Rangers Season Review: 2003/04

By This Is Ibrox
 May 14, 2020

May 25th, 2003.

“That’s the way it goes. We know Rangers are a good side but today is a bit of a hollow victory for us. I think everybody could have virtually predicted the result at Ibrox before kick-off. Well, many people did. It is disappointing from the players who have put the effort in. We knew they’d lie down and they have done.”

Chris Sutton there, making Rangers’ last day title triumph in the 2002/03 season all that sweeter. The clubs remarkable treble winning campaign concluded a whirlwind first 18 months in charge for manager Alex McLeish, who had turned around a faltering Dick Advocaat side and won all 5 of the domestic honours on offer. The question in the summer of 2003 was, could he and Rangers maintain this domestic dominance, whilst also making a return to Champions League? Similarly, how would those in the east end respond?

Let’s start with Celtic. They did nothing. Like seriously, next to nothing. Promoted Liam Miller from the youth squad, and, crucially, sold no one. It has to be remembered that the 02/03 treble was a quite magnificent feat; up against the most talented Celtic side probably since the late 1960s. But enough about them, what did Rangers do to improve the squad heading into 03/04 I hear you ask?

Hoo, boy. Okay, I’ll start with the ‘understandable’ losses. Arthur Numan retired, his 5 year stay at Rangers cementing him as one of the fans favourite foreigners to play at Ibrox. 35 year old Claudio Caniggia left for the riches of Dubai, and given his injury woes while at Rangers, most fans agreed the time was right. Bert Konterman was not offered a new deal and went back home to Holland, having gained some redemption following a truly awful start to life at the club in 2000. Kevin Muscat left for Millwall, hardly a loss.

Now onto what I’ll very kindly call…questionable transfer policy. It had become no secret that Rangers had amassed large debts under the stewardship of David Murray. These debts were now clearly unmanageable, and McLeish was informed there would be no massive outlays for transfers that there had been in the past. Everyone and their gran in the world of football were aware of this and it clearly impacted Rangers’ ability to negotiate transfer fees. But the “Director of Football Business” at the time, Martin Bain, could surely have done better.

Lorenzo Amoruso may have been 32, but he was still a quality centre back who should surely have been sold for more than £1.4m to Blackburn Rovers, who themselves had sold the bang average David Dunn for three times as much. Even more galling was the sale of cult hero Neil McCann, still only 28, for £1.5m. A player we had paid £300k more for in 1998, and had clearly improved in the four and a half seasons he was at Rangers. So let’s take stock; we’re down Numan, Amoruso, Caniggia and McCann. They’ll need replaced.

This is tough to write. Paolo Vanoli, Henning Berg, Nuno Capucho, Egil Ostenstad. A minor fee was paid to Porto for Capucho, the rest were free transfers. All four were over the age of 30, so of next to no resale value, but I guess that wasn’t important with Bain in charge anyway. But most importantly, they were all significant downgrades in talent. The Brazilian midfielder Emerson, also wanted by Celtic at the time, was the one free transfer that fans welcomed initially but…well, I’ve dwelled on the transfers long enough, let’s get to the football.

Perhaps surprisingly (given we all know where this season ends up) Rangers came out the traps like a runaway train, winning 7 from 7 in the league, scoring 26 goals in the process. The squad still contained players of the calibre of Mikel Arteta, Ronald De Boer, Craig Moore, Peter Lovenkrands, Michael Mols, Shota Arveladze and…Barry Ferguson. Michael Ball also returned to the side after a knee injury had led him to missing the entire 02/03 season. Rangers had to navigate just one qualifying tie to reach the Champions League group stage and the champions of Denmark, FC Copenhagen, stood in their way.

A fairly uninspiring performance in the home leg led to a 1-1 draw, and Rangers would be right up against it in the return leg. An Arteta penalty shortly after half time gave Rangers the lead, and just when it looked like they might hang on, the Danes equalised with 7 minutes to go. Extra time loomed, before a wonderful strike by Arveladze sent Rangers back to the Champions League for the first time in three years. This assuaged many fans fears regarding the financial health of the club, we had started the season well, and the confidence and general mood of the support was high.

Then it happened. Barely 36 hours after Arveladze’s wonder goal hit the top corner, Barry Ferguson had been sold. To Blackburn fucking Rovers. Forgive that little foul-mouthed outburst, but really: Blackburn. Ferguson was 25, club captain, already a Rangers legend. None of us (fans) were completely deluded, he was a top class player and if he wanted to test himself in a better league, the majority of us understood. Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea. Not Blackburn. The board tried to pull the wool by saying there was no time to replace Ferguson by spending any of the £7.5m transfer fee as the window shut two days later. We all knew the debts were bad now, and maybe worse than we first thought. The tenner for every fiver days were well and truly over. Blackburn.

But, as ever in football, life goes on. The aforementioned strong start in the league was coupled with two great performances in the CL group stage; a 2-1 victory over Stuttgart at Ibrox and a very respectable 1-1 draw away to Panathanaikos, a game in truth we should have won. Three days after that tie in Greece, Rangers welcomed Celtic to Ibrox for the first Old Firm encounter of the season, Rangers having dropped no points and Celtic only two, courtesy of a 0-0 draw at East End Park on the first weekend of the season, against a Dunfermline side that did not lie down.

It was a turgid, awful game, won by a solitary own goal coming off the unfortunate Zurab Khizanishvili. Rangers had relinquished the top spot in the table, and would never be acquainted with it for the rest of the campaign. The international break that followed would allow Rangers to take stock, it’s still early, we’re only a point behind, we’ve made a great start in the CL.

