Rangers take on Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League final on Wednesday, an extraordinary achievement for a club in administration 10 years ago. This chance of glory is particularly remarkable given Rangers have triumphed in Europe on one previous occasion.
Fifty years ago this month, they lifted the European Cup Winners’ Cup in Barcelona after the most torrid, draining – and violent – football match I have attended. I fervently hope victory can be repeated but not, I pray, in similar circumstances.
In 1972, Rangers had been suffering a drought trophy that had lasted years with our great rivals, Celtic, managed by Jock Stein, monopolizing Scotland’s football silverware. As a young Rangers fan, I was to experience a great deal of disappointment. Europe offered a lifeline, however, and that season the team – managed by Willie Waddell – began a dramatic journey across the continent, albeit on an unorthodox route.
Having dispatched Rennes in the first round, Rangers beat Sporting Lisbon 3-2 at Ibrox but lost by the same score in Portugal. In extra time each team scored another goal. Rangers should have progressed: away goals then counted double in the event of a tie, a rule that was bizarrely ignored by the Dutch referee Laurens van Ravens, who ordered a penalty shootout – which we lost. A purple-faced Waddell protested and Uefa officials backed down and awarded the tie to Rangers.
Torino were beaten next, before Rangers took on Bayern Munich in the semi-final, drawing 1-1 in Germany before winning 2-0 at Ibrox against a squad that included Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller. Now it was our turn to party.
On 24 May, I flew to Barcelona with my friend Jan de Vries. We eschewed the delights of the Sagrada and the Palace of Catalan Music and chose instead to experience the city’s cafe culture, swilling sangria in the mistaken belief it was mostly made of fruit juice and a dash of vermouth. In fact it was low on vitamin C and high on wine and brandy – which may explain a certain light-headedness we experienced as we headed to Camp Nou. Nor were we the only ones in that condition.
On the other hand, we had no worries about rival fans. We were playing Dynamo Moscow in an era of Soviet travel bans. So Jan and I – along with the 20,000 Rangers fans who also made it to Camp Nou – had the stadium to ourselves. We posed for touchline photographs as the police looked on unconcerned.
Rangers started the match at a pulsating pace. Colin Stein and then Willie Johnston scored. Then, minutes into the second half, goalkeeper Peter McCloy’s massive punt upfield evaded the Moscow defense and Johnston smashed the ball hard and low past Vladimir Pilguy in the Dynamo goal.
Bedlam erupted. Jan picked me up and threw me into the air: a neat trick given that I am six foot tall, beefy and was also full of sangria. Three up – there was no way we could lose now.
Dynamo began their fightback. Vladimir Eshtrekov scored; Dave Smith cleared the ball off our goalline; and with full time looming Aleksandr Mahovikov got a second. Our hold on the cup was hanging by a bootlace. Minutes later, the referee blew his whistle for a foul and thousands of fans invaded the pitch thinking the match was over.
The pitch was cleared, the match restarted and eventually the final whistle was blown. Jubilant fans poured back on to the pitch, only to be assailed by rattled, baton-wielding police who had previously ignored our antics.
Fans regrouped and fought back and as a full-scale battle unfolded Jan and I hurriedly left the stadium. By the time we reached Barcelona airport, check-in desks were surrounded by fans clutching bloody head wounds, purple bruises and torn clothes. Views about the religious persuasions of Spanish policemen were the main topic of conversation on the flight home.
For the Rangers team there was no lap of honor and no showing off the cup at Camp Nou. The trophy was instead slipped to the captain, John Greig, in a backroom and he carried it home in his luggage. We got our first view of the trophy the following evening when Rangers, sporting the cup, toured Ibrox on the back of an old coal lorry that had been festooned with blue, red and white regalia.
Rangers were given a two-year European ban – later reduced to one year – because of their fans’ behavior. Was it deserved? Well, there was certainly some drunkenness but when we arrived the atmosphere in the city had been a happy carnival one. And there were no pitched battles with rival fans because there were none there to fight with. It was the sudden, panic-stricken actions of the police that was the main cause of the battle and that certainly did not justify a ban that meant Rangers could not defend the trophy they had played their hearts out to win.
So yes, here is hoping for a similar result in Seville on Wednesday – but please let it be achieved in calmer conditions. Steering clear of the sangria might be a good start.