Sep 16 2012

Eurovision Long Contest Part 3

Published by at 8:30 am under Guest

Link to Part 1

Link to Part 2

How do I meld Slovakian football into this rant? How do I take up my story from the end of Part 1 and its declaration of Villarreal at home as my personal favourite Ibrox European night? How do I connect Rangers, Slovakia and a personal highlight in a life of soccer obsession? It’s frighteningly easy:

Rangers played two Slovak clubs, ever. Neither were Slovan Bratislava yet we played both our games on Slovakian soil, 46 years apart, at Tehelné pole; Both games were in the European Cup/Champions League; Vladimir Weiss The First played against Rangers in both legs in 1959, Vladimir Weiss The Second managed Rangers’ opponents in the 2005 fixture and Vladimir Weiss The Third played for Rangers; That Villarreal match at Ibrox was followed by an almost equally dramatic second leg, just as perfectly poised, and in El Madrigal I saw Rangers take the game by the scruff of the neck, score first, concede a second half equaliser, miss a sitter to seal our passage into the quarter-finals and go out on away goals; That remains the only time Rangers have ever played in the knock-out stages of the Champions League and we owed our progression to that point partly to the fact we’d drawn twice in the group stage with ARTMEDIA BRATISLAVA, the group also featuring Porto; In 1959/60 we reached the semi-finals of the old Champions’ Cup format for the only time in our existence, and in the second round we narrowly defeated Red Star Bratislava who themselves had elimintaed Porto with, as per Artmedia in 2005/06, an away win in Portugal’s second city.

The coincidences are manifold, tidy and fairly striking but the biggest link of all is that which connects TJ Cervena Hviezda Bratislava of 1959/60 with FC Artmedia Bratislava, and I’m not merely referring to the fact both have been indelibly linked with, merged with, were or are FC Petržalka: It’s that very list of the mind-numbing name-changes which connects yet has almost destroyed both Slovakian clubs to have met Rangers in the wake of their first ever national league titles. Renamings, mergers, rebirths and financial wipe-outs which result in plastic ressurections so far down the national football pyramid you fear the club’s profile will only be visible through a microscope. This, for UK punters, was what happened to Czech and Slovak clubs. But it rarely happened to British clubs and it would certainly not be something to trouble The Rangers Football Club Plc. Ah, the naivety of the me who wrote Part 1 of this rant … last December.

Of course it happens to Belgian and French clubs. It happens to clubs from all over the world - always has. Some parts of Europe are renowned for merging, inventing and destroying clubs willy-nilly. I saw Paris Saint Germain at Ibrox in one of Rangers’ better UEFA Cup runs, ten years ago. They had Ronaldinho, Nicolas Anelka and Mikel Arteta in their side. Now they’re buying Ibrahimovic and threatening European domination. Yet PSG were formed in the mid 1970s. They played in two Cup-Winners’ Cup finals and a Super Cup final in the late 1990s. So, despite Rangers having 100 years on them, PSG could soon be equalling my club’s tally of continental showpieces. Regime changes are at the heart of such fluctuations. Be it boardroom apparatchiks or spivs, the right move can have you on the cusp of greatness no matter your lack of history and the wrong one will take your entire history away from you. Rangers were once known as Scotland’s establishment club and that, as much as the kind of ropey business deals which western Europeans would love to think characterise only former communist states, has been at the heart of us becoming perhaps just another re-formed, mongrel institution. 

The Rangers time-line has been broken. A new company has taken on the history I lived and breathed as my own. There will be no “Rangers 2012″ or “FK Inter Rangers” – the resurrection and re-branding has all taken place at that ever-shady corporate level. But messing with the nomenclature of a football club can be fatal. Fulham and Fiorentina would disagree, having been brought back from the brink only to carry on as normal – or even better. But those guys play in big, money-laden, internationally-renowned leagues. Investors local and foreign will throw money at anyone with a franchise in that cash cow. Boardroom difficulties at clubs in Europe’s “Big 5″ leagues are merely an opportunity for home-grown tycoons or money-laden foreigners in need of a personal profile make-over…or a Western European passport. 

