Thomson. Eighteen-year-old Danny Wilson left to sign for Liverpool, and Damarcus Beasley signed for Hannover 96.

To compensate, Smith dipped into the transfer market and signed the Croatian striker, Nikica Jelavic, from Rapid Vienna and James Beattie from Stoke City. Vladimir Weiss and Richard Foster joined on loan from Manchester City and Aberdeen respectively.

Rangers prepared for the rigours of the season ahead by taking part in the Sydney Festival of Football. Goals from Maurice Edu and Kenny Miller earned a 2-1 win over Blackburn Rovers, and that was followed by a goalless draw against Sydney FC and 1-0 defeat by AEK Athens. Back home, Clyde were beaten 2-1 before a similar scoreline saw off Newcastle United at Ibrox. Former Rangers forward Peter Lovenkrands got the goal for the Magpies.

With qualification for the Champions League group stage assured, the serious business got underway with a home match against Kilmarnock. Goals from Miller and Naismith secured the win, and seven wins followed ahead of the first Old Firm game at Parkhead on 24 October.

Among the eight victories was a memorable comeback at Pittodrie – Rangers trailed 2-0 before a double from Miller and an acrobatic effort from Jelavic turned the game around – and a late win at Tynecastle. Going into the last 10 minutes, Hearts led 1-0, but Kyle Lafferty equalised, and Naismith fired in a 94th minute winner.

Celtic also boasted a 100% record coming into the derby. Something therefore had to give. A Gary Hoper goal in first half stoppage time gave the home side the lead, but Rangers were level four minutes after the restart when Glenn Loovens turned the ball into his own net. And six minutes later, the visitors were ahead.

Fraser Forster, making his Old Firm debut, miscued a clearance and Steven Naismith pitched the ball back towards the penalty area. Edu and Daniel Majstorovic gave chase, and although the Celtic centre back won the ball, it looped in the air and dropped in front of Kenny Miller. Miller, with 11 goals in the opening eight league games, including a hat trick at Easter Road, lashed a volley into the net.

Miller sealed the points after 67 minutes. Kirk Broadfoot lumbered forward from right back, and when he cut inside Majstorovic, he went down in the box. Willie Collum, in charge of an Old Firm game for the first time, awarded a penalty kick. Miller despatched it via the keeper’s right-hand post, and remarkably that is the last time that Rangers have been awarded a penalty in a league game at Parkhead.

The win edged Rangers ahead, but they were unable to secure 10 wins in a row. Eric Odhiambo scored late in the game against Inverness Caledonian Thistle at Ibrox to earn a 1-1 draw, and a couple of weeks later, Rangers were tasting defeat in the league at Ibrox for the first time since March 2009. And it was a sore one too, Colin Calderwood’s Hibernian scoring three goals without reply.

With Celtic losing 2-0 at Tynecastle, the defeat was a missed opportunity to extend the lead at the summit, and by the time the sides met at Ibrox on 2 January for the season’s second Old Firm clash, Rangers trailed Celtic by a point, although they did have two games in hand.

By the end of the 90 minutes at Ibrox, though, the gap had grown to four points. On an emotionally charged day that marked the 40th anniversary of the Ibrox Disaster, two goals from Georgios Samaras earned Celtic a first win at Ibrox since December 2008.

It was not therefore the happiest of new years for those with blue noses, and it would get worse before it got better too. Before January had ended, Rangers lost again in the league, going down 1-0 to Hearts at Tynecastle. Celtic were now five points ahead – Rangers still had the two games in hand – but Hearts were now just two points adrift of Rangers in third place.

To make matters worse, Kenny Miller left to join Bursaspor in Turkey. Miller’s ‘second coming’ to Rangers in the summer of 2008 had divided opinion. The badge thumping celebration of a goal for Celtic against Rangers in September 2006 was an image that some supporters could not banish from their memory, but what couldn’t be questioned was Miller’s contribution to the previous two campaigns. His 28 league goals and fruitful partnership with Kris Boyd had been a constituent and consistent part of two successive league titles, and after Boyd had left to join Middlesbrough, Miller had thrived, scoring 21 goals in 18 league appearances in season 2010/11.

