By Alistair Aird
Season 2021/22 will go down as one of the most memorable seasons in our history. Over the course of 70 games (65 competitive, five friendlies), we claimed the Scottish Cup, reached a major European final, and were involved in a tight title race. The number of matches played came a close second to the 74 encounters in season 2007/08 (68 competitive, six friendlies), but both are a few games short of what the first team squad of season 1983/84 had to endure.
Almost forty years ago, the season started in Sweden in July and ended in Ontario the following June. In the intervening period, there was a managerial resignation, approaches for a replacement rebuffed, the return of a colossal figure, an epic League Cup win over Celtic and a post season World Tour. Our greatest ever goalscorer also made his Rangers debut, and there was the small matter of 78 matches played. Remarkably, Dave McPherson made an appearance in all but one of them.
This article will look at the significant moments in a season that summed up the state of flux that Rangers were in at that time.
John Greig Resigns
It is still unclear why Jock Wallace left to join Leicester City in 1978 after leading Rangers to another domestic Treble. There have been rumours of ructions with Willie Waddell, but the actual version of events has never been documented. But when Wallace did elect to go there was only one man going to replace him at the helm, John Greig.
The curtain had come down on Greig’s illustrious playing career at the end of what was his third Treble-winning season in 1977/78. He had made 755 appearances for Rangers, scoring 120 goals, and collected five League championship medals, six Scottish Cup medals, and four winners’ medals in the League Cup. And, of course, he was the leader of the immortal side that claimed to date the club’s only major European honour, the European Cup Winners’ Cup in Barcelona in 1972.
Greig was the heir apparent, but with the benefit of hindsight, the job perhaps came too early for him. He almost masterminded a quadruple in his first season in charge – Rangers won the League Cup and Scottish Cup, should have won the Premier Division championship, and defeated Juventus and PSV Eindhoven in the European Cup en-route to the last eight – but that campaign would be the high watermark of Greig’s tenure.
Season 1979/80 was dreadful. Rangers lost 12 of their 18 away games in the league and finished fifth on 37 points. The points gap between them and champions Aberdeen was the same as that from second-bottom Dundee, 11. Successive third-place finishes followed, but the gap between Rangers and the top of the table was widening. Greig’s side were 12 points adrift of Celtic at the end of each season, but runners-up Aberdeen were 10 points better off than Rangers in 1981/82 when the difference had been five a year earlier. And although the Scottish Cup had been won in season 1980/81 and the League Cup in 1981/82, the pressure on Greig intensified when season 1982/83 ended without a trophy. His team finished fourth in the Premier Division too, 18 points behind champions Dundee United, and 17 adrift of Aberdeen and Celtic. Both Cup Finals were lost that season too.
Greig had been hampered by a couple of factors, though. The side he had inherited was an ageing one and he had the job of breaking that up and rebuilding. However, the latter was made more difficult by the fact that a significant amount of money was being poured into the redevelopment of Ibrox Stadium which shrunk the transfer kitty. Nevertheless, money was still made available as borne out by the acquisitions of the likes of John McClelland (£90,000), Jim Bett (£150,000), and Craig Paterson (£225,000). There was investment in the playing squad ahead of season 1983/84 too, with £185,000 spent to bring a certain Alistair McCoist to the club. The passing of time would show that that was, however, money well spent!
McCoist made his Rangers debut against a wee Swedish team called Arlovs in game one of a four-match pre-season tour. 32 goals were scored in those matches (admittedly the quality of opposition wasn’t of a high calibre), and preparations were rounded off with a 4-2 win at home against West Bromwich Albion and success in the Glasgow Cup. Clyde were beaten 1-0 in the semi-final, and a solitary Sandy Clark goal, his tenth in seven games, secured the trophy in the Final against Celtic at Hampden.
It all looked rather positive, but that all drained away when Rangers made an abysmal start to the league campaign. McCoist scored after 27 seconds of his Old Firm league debut, but the 2-1 defeat at Parkhead was the first of three in succession. Three straight wins followed, but a 3-2 reverse at Dens Park kicked off a run of five defeats in a row. By the time the last of them was registered, Rangers were under new management.