Scotland’s football infrastructure is, however, more comparable with Slovakia’s. Sponsorship is thin on the ground and flighty. If the club itself displays any instability then obscurity quickly beckons. Rangers now have more in common with Bratislava’s Red Star and Artmedia than they could ever have imagined when playing them at Ibrox and Tehelné pole. Once the regime changes begin they can be hard to stop and often result in an endemically temporary feel to everything about a club. The collective faith, once tightly contained, becomes transient. Crvena Hzievda used to be Sokol SNB Bratislava and became TJ Internacionál Slovnaft Bratislava. It got worse and now they, like the even more altered FC Petržalka 1898 are as far away from UEFA football competition as their old Glasgow sparring partners should be. In truth, Rangers admission even into the bottom tier of the Scottish League was in itself an insult to the some infinitely smaller sized but ultimately better run clubs who’ve spent years applying for membership.

My personal trip to Bratislava, recounted elsewhere on this blog, came as a result of both a fascination with the venue and a lust for football glory. That season I travelled to Porto too. Artmedia and Rangers’ other group stage opponents, Internazionale of Milan, were being punished for fan trouble and so the San Siro was closed for our trip there. But I ended up at El Madrigal for the Villarreal second leg in the knockout stages. Basically, I was going to every European tie involving Rangers which I could afford. In our run to Manchester we played a total of 19 European games – I was at 11 of them. Ever since Manchester, no away games. Four years after Manchester – no Rangers 1872.

Last season I saw Rangers lose their first Champions League qualifyer first leg to Malmo, at Ibrox and when the Swedes completed the job in Scandanavia, I saw NK Maribor of Slovenia eliminate us in the resultant Europa League qualifyer. The second leg was at Ibrox. Carlos Bocanegra, the captain of the USA, seemed an appropriate scorer of what is and may well remain the last ever goal scored by a Rangers player in European competition. On 14th November 1956, in Nice’s Stade du Ray, South African Johnny Hubbard scored Rangers’ first ever truly competitive goal on foreign soil, from the penalty spot. Here, fifty five years later, in our very own footballing Côte d’Azur, another New Worlder scrambled home what may have been Rangers’ last strike in our old world. Now I watch a team which plays in a league featuring no club which has ever competed in any of the three European competitions, far less reached a final. And that, for many, includes the Rangers of 2012.

Prague may offer more holiday options than Bratislava but, for Rangers, the results are diametrically opposed. The capital of Bohemia is the only Czech location Rangers have experienced in European competition. While the opposition within the city limits has been varied, the final outcome has been monotonously predictable. We go to Praha, lose, can’t turn it round at Ibrox and go out of Europe in the first round of the competition. Every ten years. We’ve done it once in each of the three Euro competitions. Dukla, before they felt the need to escape those city limits, destroyed us at 3-0 in the first leg of the first round of the 1981/82 European Cup-Winners’ Cup. After what was done to us at infamous old Juliske, our 2-1 home leg win was academic. On the only other two occasions on which we faced a Czech side, we kept it tighter but made it increasingly painful.

In 1991/92 we lost 1-0 at the Letna but went 2-0 up against Sparta just three minutes into extra time in the second leg. When Andy Goram, the greatest goalkeeper I have ever seen, makes a mistake to allow a fatal own goal just five minutes later, you know Prague has the sign over you. Scotland international and Rangers legend Stuart McCall scored twice at home to Sparta that night. In September 2002, all-round Euro legend Ronald de Boer’s brace seemed to have recovered the situation against Zizkov. Ales Pikl and Ludek Straceny had scored the two unanswered goals in front of a massive 3,000+ crowd at the Strahov. As per Sparta in the Champions Cup, Zizkov in the UEFA Cup were taken to Glaswegian extra-time. Almost 48,000 went wild as Neil McCann performed the old chestnut of putting us in the lead before the inevitable Prague-tastic killer of an away goal. Marcel Licka netted after 101 minutes. One of his team-mates was sent-off after 117 minutes. And in the 122nd minute, Rangers goalkeeper Stefan Klos – a Champions League winner with Borussia Dortmund – came up for a corner, got his head to it, nodded it downwards, onto the post … and out. We’ve never played Napoli in UEFA competition – for Rangers, it was always a case of “see Prague and die”.

