Fallen Giants: Remembering Rangers’ glorious era under Smith & Advocaat
Dick Advocaat achieved plenty as both a player and manager – but he’ll always be remembered by Rangers fans for a glorious couple of seasons at the end of the 1990s.
Before the days of enormous TV rights deals, having a hardcore fanbase packing out your stadium every week was enough to make a club something of a financial heavyweight.
And nowhere in the world will you find a more hardcore group of fans than in Glasgow – so is it any surprise that Celtic and Rangers had the means to pay a premium to attract a slew of enormous names in the 1990s?
Younger readers may find it impossible to believe Scotland was ever a premier destination for players across Europe, but it really was, with first-rate talents like Paul Gascoigne, Brian Laudrup, Henrik Larsson, Gennaro Gattuso and Giovanni van Brockhorst all rocking up in Glasgow in the 1990s.
And while the turn of the millennium saw the balance of power shift firmly towards the green-and-white army, the last decade of the 20th century undoubtedly belonged to Rangers.
Rangers were champions of Scotland for nine consecutive seasons between 1988-89 and 1996-97, all of which came during Walter Smith’s time in the Ibrox dugout: the first three as Graeme Souness’ assistant, and the following six as manager.
Going for 10
Having announced in October 1997 that he was going to step down and retire at the end of the season, Smith was determined to go out with a bang. A tenth title would sure beat a carriage clock as a retirement present.
To that end, Smith entirely revamped the squad, bringing in £13million worth of players, including Marco Negri, Lorenzo Amoruso, Tony Vidmar, Antti Niemi, and a 19-year-old Gattuso.
The players shipped out represented a disposal of much of the old guard, with Mark Hateley, Trevor Steven, David Robertson and Richard Gough all leaving the club in pre-season, though defender Gough would re-join just a few months later after Rangers shipped 10 goals in their first seven games despite remaining undefeated.
Things were looking good through most of the season. Celtic were hardly setting the world alight, failing to win 14 of their 36 games that season, and despite the great fight put up by Hearts, it looked as though Smith was going to go out with that tenth league title.
Negri in particular was helping Rangers’ cause. The new arrival from Perugia scored an utterly ridiculous 33 goals in 26 games before the turn of the new year.
Looking back, that was never anywhere near sustainable. The 23 goals Negri scored in his first 10 league games for Rangers represented a preposterous 24% of all the league goals he would score in his 11-year career in what is perhaps football’s most extreme example of a player deviating from his mean.
Any statistician could tell you what happened next: Negri’s scoring rate fell off a cliff after the new year, and he registered just three strikes in 13.
Just to compound matters, Rangers allowed Gascoigne to head across the border to join struggling Middlesbrough with just seven games of the season remaining.
Whether that was through financial necessity, concerns about fitness, or sheer complacency remains unclear, but it was a decision packed with hubris.
Defeats to both Aberdeen and Kilmarnock in their last four games saw them slip behind Celtic at the final hurdle, despite getting the better of their Old Firm rivals in their head-to-head encounters, winning two, drawing one and losing one.
As it happened, Smith’s retirement wouldn’t even last the summer, as he took over at Everton. His replacement was former Netherlands manager and Eredivisie champion Dick Advocaat of PSV Eindhoven, Rangers’ first ever foreign manager.
Advocaat immediately set about clearing out many of the remaining older players in the squad: out went Andy Goram, Stuart McCall, Brian Laudrup, Richard Gough (again) and club legend Ally McCoist.
The money promised to Advocaat in Rangers’ continuing rebuilding project must have been a major factor in attracting the Dutchman, and he made full use of it.
All in all, Rangers spent £36million on players ahead of Advocaat’s first campaign in charge.
A diverse mix of players signed included Andrei Kanchelskis, Rod Wallace, Gabriel Amato, Stephane Guivarc’h, Colin Hendry and Van Bronckhorst.
With Wallace in wonderful goalscoring form, Rangers claimed the League Cup in November before claiming the 1998-99 league title with four games to go.
That came courtesy of a 3-0 win at Celtic Park in a terribly fierce encounter in May – a match sadly best remembered for the sight of referee Hugh Dallas’ bloodied forehead after being struck by a coin.
Rangers wrapped up their sixth domestic treble four weeks later with another victory over Celtic, with Wallace scoring the only goal in a tight victory in the first Scottish Cup final at the newly-renovated Hampden Park.
Going one better
Such a stellar campaign was always going to be hard to top, but even by Rangers’ high standards, 1999-2000 was an exceptional season.
In Europe, qualification for the group stage of the Champions League required them to go through a vintage Parma side featuring the likes of Gigi Buffon, Dino Baggio, Ariel Ortega, Lillian Thuram and Fabio Cannavaro.
Advocaat’s side could hardly have faced a tougher challenge – the Italians had eliminated Rangers in the third round on their way to UEFA Cup victory the previous season – but goals from Vidmar and Claudio Reyna in the first half of the first leg in Glasgow proved enough despite a 1-0 defeat in the reverse fixture.
Unfortunately, the luck of the draw continued to go against Rangers as they were allocated that year’s group of death alongside Valencia and Bayern Munich – the runners-up from both that year and the previous year respectively – and Advocaat’s old club, PSV Eindhoven.
Nonetheless, Rangers gave an excellent account of themselves. They were the only side in the group to beat PSV both home and away, but they missed out on qualification to the second group stage by finishing just two points behind Bayern Munich.
Had it not been for Michael Tarnat’s 90th-minute equaliser in Rangers’ first clash with Bayern, at home, they would have progressed in the German side’s place. It was a campaign to be proud of despite its brevity.
Domestically, Rangers were unstoppable. The blue side of Glasgow went top of the table after just the third game of the season and stayed there until the very end.
The four Old Firm derbies in the league saw Rangers claim three wins and one draw, with an aggregate score of 10-3 thanks to two four-goal performances at Ibrox.
That meant they claimed the league title by an incredible 21 points, losing just twice all season, the second of which was a final-day defeat at Motherwell with a strong side seemingly keeping half an eye on the Scottish Cup final against Aberdeen the following week.
That game was wrapped up by the 51st minute, with three goals in the first six minutes of the second half supplementing Van Brockhorst’s 36th-minute effort in a 4-0 victory in a fitting end to a near-perfect season.
Advocaat’s final two years in charge at the club would see them miss out on the league title, the first time since 1986 that the club suffered the indignity of going two years without being Scottish champions before Alex McLeish led the side back to glory in the most thrilling title chase of recent years.
But that’s a story for another day…