Three straight league wins got Rangers back on track. Nikica Jelavic stepped up in the absence of Miller, scoring four times, including a hat trick in a 6-0 win over Motherwell at Ibrox. Ahead of the next instalment of the Old Firm, Rangers were five points behind their rivals with two games in hand.

The stage was set, and the battle lines were drawn at Parkhead on 20 February. A win for Rangers would see the balance of power shift towards them, but a home win would take the destiny of the title back into Celtic’s hands. It would be the latter that would come to pass, as Smith’s side were beaten 3-0.

But Rangers rallied. Helped in no small measure by Celtic losing 2-0 at Fir Park the week after the Old Firm match, wins over St Johnstone, St Mirren and Kilmarnock cut the gap to two points. The summit beckoned for Rangers. All they had to do was defeat Dundee United at home. They didn’t. Leading 2-1 with 13 minutes to go, goals from Johnny Russell and David Goodwillie earned United a win.

With both teams now having played 28 games, each had 10 league games left to play. Who would hold their nerve as the title race hurtled towards a conclusion?

Rangers won their next five in succession – four of those fixtures were away from home – and they took advantage of Celtic’s involvement in the Scottish Cup semi-final to take over at the top of the table on 16 April. Eight days later, the two behemoths locked horns again in their seventh and final joust of the season.

The match ended 0-0, thanks in no small part to a magnificent penalty save from Allan McGregor with seven minutes remaining. But despite that, it was advantage Celtic. If they won their last five games, they would be crowned champions. They didn’t.

Playing their game in hand against Terry Butcher’s Inverness up in the Highlands, Neil Lennon’s side faltered, losing 3-2. Even a 93rd minute penalty couldn’t save them from a damaging defeat. With three to play, the pendulum of power had now swung back towards Rangers. And they grasped the gauntlet that had been thrown down, ruthlessly punishing their rivals in the process.

Motherwell were hammered 5-0 at Fir Park before Hearts (4-0) and Dundee United (2-0) were beaten at Ibrox. That meant a win over Kilmarnock at Rugby Park on the final day of the season would seal a third successive title.

The challenge was extended, and Smith’s men accepted it, blowing the Ayrshire side away with a devastating burst of three goals in the opening seven minutes. Kyle Lafferty got two of them and later completed his hat trick as Rangers ran out 5-1 winners. Another who often had his critics among the Rangers support, Lafferty had hit form at the right time, his treble at Rugby Park making it seven goals in the final six league games.

The League Championship trophy was joined in the Trophy Room by the League Cup. Another Lafferty hat trick helped see off Dunfermline Athletic in the third round before a van Basten-esque volley from Andy Little opened the scoring in a 2-0 win over Kilmarnock in the last eight. Goals from Mo Edu and Steven Naismith helped Smith’s side squeeze past Motherwell in the semis to set up another Old Firm clash on 20 March.

The Final at Hampden was the fourth meeting of the sides inside eight weeks. The sides met twice in the Scottish Cup and once in the league before the showdown at the National Stadium and given that Rangers had lost two and drawn one of those matches, it could be argued that Celtic were the favourites to lift the trophy.

Steven Davis opened the scoring when he fired a left foot shot into the net from the edge of the box after 24 minutes. His effort kissed the post, and that wouldn’t be the last time the frame of the goal was involved in a Rangers goal. Joe Ledley levelled seven minutes later and when neither side could muster another goal, extra time was required. And after eight minutes of the additional 30 had elapsed, Rangers found the winning goal.

Vladimir Weiss, signed on loan from Manchester City, was fouled on the halfway line, and he outsmarted the Celtic defence with a quick free-kick. His delivery found Jelavic and his shot from the edge of the box beat Fraser Forester and struck the inside of the right-hand post. The Bears in the 51,181 crowd and countless others watching on TV held their breath as the ball rolled along the line. Fortunately, it had enough spin on it to take it out of the reach of the despairing defenders and into the net.