But this is about Rangers and Slovakia: We’ll end with the Rangers-Red Star game from 1959 but the real theme of this second, infinitely more depressing part of my rant has been how the European fixation may have destroyed Rangers. The money we spent trying to out-do Celtic’s achievement of 1967 contributed to our Icarus moment. I therefore find it ironic that Artmedia reached that same 2005/06 Champions League Group as Rangers by inflicting Celtic’s most humiliating ever European defeat. Tehelné pole has hosted two games in which Rangers scored away from home and drew - matches which ultimately advanced them in Europe. But in many ways its greatest memory for Bluenoses is in hosting a lovely 5-0 thrashing of everything Rangers like to think we are not.

Back in 1959/60 Rangers’ defeat of Red Star allowed them to make the semi-finals of a European Cup edition which ended with a Hampden final. We were utterly destroyed by Eintracht in the semi (and, considering what happened to the Germans in the final, it’s perhaps better we didn’t progress to meet Puskas and Di Stefano’s Real Madrid in Mount Florida) but reached the following season’s Cup-Winners’ Cup final. Fiorentina emerged victorious over us in 1961 but becoming the first Scottish club to make a European curtain-closer and getting so close to the biggest final of all, all within the space of one season, seemed ample proof of Rangers’ role as Scotland’s greatest sporting institution. Six years later we’d have to rethink that. 

Social historians say Rangers became a focal point for Scottish protestantism after newspapers of the day lamented Celtic and Hibs’ domination of the game in the early part of the 20th century, calling for a Scottish Club to defeat “the Irish invaders”. Is that what it all came down to then? Did our desperation to show what we weren’t, above what we were, sew the seeds of our demise? The Warsaw Pact regimes plainly used football, as per all sports, to evidence their ideological and moral superiority to Western capitalist governments, yet look now at so many of the once proud clubs of the Slavic countries. Look at what a sectarian signing policy (which also “came down” in 1989) did for Rangers. Look at what Communism did for Red Star Bratislava. Both clubs more than had their moments but, ultimately, we have to regard their current situation. Rangers fans, however deluded it is, feel as blameless as any Slovakian punter was over the fate of the Artmedias and Inter Bratislavas.  What is true is that the regimes come and go but it’s the punters who’re left to suffer.

Rangers have suffered the same fate as so many of the one-time greats of former Moscow satellites. Like female competitors of 1970s and 80s Olympics undergoing sex changes in later life because of the hormone injections, being designed to win only in the name of envy has long-lasting reprecussions. Magdeburg, Carl Zeiss Jena and Lokomotive Leipzig all graced the Cup-Winners’ Cup final in the name of the DDR but far from gracing the Bundesliga since the fall of the wall, they’ve barely kept themselves operating. Financial or chemical, the doping seemed worth it at the time but now Slovakian football, like all Eastern European football, isn’t just as exotic to me as it once was - because now it also represents a warning me, my fellow Rangers fans and our club as a whole didn’t heed: You can indeed want it too much. 

But it was quite a game when Red Star were the champions of Czechoslovakia, Rangers the champs of Scotland and European competition so young it involved a whole different kind of baggage: Armstice Day 1959 is probably an appropriate date for the Glasgow side’s first truly competitive meeting with Eastern European opposition. Moscow Dynamo’s famous 1945 British tour saw 95,000 pack Ibrox for the first glimpse of a club from behind a curtain which would instantly lend its metallic name to the most famous defence in Rangers history. There was an Ibrox friendly with Dinamo Zagreb in 1957 and I’d love to tell you the Red Star tie was Rangers’ first against a side from old Czechoslovakia but no prizes for guessing which city provided the opposition for an October 1946 Ibrox friendly. Perhaps it was Sparta’s 3-1 defeat that day which inspired Prague to become the killer of all future Rangers’ European hopes. We honestly intended no offence.

