When Peter Lovenkrands’ goal hit the back of the net in the 12th minute of Rangers’ last trip to Villarreal, in 2006, everyone associated with the club hoped that it signalled an upturn in fortunes.
Shortly before the first leg of the tie, then chairman David Murray had caved in to the demands of a frustrated support and, following discussions with under-fire manager Alex McLeish they had agreed to a parting of the ways come the end of the season.
A 2-2 draw at Ibrox had left many believing that a place in the Champions League quarter-finals was beyond the Glasgow side but that early goal from the Dane sparked hope.
McLeish recalled: “With the 2-2 draw at Ibrox, everybody kind of wrote it off, didn’t they? It was all or nothing in Villarreal for us. It was Peter Lovenkrands who got us off to a flyer.”
The La Liga outfit equalised in the 49th minute, though, and with Rangers unable to make more of the openings that followed, it was enough to send them out of the elite competition on the away goals rule.
“Manuel Pelligrini was their coach. At 1-1, the ball flashed across the goals for Boydy [Kris Boyd]. Normally, Boydy would’ve scored, nine times out of ten. But he just didn’t connect right. But for that we’d have been through to meet Inter Milan in the next round. It was a fantastic double-header performance from the guys. We were so close to the last eight.”
Instead it was the Spaniards who ultimately progressed to the semi-final stage, where they were ousted by Arsenal.
“There had been stuff about my job being ‘on the line’ and I had already said that I would leave Ibrox that summer. I had made that statement before Villarreal.
“It was an unusual one for Scottish football but it is something that happens in Europe quite a lot and the team knew that there was a new guy coming in the summer.
“David and I agreed. When I got to the last 16, I’d had a chat to him. I said: ‘Do you want… I will go now if you want?’ He said: ‘ No, no. I don’t want anyone else leading the team out against Villarreal other than you’. So from then to the end of the season I think we went on a really good run. I think we were undefeated.”
After a turbulent few years and an unceremonious journey back up the leagues, the Rangers fans are again enjoying European competition,battling through the qualifying rounds to join Celtic in the group stages of the Europa League. “It’s a great achievement for Rangers to get back into a European group,” said the former Rangers boss, who is now back in charge of Scotland. “They’ve been through a lot of qualifying rounds in the last few weeks. It’s smashing.”