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Rangers play Aberdeen at Ibrox on Saturday in the last game of the Scottish Premiership. The match will cap a glorious season for the champions. By winning or merely drawing, Rangers will finish with at least 100 points and will have gone through a top-flight season without a league defeat.
Yet it is not the first time such a proud prospect has unfolded at Ibrox – as I can vividly recall. Fifty-three years ago, I turned up at the stadium – a schoolboy in the company of my Rangers-supporting friends – for the last game of the season on 27 April 1968. And yes the game was against Aberdeen, and yes we knew that if Rangers were to win or draw it would mean they had gone through the league season without losing.
But there was a bizarre twist to this intriguing championship denouement. Rangers had a chance to go unbeaten but unlike this season they were certainly not assured of winning the league. Far from it. Celtic – then managed by Jock Stein – had lost one match (1-0 against Rangers), drawn three others and won the rest. Rangers had drawn five, won the rest but had scored far fewer goals.
Given that in those days you got two points for a league victory, the arithmetic left both sides poised on 61 points with Celtic having a massive goal advantage. Only if they failed to win at home against Dunfermline would Celtic lose the league. And there was little prospect of that.
Nevertheless, tens of thousands of us turned up at Ibrox to cheer our team’s remarkable accomplishment of going unbeaten in the league all season while leaving themselves poised not to win it. It would have been quite an achievement: Rangers, Scottish football’s undefeated losers.
Sadly, even that improbable attainment was not destined to occur. Dave Smith put Rangers ahead after 17 minutes before Dave Johnston levelled for Aberdeen. Then, early in the second half, Ibrox erupted when a youthful Alex Ferguson headed them into the lead. It was looking good until Aberdeen replied, again through Johnston. Rangers flung everything at the Dons but their opponents held firm before breaking away in the final minute for Ian Taylor to score their winner.
It was a real sickener. The Aberdeen players rejoiced in a stadium that had been plunged into silence. Then the booing started and the crowd poured out their anger and frustration on to Rangers’ management which, it must be said, had made some fairly awful decisions that season. Chief of these was the board’s decision to sack Scot Symon as manager in November despite the fact the team were top and that Symon had brought six league titles, five Scottish Cups and four League Cups to Ibrox.
A fundamental shift in Rangers’ fortunes had begun to take place with the slow disintegration of the team’s former dominance of Scottish football. They had run Celtic close for Stein’s first three seasons at Parkhead but had fallen just short on each occasion. The Aberdeen match was the final insult.
For another six seasons Stein ruled the roost from Parkhead, leading Celtic to a total nine consecutive league victories. By contrast David White, brought in to replace Symon and rescue Rangers, lasted less than two more seasons, becoming the first manager not to win any major honours at the club.
And so it went on for far too many seasons for the mental health of the Ibrox faithful – with the glorious exception of Rangers’ 3-2 victory against Dynamo Moscow in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final in Barcelona in 1972. Nothing is certain and entrenched in football, however, and by the mid-70s Rangers returned to their victorious ways which eventually led to their own nine-in-row league successes under the guidance of Graeme Souness and Walter Smith in the 80s and 90s.
These triumphs were in turn reversed in 2012 when the club were forced into administration and relegated to Scotland’s lowest division. But after another eight grim years, the team have once more returned to dominate Scottish football and now flourish under the guidance of Steve Gerrard, who has proved himself a master tactician and an adroit motivator. The future for Rangers looks bright under the leadership of a man surely destined to have a successful career in football management.
So it is clear there is a very different background to the match on Saturday compared with the one I endured 53 years ago. Rangers are on the crest of a wave that is very different from the trough into which they were about to plunge. There is now a prospect of a rosy future for football at Ibrox unlike the bleak days of that last encounter in 1968. Just how long it will last is another matter.