Ferguson and McLean
John Greig was the seventh manager in Rangers’ history. Since taking over in 1978, he had led his side to four trophies (two Scottish Cups and two League Cups), four Scottish Cup Finals, three League Cup Finals, and the quarter finals of the European Cup. But the barometer for a Rangers manager is at the very least competing for the league championship, and during Greig’s tenure that had only happened in his first season.
It was time for change. Following a 2-1 home defeat against Motherwell in late October, a throng of irate supporters had gathered on Edmiston Drive afterwards to vent their anger. Chairman Rae Simpson defended Greig, and he remained at the helm for a 2-0 win over Hearts the following midweek. But just two days later Greig resigned. He later admitted that the job was starting to have a detrimental impact on his health, and it must have hurt such an iconic figure that he couldn’t construct a side that could consistently mount a title challenge.
The hunt was now on for manager number eight, and the man earmarked by the board was Alex Ferguson. A record signing for the club back in 1967, Ferguson’s playing career for Rangers was unremarkable. But he was starting to develop a formidable reputation as a manager. Since taking over from Billy McNeill in 1978, Ferguson had led Aberdeen to their first league title since 1955, back-to-back Scottish Cup triumphs and the European Cup Winners Cup in 1983.
However, it appears from newspaper reports of the time that no official approach was made for Ferguson. In fact, a matter of days after Greig resigned, Ferguson signed a new contract at Pittodrie.
The board, which was also in a state of flux, then made their move by seeking permission to speak to the Dundee United manager, Jim McLean. McLean had also raised his managerial profile, leading United to success in the League Cup before claiming the Premier Division title in season 1982/83.
United granted permission, McLean spoke to Rangers, and was offered a deal that would have seen him become one of the best paid managers in British Football. It looked to be a done deal, with his trusted assistant manager and lifelong Rangers fan, Walter Smith, coming to Glasgow with him. However, on Monday, 7 November the front page of the Evening Times carried the headline ‘McLean – No’. McLean said he wanted to stay loyal to the United fans and said, ‘I feel a big regret for letting Rangers down, but it would have been a bigger regret leaving Dundee United.’
The Rangers directors were now in dire straits. Tommy McLean had been appointed caretaker manager, but in the period between Greig’s resignation and McLean’s rejection, Rangers had been eliminated from the European Cup Winners Cup, battered 3-0 by St Mirren in Paisley and lost 2-1 against Celtic at Ibrox. Club captain John McClelland had also spoken about the importance of appointing a new manager, so the pressure was on.
It was eventually relieved when a trusted pair of hands were placed back on the tiller.
Jock’s Second Coming
On 11 November 1983, Big Jock was back. The man who had masterminded two domestic Trebles in his previous stint as Rangers manager didn’t need much persuasion to leave Motherwell and accept the offer to rescue his beloved Rangers.
Wallace’s return galvanised Rangers. After losing 3-0 at Aberdeen in his first league match in charge, his side embarked on a 19-match unbeaten run across three competitions. After losing at Pittodrie, only Motherwell and St Johnstone were below Rangers in the Premier Division table. But five wins from their next six league games and six successive clean sheets got the momentum going, and by early March, Rangers had climbed to fourth.
Bobby Williamson was recruited from Clydebank to bolster the attack, and he came into the team towards the end of the year. After making his debut at Fir Park in a 3-0 win over Motherwell, Williamson netted a midweek hat trick in a thumping 6-0 friendly win over Ross County. Hugh Burns made his debut that night in Dingwall too. By the end of the season, Bobby had netted 12 goals in 23 appearances including one in a 3-3 draw against a Feyenoord side boasting the talents of Ruud Guillit and Johan Cruyff in their ranks. Unfortunately, Bobby suffered a broken leg on the post season tour which ruled him out for most of the following season.
Dundee ended the unbeaten run when they won 3-2 at Ibrox in a Scottish Cup quarter-final replay on 17 March, but eight days later, Wallace and his players had an opportunity to annex some silverware when they faced Celtic at Hampden in the League Cup Final.
