After what seemed like an endless – and pointless – international break, it was back to the day job on Saturday and back to my favourite spot on the Southside of Glasgow.
My Saturday began in the normal fashion; ferrying my son to his football and my daughter to her dancing with one eye on the game and an eternal feeling in my head that my Saturday mornings have become an extension of my working week. Still, what better way to spend my “half-day off” than watching the Teddy Bears? So with footballing and dancing commitments completed, it was “off to the match” for the boy and myself.
Dundee at Ibrox has always been a fixture that has evoked strong memories for me, as one of my first visits to Ibrox to support Rangers was in March 1984 to see Rangers take on the Dens Park side in a Scottish Cup replay.
After seeing off Dunfermline and the Inverness Caledonian – before they merged with Inverness Thistle – the quarter-final draw initially saw Rangers head to Dens Park for a tricky away tie. A 2-2 draw was secured thanks to an own goal by George Mcgeachie and a peach of a goal from Bobby Russell.
So the replay was set up nicely, however it would largely be a day to forget. Dundee, then managed by a certain Archie Knox, would go 1-0 up through Jim Smith and then double that advantage through future Rangers striker Iain Ferguson.
Mid-way through the second-half, Ian Redford was sent off for an off-the-ball incident with Albert Kidd and Rangers were truly up against it. But a late fightback saw us claw a goal back through Ulsterman John McClelland and then a few minutes later big Dave McPherson rose majestically to put a header past Dundee keeper Colin Kelly. The delirium during the celebrations was heightened by the fact that McPherson came running directly to where my dad and I were sitting in the Copland Rd front to celebrate. It appeared we had gotten out of jail and saved the day. The memory of the joy on McPherson’s face is still a vivid one to this day.
But we were crucially still a man down, and Dundee exposed that one man advantage with a few minutes remaining when Iain Ferguson scored again and put the tie to bed. In the dying seconds Rangers were reduced to nine men as Robert Prytz saw red for dissent and Rangers exited the tournament. All came good again the following weekend, however, as Rangers famously beat Celtic 3-2 in the League Cup final thanks to an Ally McCoist hatrick.
Thankfully there were no such dramas on Saturday. Rangers were looking to get back on the winning trail after the disappointment of the defeat to Celtic just before the international break, and in the early stages they look fired up for the game and it only takes four minutes for Lassana Coulibaly to give Rangers the lead.
To emphasise the urgency that Rangers appear to have to do their business early, Alfredo Morelos puts Rangers two up a few minutes later – only for an incredible offside decision from the linesman to deny Morelos yet another goal after a shocking decision denied the Columbian a goal at Killie a few weeks back.
But the reprieve that Dundee benefit from with that officiating error is only temporary and Ryan Kent, who arguably has his best game in a Rangers jersey to date, makes it 2-0 on the fourteenth minute with his first goal for the club. Oddly, Rangers lose their way a little after the second goal, become sloppy in possession and give Dundee a little bit of joy in the middle of the park – without being so careless as to actually allow them back into the game. A James Tavernier penalty right on half-time ensures that it will take a minor miracle for Rangers to drop points and not take advantage of Celtic slipping up at St Mirren the previous night.
The only talking points from the second-half are the sending off of former Rangers striker Kenny Miller – which from my view seemed a harsh straight red – and the first goal of his Rangers career for Glenn Middleton. It is always pleasing to see young Scottish boys, particularly if they are Glaswegian, come through the ranks and do well at the club. Steven Gerrard has obviously seen something in the teenager and handed him his opportunity, and when he has gotten game time this season he has looked impressive and a real prospect. Attackers who can get behind their markers and turn them are a rare commodity these days, so when one comes along they are an exciting prospect. Ironically this is one of Middleton’s quieter games. But any youngster getting off the mark at the club is always a bonus and we can only hope he fulfills his obvious potential.
By the time Dundee restart the game after Middleton’s goal my mind is already looking towards the chips and curry sauce the boy and I routinely share after every home game – and also to Thursday night when, for the first time since 2010, Rangers will appear in the group stages of a European competition.
There was a time when appearing in the Europa League would have been considered a disappointment. But given not that long ago we were being handed our arse by Raith Rovers in the Petrofac Cup Final, then the game on Thursday feels like we have arrived in the land of milk and honey. In terms of the recovery of our club, the importance of Gerrard’s achievement in getting us there cannot be understated.
Our opponents on the night will be Villarreal, and the fixture brings back memories of our last game against them in the last 16 of the Champions League in 2006. On that occasion we were very unlucky to go out on away goals. Villarreal would go on an reach the semi-final before losing to Arsenal.
Like us, Villarreal have had a rough time of it since those heddy days of the knock-out stages of the Champions League, being relegated from La Liga in 2012 and struggling since they returned. Four games into their domestic season, Villarreal have managed only one win.
That does not mean that we will have an easy time of it on Thursday. The reality is that they will probably be the strongest team we faced this season and it will be a difficult challenge – but one we should relish. We’ve not had a sustained European run for too long, and despite the obvious pressures on the squad Europa League participation will bring, the pros far outwiegh the cons.
On the domestic front we have a decent run of fixtures coming up. If Rangers have serious ambitions for challenging for the title this season then routine wins like Saturday’s relative stroll against Dundee have to become the norm.