Rangers in Seville: Memories of 1983, a win for the ages, clear unease despite club's messages
Since starting life as the snappily titled International Inter-City Industrial Fairs Cup, the competition now known simply as the Europa League has proved a consistently tricky trophy for Scottish clubs to attempt to lift.
But that isn’t the only reason why Scottish clubs have struggled to hold a cup weighing as much as 15 kilograms aloft.
Despite the fact it was once regarded as a competition giving also-ran clubs an opportunity to compete in Europe, the Europa League – its present name dates back to 2009 – become an unwieldy, convoluted competition, where one is just as likely to encounter a big gun as an also ran. Indeed, also-rans are more than likely to be ejected in the qualifying rounds, providing they even get that far.
Even by 1987, when Dundee United came so close to winning the trophy – then called the Uefa Cup – against IFK Gothenburg, having already eliminated Barcelona and Borussia Monchengladbach en route, the competition had risen in status to become Europe's second most important tournament, behind the European Cup.
By the time Celtic fell by the odd goal in five against Porto in 2003 the two-legged format, which saw United lose 2-1 on aggregate against Gothenburg, had changed to a one-off final. Although this granted an appropriate climax, it made things potentially more awkward.
The same applied in 2008, when Rangers lost 2-0 to Zenit St Petersburg having doggedly prevailed through a succession of two-legged ties.
The recent abolishment of the away goals rule means teams are more practiced at winning on the night. Even if it is via the disagreeable method of penalties, this is Rangers’ task this evening against Eintracht Frankfurt as they seek to scratch an itch that, in Scottish football terms, stretches back nearly 40 years.
The photograph of Billy McNeill lifting the European Cup on a balcony in Lisbon is ingrained in the mind of even younger Scottish football fans, likewise a drenched Willie Miller’s distinctive one-handed treatment of the European Cup-Winners’ Cup, the last time a Scottish club won a European trophy in a knockout tournament (the same team won the Super Cup later in the year). The silhouette of the Aberdeen captain, arms stretched out, is still used to sell merchandise to this day.
However, you must be in your late 40s at least to have any real memory of this famous game in Gothenburg from 1983.
I can still remember it, just, and I turn – gulp – 50 on my next birthday. What I do vividly recall is the joy it stirred in the then 10-year-old boy. Even though I had learned to love football around 60 miles south of Pittodrie, at a cathedral of dreams called Dens Park, there was delight that the famous Real Madrid had been sent packing by a Scottish side. One unable to rely on the Old Firm’s backing to boot.
Those days are gone now. Even the Old Firm cannot expect to hold the same sway in Europe. They are also also-rans. Or perhaps they ought to be.
It is why this evening could be of such significance. Graeme Souness, the former Ibrox manager, believes even reaching the final “is the greatest achievement of any Rangers team since I’ve been supporting them.” Former Ibrox midfielder Kevin Thomson, meanwhile, has argued that, because of the predicament Rangers were in just ten years ago, winning the trophy would outstrip Celtic’s European Cup triumph of 1967.
However an individual wishes to contextualise it, the fact is Rangers stand on the brink of doing something only three Scottish teams have managed in the past.
Along with Celtic and Aberdeen, the Ibrox side are, of course, the other Scottish side to have won a European trophy. The image of John Greig holding the Cup-Winners’ Cup aloft in 1972 after the victory over Dynamo Moscow is not quite so ingrained in our collective consciousness. There is, though, a picture of him with the cup in the bath while fans were running amok above him.
The trophy presentation in Barcelona was cancelled due to a pitch invasion. Rangers were given a two-year ban, later commuted to a year. Greig was presented with the trophy in a room deep in the bowels of the Nou Camp. It was highly unsatisfactory.
The lessons from, admittedly, half a century ago as well as the fresher memories from 2008, when Rangers’ defeat to Zenit St Petersburg took place against a backdrop of severe disorder in the streets of Manchester, must be heeded. It’s understandable if the Ibrox club are being overly cautious – as some have interpreted it – in the run-up to another occasion when the eyes of Europe will be on them. There’s clear unease about what might unfold tonight in Seville.
The club should be commended for recruiting a succession of Ibrox legends to record clips urging fans to behave.
If Rangers are to beat Eintracht Frankfurt, it will be a victory to ring out through the ages. In this particular age, where social media is such a constant consideration, an image of Tavernier lifting the cup-with-no-handles will very quickly become iconic. Unlike Miller, unlike McNeill, it will be reproduced on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook and other platforms within seconds.
Unlike in the case of Greig, it’s hoped the setting will be the pitch, amid blue, red and white ticker tape, as opposed to elsewhere.
That will of course depend on the effort, skill and temperament of the players in the Estadio Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan. But the fans will also play a part in the heat of the night in Seville.