July 1st, 1998.
An interesting if not stellar World Cup was hurtling towards the quarter finals stage in France; Scotland leaving barely a mark, but we’ll be back in a major tournament soon enough, right lads? Right? The night before, Argentina had eliminated England after the game of the tournament so far, with a teenage Michael Owen bamboozling the Argentine defence en route to a wonder goal, and David Beckham was about to head home to a country that despised him.
And what of Glasgow Rangers? Well, seismic change quite frankly. Walter Smith had departed, having agonisingly come up short in the pursuit of 10 in a row. Indeed, Rangers had finished the campaign with no silverware whatsoever, the first time they had failed to win any trophy in a season since 1986.
On a searing hot day at Celtic Park just 7 weeks earlier, Hearts had defeated Rangers 2-1 in the Scottish Cup final. Among those making their last ever appearance for the club were McCoist, Laudrup, Gough, Goram, McCall and Durrant. It all proved too much for this (12 years old) author at the final whistle, my father years later telling me he’d never felt as proud of me as the tears kept coming all the way home on the bus.
It had been announced months earlier that Smith would be departing and that the Dutchman Dick Advocaat would become the club’s first foreign manager, and the 10th man to lead the club in its’ history. Advocaat had been a league winner in the Netherlands with PSV, as well as taking the national side to the quarter finals of the previous World Cup in 1994.
Optimism that Rangers could bounce straight back from their disappointing 97/98 campaign was high. Celtic had allowed the man who finally won them a title, Wim Jansen, to leave just days after the last game of the season. He would be replaced by Dr Jozef Venglos, a 62 year old Czech manager whose main achievements were with the Czechoslovakian national side in the 1970s and 80s. Advocaat, having perhaps used the ‘pre’-appointment to his advantage, set about assembling a new squad.
The excitement that built throughout July 1998 is hard to put into words 22 years later as Rangers face an extraordinarily different set of circumstances in the world of football as it is today. Arthur Numan was the first signing confirmed, and we were able to watch him play for Holland as they narrowly missed out on making the final at France 98. Giovanni Van Bronckhorst was next, in the Netherlands squad but not making an appearance. Lionel Charbonnier was brought in to replace Goram. The signing news kept coming, Andrei Kanchelskis, Gabriel Amato, and of course, the one signing of the summer that cost Rangers nothing; Rod Wallace.
So with all this, it is fair to say there was utter bewilderment among the support at half time of Advocaat’s first match in charge; a UEFA Cup qualifier against Shelbourne being played at Prenton Park, Tranmere. Rangers were 2-0 down, and would go on to conceded a third goal. Watching on holiday in Cyprus, I recall my Dad, apoplectic with rage, asking what we had done getting rid of Smith and bringing in Advocaat, punctuated with several four letter words. Be it youthful naivete or blind hope, I told him to calm down and that Rangers would still win 4-3. Rangers proved me right and then some, winning 5-3. It is worth noting that players like Gordan Petric and David Graham started this game. It would take some time before we bore witness to Dick’s final design.
Rangers first league match of the campaign was a tricky fixture at Tynecastle. Just three players who started the cup final less than 3 months before were in the starting XI for this game; Sergio Porrini, Rino Gattuso and Gordon Durie. Rangers would lose the match 2-1 but there was a sense of real optimism among the Rangers support that left the School end that evening. The two most noteworthy aspects of this game were the fallout surrounding Gattuso’s positioning at right back and his displeasure at not being in central midfield, and a first look at how uncompromising the new manager could be: Jonas Thern played vs Shelbourne, was howked at half time in Gorgie, and was never to play for Rangers again.
A few days later, Rangers made their last major signing of the summer of 98; Colin Hendry for £4m from Blackburn Rovers. Even after just three games, this screamed of a square peg in a round hole acquisition. Advocaat clearly had no interest in his centre backs hoofing the ball up the park looking for a target man. For one thing, there wasn’t one. Hendry had ups and downs as a Rangers player, but once it was all over, the signing would be looked upon as a disappointing one for all concerned. The round peg, Craig Moore, was sold to Crystal Palace two months after Hendry’s arrival, a mistake that would be rectified before the season had been completed. Rangers also spent a little over £2m on Romanian defender Daniel Prodan, who famously would never play for the club.