Nevertheless, this European Cup clash was still very much the adventure for both sides. Red Star were playing only the second tie of their debut Euro campaign. They provided Rangers’ fifth ever opponent in what was just our third involvement in these new continental contests. UEFA competition was, basically, just four years old. Proceedings were kept political when the man they called “the Wee Prime Minister”, Ian McMillan opened the scoring after merely a minute. It wasn’t just his surname but the fact he controlled proceedings on the park like Harold of Downing Street controlled the country which gave McMillan his nickname. Amazingly for one of the greatest inside-forwards in our history, he was a part-time player – a fully qualified quantity surveyor. This perhaps explains both why he ran so little but loved the continental game so much. Unlike the ”pie and a pint” Scottish domestic game, McMillan must have felt this was one of those matches against coffee house footballers which he was about to measure, quantify and own. If I’m mixing metaphors please take it as form meeting function, because very little about this game went as McMillan or anyone else in blue expected. 

A crowd of 80,000 Scots on a November night in Govan must have seemed like a far crueller scenario than the September evening in Oporto which got Red Star into this round. However, the quickly-learned durability which saw Red Star win 2-0 in front of 60,000 Porto fans in the steamy bowl of Das Antas became almost instantly evident at Ibrox.The legendery Adolf Scherer, Vrútky’s very own, equalised within a quarter of an hour and before the stop-watch struck 30 minutes, his international team-mate Milan Dolinksy had Red Star in the lead and Govan very, very still.

I have one book which shows a picture of this clash. Just one. It’s black and white but it glows with the romance of European competition. We know how the colour was applied. Rangers were in all-blue and “Cervena Hviezda” in white shorts and socks with the red and white stripes on top making their strip as similair to their Belgrade counterparts as their Slovak name to the Serbo-Croat. In the photo there is something just visible on Adolf Scherer’s shorts as he whips a half-volley past George Niven in the Rangers goal. It could be dirt, grass, his number – or it could be a star. As I said in Part 1, it’s the difference to the Rangers strip, the difference of a foreign strip on our visitors and the glare of the floodlights which heightens the excitement. On top of those essentials, what was happening on the pitch on November 11th 1959 must have sent the punters present into a state of heightened reality. 

Somebody punched Sammy Baird. Referee Daniel Mellet remained neutral but did not do much for the notion of Swiss accuracy when he sent off Stefan Matlak instead of his Red Star team-mate. Jiří Tichý was widely reported to have got off with the offence. Reports also tell us the sending off happened in the very same minute, the 43rd, as Rangers’ equaliser from Alex Scott. The future Everton striker didn’t score from the spot so perhaps the punch was a reaction to the Rangers celebrations. Whatever the cause, the Slovak fighting spirit was proven beyond all doubt when ten-man Red Star re-took the lead in the 68th minute. Scherer again showing just why he would go on to score the goals which put Czechoslovakia into the World Cup final in Chile two years later.

I wasn’t at Ibrox for this game. I wasn’t born for another 10 years. I saw the Red Star of Yugoslavia get some sort of revenge for their Bratislavan brothers, as I stood on the same West Enclosure terracing which had been present in 1959, but that wasn’t til 1990. However, I can guarantee you the 80,000 would not have been happy. Any notions you have of Rangers responding so quickly - outside-left Davie Wilson, the latest in a line of immortal Rangers wingers, scored our second equaliser just five minutes after Red Star went 3-2 up – because of a never-say-die optimism amongs the home fans are sadly misconceived. It would have been more like a “sort this out, Gers or YOU die” atmosphere baying down from the Ibrox slopes. This ingrained impatience with failure and Red Star’s one man disadvantage finally told when another of those Rangers legends, centre-forward Jimmy Millar, scored the first leg winner (almost certainly with his head) on the stroke of full time.