Unfortunately, Smith didn’t bow out with a domestic Treble. He perhaps should have done, but a volcanic night at Parkhead ended interest in the Scottish Cup at the last 16 stage.

The sides faced off firstly at Ibrox on 6 February. Jamie Ness, a prodigiously talented midfielder, rocketed Rangers into the lead after only three minutes with a left foot shot from the edge of the box. And within minutes, Steven Davis has made the crossbar shudder as the home side chased a second goal.

But Celtic bounced back from that early pummelling and were back on level terms when Kris Commons, a January signing from Derby County, shot beyond Allan McGregor. This was now a proper, old fashioned cup tie, ebbing and flowing from end to end, and Rangers edged ahead again four minutes from the break.

Fraser Forster had had a few ropey moments in the game before he upended Steven Naismith in the box. Referee Calum Murray brandished a red card in front of the on-loan goalkeeper, and Steven Whittaker stepped up to emphatically thump the penalty kick into the net.

But despite being a man short, Celtic continued to push for an equaliser, and 20 minutes into the second half, they got it. Scott Brown picked up a pass on the edge of the box and curled a shot into the far corner with his left foot.

As both sides pushed for a winner, McGregor produced a sublime save to deny Samaras at point blank range before Steven Naismith picked up a second yellow card for ‘simulation’. The footage backed the referee too, as Mulgrew made no contact with Naismith.

It was now 10-v-10 for the last quarter of an hour, but neither team could conjure up a goal.

Rangers would therefore face Celtic for a seventh time, and this was the first time for a number of years that the teams had met so often in a single season. There had been six encounters on a few occasions, yet in the late nineteenth century it wasn’t uncommon to find the teams meeting more regularly than that.

In those days testimonials and benefit matches between the sides were commonplace and there were competitions like the Glasgow League too. In fact, there were 10 clashes between the sides in season 1897/98 – two in the league, three in the Glasgow Cup, two in the Glasgow League, one in the Charity Cup, one in a benefit match for James Madden, and there was a league fixture on 1 January too that was abandoned due to ‘spectator encroachment.’ For the record, Rangers won four, drew three, and lost two of the nine games completed. The abandoned match was level at 1-1 when the game was abruptly concluded.

The replay took place on 2 March and there was another flurry of red cards – Whittaker, Bougherra and El Hadji Diouf were the trio that saw red for Rangers – and a touchline altercation between Neil Lennon and the Rangers assistant manager, Ally McCoist. Amidst all the hullabaloo, Mark Wilson scored the only goal of the game against a Rangers shorn of the suspended Naismith, the injured Jelavic and the ill Lafferty. Playing without a recognised striker undoubtedly hampered the visitors and this is borne out by the match stats that show Rangers registering only one shot on goal, a free-kick from Diouf that was dealt with comfortably by Zaluska in the Celtic goal.

Season 2010/11 was therefore something of an oddity, and one that should perhaps give us hope for the campaign we are in the throes of at the moment. It is often said that results in Old Firm games define the season and success hinges on their outcome. Yet in the seven derby matches in season 2010/11, Rangers won two, drew two and lost three. The league record was one win, a draw and two defeats, with three goals scored and six conceded.

While we won’t play them seven times this season – if we are drawn together before the semis of the Scottish Cup, then the maximum we will get is six if a replay is required – we have already lost twice. Yet we still find ourselves in with a genuine shot at the title.

The nature of the midweek win over Hibernian – comfortable and emphatic – was a real statement of intent from a group of players that were dishevelled and disinterested before Clement came in. The Belgian has affected a seismic shift in both ability and mentality and has us all believing again that this could well be a successful season. ‘From Terrible to Treble’ could still become reality.

Celtic may well drop points as they did back in 2010/11, but we mustn’t take that for granted. A win and a draw in the two remaining Old Firm league games should therefore be enough to realise our dreams and complete an unlikely journey for our team. A wee win over them in the Scottish Cup would place the cherry on top of the icing on the cake too!

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