As the season began to gather pace in the first few weeks, Rangers fans grew to be impressed with and start to idolise many of the summer signings. Charbonnier may have been a tad eccentric but could pull off some spectacular saves.Kanchelskis could blow hot and cold, but when on his game was very exciting. Van Bronckhorst looked every part one of the finest young talents on the continent. Amato appeared to have the Ted McMinn’s about him in that no one knew what he was going to do next, not even him. But it was the free transfer from Leeds United of Rod Wallace that bore fruit quicker than any of new arrivals.
By the end of August he had scored 5 goals as Rangers started to string some wins together in the league whilst progressing further in the UEFA Cup by defeating the Greek side PAOK Salonika. By the time the first Old Firm match of the season came along in mid September, Rangers fans were most certainly feeling more confident than their neighbours. Celtic had been eliminated from the Champions League at the qualifying round stage and had also suffered a very embarrassing loss to Airdrie in the League Cup. A tumultuous game at Ibrox ended in one of those very rare cracking 0-0 draws.
Rangers would then go on a fairly decent run with 6 wins, a draw and a defeat, whilst Celtic would continue to stumble along, recording two defeats to St Johnstone and one to Kilmarnock to add to the thrilling defeat they had suffered at Pittodrie back in August. Rangers were playing an exciting brand of football, with the midfield four of Albertz, van Bronckhorst, Ferguson and Kanchelskis providing chances for the predatory Wallace, enigmatic Amato and capable understudy Jonatan Johansson. What became clear though was that Rangers were not the finished article. In their efforts to achieve the perfection Advocaat so craved, they were able to put in some mind bogglingly poor performances as if from nowhere. A notable one of these came at Fir Park in late October, a 1-0 defeat thanks to a goal from an aging John Spencer providing a win for a side that got horsed 5-0 by St Johnstone a week before.
Thanks in part to Celtic’s very poor form, Rangers headed to the east end in November having already established a ten point lead over their main rivals. Confidence was high, a win here and it was already looking like we had given them too much to do before the advent calendars were opened. Rangers would go into the game with some defensive worries; Antti Niemi would deputise for the injured Charbonnier, Numan had only just made the starting lineup following some injury woes that would plague his entire first season, and captain Lorenzo Amoruso was missing, Scott Wilson would take his place.
For 22 minutes, before he was sent off for an admittedly rash challenge on Lubo Moravcik with the score at 1-0 to Celtic. Perhaps under our previous manager Rangers would have kept the game at 1-0 for as long as possible with the hope that we could nick one. Dick Advocaat thought otherwise and didn’t even make any substitutions until the hour mark; even that was to bring on Durie for Albertz. The end result was a 5-1 thumping and more than a few bruised egos.
While some may have been critical of the manager for his gung ho approach during the game, he showed his true worth in the months that followed. Rangers would not lose another domestic tie until the end of March. A procession like march through the League Cup ended in the Little General claiming his first silverware with a 2-1 victory over St Johnstone in the final. Recent signing Stephane Guivarc’h (these were the days before transfer deadlines) and Albertz with the goals. Rangers spent the rest of the calendar year notching win after win in Scotland, regaining that ten point advantage as we moved into 1999.
Walter Smith had been criticised by many in the support and media for Rangers European record under his leadership. Barring the 1992/93 season (we’ll almost certainly come back to *that* another day), there was a litany of some truly horrendous eliminations, and the utterance of the following sides is enough to make any Rangers fans shudder: Sparta Prague, Levski Sofia, AEK Athens, Steaua Bucharest, Grasshoppers, Auxerre, IFK Gothenburg. Dick Advocaat was brought in to improve us on this front while reclaiming dominance in Glasgow.