Seven goals, the lead changing hands multiple times, one red card, the wrong man dismissed and goals in the first and last minute. Oh, and I forgot to mention, because reports don’t give a time, somewhere in amongst all this Eric Caldow missed a penalty. Rangers and Slovakia might not come together too often but when they do they certainly make up for lost time.

Okay, the Berlin wall wasn’t yet built but I can tell you the return leg, seven days later, was Rangers’ first time behind the “Iron Curtain”. I can confirm it was certainly our first time in Slovakia and as far east as we’d ever been in a history, at that point approaching the 90-year mark. Now, again, I’d also love to tell you the return leg was Rangers’ first time anywhere near that part of the world but we had a thing going with Viennese clubs in the Nineteen thirties. Rapid and Austria came to Ibrox, Rapid on several occasions including once in the mid-fifties. And we played Rapid Vienna in the Austrian capital too. But, while putting in literally minutes of research for this rant, Rangers historians Bob Ferrier and Robert McElroy’s gargantuan tome on everything Rangers was flicked through with forensic haste and it transpires Rangers travelled to Mitteleuropa as far back as 1904: 

There are no precise dates but we do have a list of games played “away” to foreign opponents during and/or after May of that year. It’s obviously a tour. Rangers’ initial opponets were (appropriately enough) First Vienna. I hope and trust this was at their iconic Hohe Warte ground, a stadium I visited back in 2000 with more satisfaction than I felt in walking the Ringstrasse or entering Freud’s house. Thereafter, we played two matches against a Danish side which are annotated as having being played in Vienna, and next is a fixture against Vienna SC. So I can imagine that the next two matches, also “away”, against foreign opponents, were also part of the same tour and almost definitely played in Vienna. Like I say, I’d love to tell you it was against a Bratislavan side – especially as the two cities are so proximitous – but, well, you probably know before I even say it: Our second last match of that Viennese tour was against a select side from, erm, Prague. We then beat “FK Prague” 5-0.  The Prague select was defeated 6-1. So there you have it. The root of Prague’s future determination to punt Rangers out of Europe at every turn, no matter the club we faced: The Ibrox club had, in the summer of 1904, inflicted humiliation on at least one player from EVERY club in the capital of Bohemia. What goes around …

And what went around at Ibrox in November 1959, came around at Tehelné pole in November 1959.  Local accomodation, food and transport was all made or found to be difficult for Rangers. The cold war heat was full on (of course this kind of thing never happened to British clubs when in Spain, Italy or Greece). Red Star moved the game to the biggest venue in the city and 60,000 saw Jimmy Millar do what he was want to do. With Alex Scott having capped a controlled, classy away performance by netting a breakaway move in the 69th minute, Jimmy had one last thing to sort out. He was famed for settling scores when the time was right. With ten minutes to go and the tie seemingly in the bag, Rangers powerfully built centre forward went looking for Jiří Tichý and avenged the first leg assault of Sammy Baird. Another Swiss ref, Josef Gulde, did like his compatriot in the first leg and produced a Red card for the away team. But Red Star, as we know, were made of stern stuff and while a punch from Millar usually saw the end of his opponent’s involvement, Tichý showed the fortitude which would see him too into that 1962 World Cup final in Santiago. He scored with a minute to go. It seemed only fair, after such an epic tie, that Red Star didn’t lose on the night and Rangers gained their first ever away draw in European competition in the process.