The League Cup
Although the start to the league season had been dismal, Rangers had performed rather well in the League Cup. Queen of the South were beaten 8-1 on aggregate before Clydebank, Hearts and St Mirren were swatted aside at the sectional stage. All six matches, three at home, three away, were won with 18 goals scored and none conceded.Wallace was at the helm by the time the defending league champions Dundee United were beaten in the semis, and that set up an Old Firm showdown at Hampden. This was the day Jock Wallace talked about having ‘the battle fever on’, and for Ally McCoist it was an opportunity to endear himself to the Rangers fans.McCoist had had an indifferent start to his Rangers career. His form almost mirrored that of the team in the respect that he scored freely in the League Cup – six goals in the opening seven League Cup ties – but struggled in the league. Although he started each of the opening 14 league fixtures, he only netted four goals, and after going five games without scoring, Wallace relegated him to the reserves. There were rumours of interest from Cardiff City and Sunderland, but McCoist knuckled down, scored goals for the second XI, and was soon back in the reckoning for the first team.With Bobby Williamson and new goalkeeper Nicky Walker cup-tied and Ian Redford and Robert Prytz suspended after being ordered off in the Scottish Cup with Dundee, the starting XI showed four changes. Sandy Clark donned the number nine jersey vacated by Williamson, Peter McCloy took over in goal, and with a shortage of midfielders, John MacDonald was drafted in alongside Clark up front, with McCoist and Dave McPherson alongside Bobby Russell and Davie Cooper in midfield.
McCoist obviously shot to fame with Rangers as a number nine, but he played in midfield during in the fledgling years of his career with St Johnstone. And although most probably relate to McPherson as a centre back or right back, he too had the dexterity to play in the middle of the park.
Both teams traded blows in the first half. MacDonald had an early shot cleared off the line by Tom McAdam (Tom’s brother Colin was one of the two Rangers substitutes), while at the other end, Brian McClair and Paul McStay went close for Celtic. But a minute shy of the interval it was Rangers who hit the front.
Bobby Russell masterminded the midfield throughout the match, and when he sped away from Murdo McLeod on the left, he was upended. Referee Bob Valentine awarded the penalty which was clinically despatched by McCoist.
Young Hugh Burns was brought into the fray 10 minutes after the interval, replacing MacDonald, and five minutes later he was jumping for joy with his team mates when they doubled their lead. McCloy hoofed the ball high into the air, Sandy Clark challenged for it as it dropped, and the ball broke to McCoist who slid in to score his second of the game.
Rangers had one hand on the trophy, but their lead was halved seven minutes later when McClair volleyed the ball beyond McCloy. And in injury time Celtic, who were chasing the Treble, forced extra time when McCoist fouled McLeod in the box. Mark Reid made no mistake with the resulting penalty kick.
Wallace got his players regrouped ahead of extra-time, and McCoist was to the fore again six minutes from the end of the additional half hour. He was barged in the back by Roy Aitken and penalty number three of the game was awarded. Although Pat Bonner stooped to his left and parried McCoist’s spot kick, Ally showed his predatory instincts by pouncing on the rebound. Aside from his treble against Celtic in the 1986 Glasgow Cup Final, that remains the last hat trick scored by a Rangers player against Celtic.
Apart from a sticky spell midway through season 1984/85, McCoist never looked back. He became the darling of the support, netting 355 goals in 581 competitive appearances. Not a bad return for an outlay of £185,000!
The World Tour
Back in 1975, Jock Wallace had taken the first team on a global adventure and that laid the foundations for a domestic Treble. That may well have been his thinking when he suggested doing something similar in May and June 1984.
Games were played in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane, Newcastle, Auckland, Minneapolis, Ontario and Toronto. The match in Minneapolis against Minnesota Kicks on 13 June was played on astroturf. Rangers lost 5-2, and the exertions of the players was summed up when Wallace could only call upon 12 fit players. And during the match, Sandy Clark, who had been replaced by Dave MacKinnon, had to come back on to the field to replace John MacDonald.
Injuries had been a common theme right from the start of the tour. Bobby Russell was hospitalised with a head injury picked up in the opening match against Australia ‘B’, Bobby Williamson sustained a broken leg before the second game against the same opposition before Colin McAdam fractured his right leg in the third game of the tour against Australia.
Dave Mitchell, who had made 25 appearances and scored eight goals for Rangers during the 83/84 campaign, was among the scorers for the hosts in the latter match. Rangers lost 3-2, with Ally McCoist scoring twice. But Mr McCoist was picking up an unwanted reputation. Broken leg victims Williamson and McAdam had shared a room with him, and when Sandy Clark required four stitches in an eye wound during the penultimate match of the Australian leg of the tour, folk were thinking that Ally was a jinx!