After the aforementioned defeat of PAOK, Rangers were drawn to play Bayer Leverkusen. From the outset it appeared a tough task and we travelled to Germany with a mix of excitement and trepidation. What transpired was a victory, but maybe even more importantly, a victory with swagger and authority. It was 2-1 but could and should have been more. Barry Ferguson the world class number 6 was born, giving us what would become known as “the Barry turn”, a simple but devastating drop of the shoulder and 180 which opened up the opposite side of the field. One such turn provided van Bronckhorst the opportunity to open the scoring before Johansson made it two. The home leg ended in a 1-1 draw, Rangers were through and feeling great about European nights again for the first time in years.
Then we drew Parma. The four games we played against this side between November 1998 and August 1999 are rightly folklore among Rangers fans fortunate enough to witness them at the time. That team, honestly! Buffon, Thuram, Cannavaro, Dino Baggio, Boghossian, Veron, Crespo. It’s been over 20 years and I still remember the excitement I felt as I headed to Ibrox for the first leg. Rangers gave a great account of themselves in a 1-1 draw, but as we all know in two legged European ties that is very much advantage away side.
Thirty minutes into the return leg, Rangers were 1-0 up thanks to a trademark Albertz goal. The game was played in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon and I vividly recall watching as much as I could on a tiny TV at school, hoping not to be caught. Seconds before half time, Sergio Porrini was sent off for a second yellow card and the second half took on a completely different look. Rangers would go on to concede three goals in 20 minutes after the break and the European dream was over for another season. Parma would go on to win the competition.
With Europe done before Christmas yet again, all attention turned to making sure we got the league flag back home. Two more signings were made in December; Neil McCann from Hearts, and Stefan Klos from Borussia Dortmund, after a season ending knee injury to Charbonnier. Both would go on to have fantastic careers at Ibrox. There was a three week winter break in the January of 1999, and the last game before this break was the third Old Firm league clash of the season at Ibrox. It was a proverbial humdinger of a match that ended 2-2.
For all his obvious amount of skill, Gabriel Amato had not set the world on fire as a striker at Rangers, especially when you take into account the £4.5m outlay. Indeed as this game started he had yet to score a league goal. That changed just before half time as he headed in to level the game up at 1-1. In the second half he conjured up a piece of skill still talked about to this day. Right in front of myself sat in the East Enclosure, he somehow controlled the ball, simultaneously sold Stubbs a dummy and nutmegged him, before rampaging into the box where the ball would fall kindly for his strike partner Rod Wallace to blast home.
Henrik Larsson would equalise for Celtic as the game ended level, Rangers still ten points ahead of Celtic but interestingly only four in front of Kilmarnock. The first half of the season had mainly gone to plan but there were some niggling factors. Celtic’s form had been utterly dreadful yet they weren’t dead and buried yet, plus that had now been three games against Celtic and Rangers were yet to record a victory. Fans put a red marker around May 2nd, 1999 and hoped that would be the day that would all change…
Rangers came back from the winter break and embarked on a fantastic run of form, winning 6 league games in a row, scoring 24 goals, while easily progressing through the rounds of the Scottish Cup. In amongst this run of games was the goal of the season at East End Park by Kanchelskis, a truly unbelievable volley into the far top corner. Interestingly, at this time Celtic also recorded 6 straight wins while also progressing through the Scottish Cup, the ten point gap remaining as such right to the end of March.
With 9 games of the league campaign to go, Rangers entertained Dundee United at Ibrox, with the home crowd buoyant thanks to the blistering run of form and expecting yet another victory. “One of those games” was uttered by many fans leaving the stadium that day as we inexplicably lost 1-0 in a game we should have won by several. Rangers had given Celtic a chance, an ever so slight chance to close the gap to 7. They came up short in a 0-0 draw at Rugby Park and Rangers had only conceded a point and not three. The blip had happened, and it was time to go and reclaim the championship.
