By David Herd
You can’t expect to see a full-bloodied quality game of football when the average age of the players is nearer 50 than 40. But with a sprinkling of Champions League winners, multiple international team captains, and even a World Cup Final goalscorer on view, there would surely be a few glimpses of why this was billed as a Legends match.
It was maybe a sign of things to come that the visiting stars decided to get their warm-up underway at 1:25 whereas the Rangers golden oldies never appeared out of the tunnel till just over 15 minutes before kick-off. Or maybe the fact the Rangers squad had half a dozen extra players helped make sure each veteran had less running time ahead of them so a warm-up was less important.
The startling line-ups were confirmed as:
Waterreus, Hutton, Papac, Amoruso, Alves, Ferguson, Mendes, De Boer, Miller, Defoe, McCann.
James, Huth, Staam, Dawson, Chimbonda, Essien, Petit, Downing, Wilshire, Van Persie, Yakubu.
The teams were read out by celebrity fans Grado and Stephen Purdon, the pronunciation of World Legends reserve goalkeeper Paul Rachubka being the highlight of their stint. The match would see all fit enough players appear on the pitch at some stage, with regular substitutions both expected and necessary. The 25,703 crowd were to get their money’s worth as both teams served up an entertaining spectacle, albeit at a pace that reflected the ageing legs on view.
Rangers started the better, with the Ferguson and Mendes midfield rolling back the years and controlling possession. The class of Ronald de Boer was also much in evidence, and he played several clever passes wide to give Alan Hutton plenty scope to bomb forward (bombing a bit slower than in his pomp). Both sides created chances in the opening exchanges, with Ronald Waterreus saving well from Jack Wilshire and Kenny Miller just failing to reach a good through ball by Neil McCann.
A goal wasn’t long in coming, and it was no real surprise who scored it. Jermain Defoe made a career of hitting the opposition net, and in the 14th minute he controlled a high ball into the box and deftly dinked the ball over the diving David James and into the net. “Hey Baby” sounded again from the Ibrox tannoy.
But this spurred the away side into action, and they roared back. Robin van Persie saw a header brilliantly saved by fellow Dutchman Waterreus, and then striker Yakubu missed a sitter. The pressure had to tell, and it was van Persie who grabbed the equaliser after 22 minutes, a beautifully executed header that no keeper could have saved.
The first substitutions were soon to follow, with Marvin Andrews and Peter Lovenkrands replacing Lorenzo Amoruso and Neil McCann, the Sportscene pundit looking as if he had pulled a muscle, while the Italian stallion was already well short of a gallop. No sooner than the replacements arrived, it was 2-1 to the World stars. Wilshire rounding the goalkeeper after a delightful through pass and rolling it into the net.
Rangers looked up against it now, van Persie especially looked like causing havoc any time he got the ball. But just as it was looking an uphill struggle, those famous words rang around the old stadium – Penalty to Rangers. A Miller header struck the outstretched arm of Michael Dawson, and referee Munro pointed to the spot. No VAR today to rescue the defender, and the responsibility fell to the normally deadly Defoe to level the scores. His penalty was well saved by old England colleague James, but the striker showed he still had the quickest reactions in the box to pounce on the rebound and knock it home before anyone else could react.
A Wilshire effort that almost caught out Waterreus was the last near thing in the opening period, the players getting a good reception when they left the pitch with 4 goals shared. Half-time featured Rangers fan and singer Callum Beattie, who went down well with the crowd.
The second half started with more “fresh” legs, Rangers introducing Roy Carroll in goal plus sending on Kris Boyd and Nikica Jelavic for de Boer and Ferguson. Alan Hutton took the armband. But it was another substitute who impressed the crowd just 4 minutes into the second half, former Arsenal forward Luis Boa Morte scoring a spectacular goal from 25 yards that roared into the far corner beyond a helpless Carroll. This happened just a minute after Kris Boyd had fluffed a great chance from 5 yards out, something that caused a few groans, and a few chuckles, from the stands.
Within a few minutes, Shota Arveladze had replaced Lovenkrands, and he watched Boyd finally hit the net with a raking finish on 54 minutes only for the offside flag to halt the celebrations. The Sky Sports man wasn’t to be denied, however, and he did grab his customary goal when turning home a rebound after he had seen an initial easier chance saved by replacement goalkeeper Paul Rachubka. Six goals, and just 57 minutes on the clock.
There were then several more changes, with the incoming players presumably those who only had 20 minutes in the legs. Colin Hendry and Daniel Cousin came on for Bruno Alves and Jermain Defoe, with the big striker looking as if he has been enjoying life since he stopped playing! Formations are pretty unimportant in charity games, and maybe just as well as Rangers now had 4 centre forwards. All that firepower didn’t help, though, as the winner came at the other end with 15 minutes left. A Jermaine Pennant shot hit the post, and there was van Persie all alone to knock in the rebound. Most in the stadium expected the linesman to raise his flag, but he ran back towards the halfway line and it was 4-3. No wonky VAR lines to save the day today.
By this time, Alex Rae and Jonatan Johannson were on the field, replacing Miller and Mendes. Rae showed he hasn’t lost his competitive instinct, his first touch being a tackle that sent the ball 50 yards forward. The game was now very stretched, and Rangers sent on a surprise substitute to try to rescue things. Half-time singer Callum Beattie being sent on to play up front in place of Sasa Papac. He got a big cheer when winning the ball a few minutes later, the move ending with Boyd crudely hauled back when going in on goal by Wes Brown. No red card in a charity game, though.
The tannoy confirmed 2-goal Jermain Defoe was Man of the Match, but his double wasn’t enough as the 90 minutes ended with the score Rangers Legends 3 – 4 World Legends.
After the game, the crowd stayed back to show their appreciation to the players who had returned to their old home. In the post-match press conference, Alex McLeish spoke of his great affection for the club and how much he enjoyed being back in the Rangers dugout. He praised both sets of players and the fans for supporting a great cause. He also answered questions on the current Rangers manager and team, saying that although the league looks a difficult challenge, his management career started with cup success after taking over when the league was gone. He knows how much the players love working for Michael Beale, and he hopes he can also win a cup this season and build a platform for success next year.
Man of the Match Defoe was fulsome in his praise for the club and the support, saying he was delighted to get the chance to say a proper goodbye after the way he had left. The 55 season would always be a huge highlight of his career, and he is confident Michael Beale is the right man to bring that title back again. Let’s hope he’s right.