The match in Auckland against New Zealand saw John MacDonald become a centurion. ‘Solo’ had been a regular in the first team since making the breakthrough in 1979. He had scored vital goals since then, none more so than his brace in the Scottish Cup Final replay in 1981. Scotland’s Young Player of the Year in season 1979/80, MacDonald had featured mainly from the bench in season 1983/84, with only 20 of the 47 appearances he made being as part of the starting XI. One of those starts came against Valletta in the European Cup Winners’ Cup, with John grabbing a hat-trick in the record-breaking 10-0 victory.
The tour concluded on 17 June with a 1-1 draw against the recently crowned West German champions, VfB Stuttgart. Eric Ferguson, who was drafted into the squad to cover the spate of injuries, scored Rangers’ goal, and Stuart Munro made his ninth appearance of the tour when he came on as sub for Bobby Russell. Signed from Alloa Athletic earlier in the season, Munro would become an unsung hero as a solid and dependable left back in the seasons that followed. The tour, however, was extra special for him as he met his future wife while the squad were in Australia.
Much has been made of Joe Aribo making his 70th appearance of the season recently, but Dave McPherson made eight more appearances in that lengthy 83/84 campaign. The only game he missed for Rangers was a League Cup tie against Hearts at Ibrox, and his 77 appearances comprised 71 starts and six from the subs bench. He was among the goals too, notably in Malta in the opening round of the European Cup Winners’ Cup, scoring four of Rangers’ goals in the 8-0 win over Valletta. And McPherson also played for his country, playing in a 0-0 draw at Tannadice for the Scotland U21’s against Belgium. Ally McCoist made his only U21 appearance that night too.
A product of the Ibrox youth system, this was McPherson’s first season as a Rangers regular. There were high hopes for him, although Wallace was quick to praise him at the end of the season, he also highlighted room for improvement too. In the pages of the excellent (and sadly missed) Playing for Rangers Annual, Wallace said:
‘He is twenty years old and can go a long way if he learns how to tighten his game. He is still a bit coltish and with that there is a sloppiness in his game which we are trying to eradicate. It is essential we get rid of that and the boy is working hard with us to improve.
It’s my job now to make him into a hardened professional. He has to be more aggressive and less sloppy in his distribution. He still gives the ball away too much. But we are working on that and he willing to work hard to improve his game. If he can stop the sloppiness then he’ll be a player.’
McPherson would heed that advice and become a regular fixture in the team. Although he could play in midfield, he was at the heart of the defence when Rangers won the title for the first time in nine years in season 1986/87. He missed only two of the 44 league matches – only Munro (43), Butcher (43) and McCoist (44) played more – but despite that consistency, he was sold to Hearts at the end of the season.
His game improved even more at Tynecastle, and McPherson was brought back to Ibrox by Walter Smith in 1992. He played a key role in the Treble-winning season on 1992/93 before heading back along the M8 in 1994. By then Dave McPherson had made almost 400 appearances for Rangers.
The unbeaten run and the League Cup success had restored some belief and confidence among the Rangers supporters. That, however, soon evaporated, and the doldrums beckoned once again.
Season 1984/85 came around with Rangers among the favourites for the Premier Division title. And that status did not seem too far-fetched as Wallace’s side were unbeaten in their first eight league matches. But then the rot slowly set in. After losing 1-0 at Tynecastle on 6 October, Rangers won four, drew six and lost one of their next 11 matches. But after the turn of the year, disaster struck. From 1 January until 11 May, Wallace’s side won only four league matches. Three of those came against the two relegated sides, Morton and Dumbarton. Of the 16 league matches played in that period NINE were lost, including a 5-1 thrashing against Aberdeen at Pittodrie.
The League Cup was retained, and Wallace soldiered on into season 1985/86. But that would prove to be one of the worst campaigns in Rangers’ history, and the board called time on Jock Wallace’s second spell in April 1986. The winds of change were starting to blow through the corridors at Ibrox, though, and the Rangers were about to be reborn. But that’s a story for another day!