St Johnstone 3-1 Rangers, the following week. Oh boy. Talk of Newcastle 1996, worry, if not sheer panic, was rippling through the supporters buses on the way back from Perth. The gap was 6 points with 7 games remaining, and one of those games was at Parkhead. Surely we couldn’t? A nervy 1-0 win over Dunfermline arrested the slide, but Celtic kept pace. A 1-1 draw at Dens Park meant the gap was just 4 points with 5 games left. There was no doubting it now, this was a title race. And just as soon as there was, then just as quickly there wasn’t. Celtic, undefeated since early December, lost to St Johnstone for the third time in the campaign (fiver is in the post boys). A day later Rangers beat Aberdeen at Ibrox 3-1, the gap was 7 points with 4 to play, but most importantly, a quite unbelievable opportunity had presented itself, almost out of nowhere.
Quite literally, to win the league title, to win the league title by beating Celtic, to win the league title by beating Celtic at Parkhead…there is nothing, not a single thing any Rangers fan would or could want more than this. I had been to every home game and roughly around half of all away games that year through my supporters bus. I prayed I’d be one of the lucky ones, but even at 13, was able to keep my excitement in check and tell myself I might not, I probably won’t. I wasn’t at the 5-1 game in November for a start. My dad phoned me on the Saturday night to tell me I was going. I didn’t sleep, the following day was going to be the best day of my life. Months later, I found out the boy who ran our bus had attributed the ticket to my dad, but he gave it to me, a gesture I will never forget.
Anyway, 5 past 6 on a Sunday night KO? Ha! Police didn’t half make sure that never happened again. I didn’t drink obviously, but it would be fair to assume the majority inside the stadium that night had been on it since lunchtime. We were pelted from all sides on our way in and on our way out. Several buses vandalised while the game was being played. Then there’s the pitch invasions, fans falling from top tiers, Dallas’s bloody puss and psychologists being asked to comment on the mental state of the aforementioned referee at the behest of Celtic. In an official capacity. Mentalists, anyway, I make mention of all this to get it out of the way because the abiding memories I have of the day are of the football, the way we played, the fearful way they approached the game, and the celebrations thereafter.
Advocaat had no intention of avoiding defeat which would all but seal the title. He started Wallace, Amato and McCann. Barry Ferguson missed out (looking back, he must have been absolutely gutted), and in came new signing from Wolfsburg Claudio Reyna. Rangers went for the throat and were ahead after only 12 minutes through McCann. Celtic had two options; fight back or implode. They chose the latter, and to be fair to them, they put everything they had into it. An unfortunate looking human, Stephane Mahe, received two yellow cards in quick succession after 30 minutes and the game was effectively over. An admittedly soft penalty decision in Rangers favour allowed Albertz to make it 2-0 before half time.
In the second half, the oft forgotten worst decision of the game was made when Celtic goalkeeper Stewart Kerr ended up with the ball in his hands outside of the penalty box, a clear red card according to the rules. But only yellow, staggering. Thankfully it didn’t matter, McCann racing through after yet again making mincemeat of Scot Marshall, whom I believe was Ian Andrews’d after this game, gliding past Kerr to tap into the empty net. 3-0 after another couple of red cards dished out to Wallace and Vidar Riseth. The images of Tony Vidmar with the ball at full time as well as the tears of assistant manager Bert van Lingen will live with me and I’m sure all Rangers fans who witnessed this day forever. Rangers had regained the league title and now had a chance to complete the domestic treble for the first time in 6 years and the 6th time in their history.
As fate would have it, Celtic were the only team who could stop us, at a newly refurbished Hampden some four weeks after that famous day at Celtic Park. Barry Ferguson would miss this one too, with Derek McInnes perhaps the surprising inclusion in a team that was otherwise the first choice XI Advocaat had trusted most of the season. The game was much more even and much more scrappy. In truth, it was not a great spectacle at all, perhaps the negative media attention garnered from the previous game played on the minds of the players involved.
Shortly after half time, the games only goal was scored by Rod Wallace, his 27th of the season. Rangers had come quite some way since he scored the clubs first league goal of the campaign at Tynecastle back in August. With all the excitement the summer signings provided, not even the most optimistic fan could have confidently predicted that we would win the domestic treble in his first year in charge. Rangers were back where they belonged.
Written by Grant Cameron
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