The crowd was a tenth of the size in 2005 when we drew again on the same pitch, this time with Artmedia. And the reaction of the Rangers fans that night contained 1/100th of the positivity that would have been felt back in Scotland 46 years previously. We thought we’d blown our chances of Champions League progress when we had a similairly stern tussle with Artmedia but I stood amongst the seats of “Tribuna” section CHS, off Bajkalska Ulica, knowing I was privileged to be amongst the first (now possibly the last) Rangers support ever to enter that great ground in that great city. There would have been no away fans in 1959. Just as there was no “Rad XXV” or “Sedadlo 234″ as my 500 Sk ticket promised – just a lot of unmarked light blue seats slapped down on the same terracing which had witnessed Millar and Tichý getting into it and Red Star and Rangers trading blows of raw football excitement. Our manager in 2005, Alex McLeish would have to leave to sate the Ibrox boo-boys despite creating history that season, just as our gaffer in 1959, Scot Symon, would eventually be sacked in disgustingly shoddy fashion simply because Celtic had won the 1967 European Cup. Karol Borhy and then Valdimir Weiss may have thought their Glasgow counterpart had won the battle, but they ended up victims of Rangers’ losing war with their fans’ impatience. 

Red Star would go on to win the Mitropa Cup in 1969, under a different name. Rangers would win their European title in 1972. Jiří Tichý would eventually win three league titles … with Sparta Prague. And in the next round of the 1959/60 European Cup Rangers would defeatSparta … ofRotterdam. Two of those small Scottish clubs who deserved SFL membership before Glasgow Rangers? Cove RANGERS and, from Edinburgh, SPARTANS! Oh well - maybe there are some bonuses to being a Third Division, fourth tier, brand-new incarnation of an old club: Even if the money being thrown at the newco Rangers means they’ll probably win a domestic cup sometime soon, June’s liquidation means it’ll be at least three years before we’re allowed back into UEFA competition. Which guarantees at least three years before we ever have to go back to bloodyPrague. Keep yer ”Karluv most” and “Staromestske namesti”  – give me Tehelné pole any day of the week.

Rangers and Bratislava might be liked by incompetent football ownership but we are also united by great players, great managers and memories of visceral nights of continental glamour. No regime can ever take that away from us.

 Alex Anderson

One response so far




One Response to “Eurovision Long Contest Part 3”

  1.   Jameson 17 Sep 2012 at 3:00 pm

    Not going to be able to do this justice Alex. It’s an amazing story. Or stories really as some of the anecdotes are brilliant in themselves. Love the Moore/Greig/Moncur chat. And Rangers fans were happy for Celtic in ’67? Even in the peace-loving 60s, that’s a hard one to credit.

    But then times really have changed. The idea that becoming European Champions wouldn’t be too difficult for a club that believed it was Scotland’s biggest club (well, WAS it’s biggest – I don’t suppose any Celtic fans are reading to get offended???), or as the whole piece has been saying, the exoticism of European football in older times. I still love seeing European games but when even Zilina have a Peruvian, Gambian, Cameroonian, the captain of Togo and two Portugese in their squad, well, the world’s an infinitely smaller place today.

    95,000 at Ibrox watching that 4-3, 60,000 at TP for the return – hard to imagine what it must have been like. One thing’s for sure, as you say at the end, memories like that can’t be taken away. But players (the right ones or wrong ones) getting sent-off for punching? That gives the lie to those being more gentlemanly times. Or perhaps it shows they were just more manly times.

    As I’ve said I saw Zizkov play Betis in the round after they’d knocked you out in 2002. They were desperately close to actually winning the Czech league the year before. Lots of controversy surrounding the final game when they conceded a late goal to Slavia. Pikl was convinced one or more of his team-mates had agreed to throw it. I always enjoyed visiting Strahov but the Zizkov ground, in a working-class area just behind Prague station, is a cracker. Did you make it up there on your trip? And they had the Petrzalka practice at playing at 1030 on Sundays as well.

    Those Slovakia-Scotland similarities you pointed out are interesting. I’d agree other than to say that clubs ‘dying’ or ‘going to the wall’ don’t seem to be quite mourned over the way Rangers have been. Or, put it another way, even fans have fewer scruples about adopting what springs up in their place. Guess there’s no real choice in the end, if you want to watch football locally every other week.

    One more thing btw – hope we cut it in half in the right place, or at least an appropriate place. Definitely a privilege to read anyway, thanks a lot.

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