Motherwell 1-1 Rangers, Rangers 0-1 Manchester United, Livingston 0-0 Rangers. Not exactly the response we were all after. The Man Utd game was a movie we had seen before; Rangers playing pretty well, but ultimately not good enough against a better side that in truth played below their own standards. The four dropped points at Fir Park and Almondvale were more worrying, Rangers seemingly toothless in front of goal all of a sudden. Celtic beat Hearts and Aberdeen 5-0 and 4-0 respectively over the same two gameweeks.

The gap was now five points, not ideal but not catastrophic. Both sides would go on to win their next five league fixtures taking us into December. There was to be no simultaneous form in Europe however. A meek 3-0 pumping that could have been more at Old Trafford (including an absolute peach by Diego Forlan) left Rangers five points behind both Man Utd and Stuttgart with two games to play, ‘qualification’ into the UEFA Cup via 3rd place became the priority. A 1-0 defeat in Germany confirmed this, but Panathanaikos’ defeat by the same scoreline meant all that was needed in the final game at home to the Greeks was a draw to remain in Europe beyond Christmas.

Those of us masochistic enough to reminisce, for want of a better word, about seasons like 03/04 try and pinpoint the day/night/event/game where, at the time, *that’s* where the season was done, and beyond repair. For me, and for 03/04, Tuesday 9th December 2003 was that night/game. The Greeks had amassed one point from their 5 games in the group, fortuitously won against Rangers. All that was required was to avoid defeat. Michael Mols scored the opening goal of the night and all seemed well. As the game ended a short while later, Rangers having somehow lost 3-1 to what can only be described as an ‘okay’ Panathanaikos side, the fans damn well made sure the players knew how they felt. This was one of those games where you were not left doubting the talent of most of the players, rather the mental fortitude. The entire night screamed surrender, obviously not acceptable to the fans. 

Then they doubled down with their shitebaggery 5 days later with a shocker of a 2-0 defeat away to Dunfermline. The gap now 8 points, and Celtic having drawn their first game then won the next 15, only the most optimistic Rangers fan felt we could get back into it. The inquest into how this first half of the season had transpired begun. Injuries, and there were a lot, certainly didn’t help. The starting lineup at East End Park included Berg, Vanoli, Malcolm, Burke, Hughes and Capucho. While he may have won a medal in Seville, the thought of going to a game to watch Nuno Capucho ‘run’ up and down the wing like he was in quicksand was as enticing as root canal treatment. Barry Ferguson was still by far the biggest thing missing in this team, however. Injuries had deprived Rangers of Moore, Arteta and de Boer, but this team needed someone to drag them out of a mess every now and then, and it appeared there was now no one in that dressing room capable of doing so.

Photo from: Willie Vass

To put the league absolutely beyond reach, Rangers travelled to Celtic Park for the New Year Old Firm derby and delivered one of the most gutless performances I have ever witnessed, losing 3-0, and we were lucky to get nil. You might be sitting there reading this wondering what possessed me to go over such a dismal campaign, and funnily enough the thought entered my mind too. I’m really enjoying the season reviews, and after starting with 98/99, it occurred to me that poring over some of the bad years with a sense of dark humour could be strangely enjoyable. It’s also, I think, beneficial to look back and realise when seasons like this happened, we thought them the worst thing imaginable. What happened to us as a support in 2012 forever changed our opinion on what should be considered bad, and let’s face it, there’s something therapeutic about reliving the horror that was Egil Ostenstad.

Back to 03/04, and well, the season is pretty much done. 11 points behind an annoyingly rampant Celtic, out of Europe. But here’s a glimmer, Hibs have put Celtic out the League Cup! But the hits just kept coming. We played Hibs at Hampden in the semi final, once again Michael Mols would open the scoring, once again we failed to find a way to see a game out. The tie went to penalties, with Mikel Arteta already missing one in normal time. Rangers would betide to miss 4 of their 7 penalties in the shootout and it was Hibs who progressed (to hilariously lose to Livingston after putting out both of the big two).

Rangers had used the January transfer window to bring in Gavin Rae and Barjam Fetai. Yeah, me neither. Also arriving was Frank de Boer, which seemed a very curious move at the time; he was 33, it was a 6 month contract (in a season that was already gubbed), and one would assume he probably got a very healthy wage packet. Questions were starting to be asked of McLeish at this point, and looking back it was probably correct that the treble win of the previous season afforded him this down year, and he would be allowed another season. THAT season will be revisited, I am sure.

So, we trundle on. The away form, abysmal; a defeat at Tannadice, draws at Pittodrie and Tynecastle. Celtic *still* winning every game, I was in fact surprised during my research for this (probably because I’d blanked much of this out) that they in fact won 25 games straight after that first draw. We were drawn to play Celtic away in the quarter final of the Scottish Cup, and a demoralising sigh from the majority of the support told its’ own story. We lost that game 1-0, and the season was officially over in early March. We would go on to lose the remaining two Old Firm league fixtures for the ignominy of played 5, lost 5 versus them for the campaign. Indeed, Rangers would win only 6 of their final 13 league fixtures to finish a galling 17 points behind Celtic in second place.

It’s fair to say the 2003/04 season was an unmitigated disaster. But it holds a wee place in my heart as it is sandwiched between two of the greatest seasons/days of Rangers’ history. Just as Celtic going for the quadruple in 02/03 and ending up with the square root of hee haw made that campaign all the better, Rangers going from *this* dumpster fire to Helicopter Sunday at Easter Road a year later made that unbelievable day all the better. Alex McLeish’s 4 and a half year reign was a pendulum with no middle ground. Either embarrassingly bad, or astonishingly good. This was a bad year. But it’s done now, we made it. Now let us never speak of Nuno Capucho again.

Written by Grant Cameron (@grantybear)

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