It had been a long wait for Rangers to be in this situation. In fact you would have to go back to April 1978 – when John Grieg was still playing for Rangers – for an example of the last time Rangers were facing the situation they faced on 2 May 1987: knowing that one more win would see them crowned as league champions.
It had been a long nine years since that league win, which would make up part of a famous treble. Rangers had been in the footballing doldrums since. Swept aside by Celtic and the so called “New Firm” of Aberdeen and Dundee Utd.
In those nine years Rangers would regularly finish fourth. Indeed the thought of Rangers being league winners had seemed ludicrous as early as the previous season of 85/86 were Rangers had finished fifth, a massive 15 points behind champions Celtic – whilst also lagging behind Hearts, Aberdeen and Dundee Utd.
European football for the following season was only confirmed on the last day of the campaign, with a 2-0 victory over Motherwell ensuring that we finished above six placed Dundee on goal difference.
To give an idea of how disastrous the campaign had been the gap between Rangers and bottom placed Clydebank was the same (15) as the point difference between Celtic. Rangers would manage only 13 wins in the whole season – a meare seven more than the Bankies. It was grim stuff and the thought of Rangers going from that position to champions seemed impossible. But Graeme Souness arrived in April ’86 – followed by Terry Butcher, Colin West and Chris Woods and all of a sudden there was a sense of optimism around Rangers again.
But even then things did not go entirely to plan initially. Rangers would lose their opening two games of the campaign and by Christmas they lay nine points behind Celtic, the equivalent of a thirteen point gap in today’s terms as it was two points for a win back then.
Then Souness signed Graham Roberts in December and Rangers’ form improved dramatically. Having lost five games in the first 24 matches, Rangers would go on a run of losing just one in the following 20. Celtic were not only caught, but surpassed and when Rangers travelled to Pittodrie on 2 May 1987 all they needed was a win to secure their first league title in nine years.
The game itself was not a classic in terms of flair and skill. As these encounters so often are it was a blood and guts affair that was more about mettle than skill. Such an environment was perfect for the Rangers player-manager, but the season would end as it had begun for Graeme Souness – with a red card after 31 minutes.
Booked after only four minutes after a heavy tackle on Brian Irvine, Souness would take the long walk 25 minutes later after another stupid lunge earned him a second yellow. With the game tied at 0-0 it could have been a catastrophic act – but Rangers rallied and met the challenge.
Celtic were at home to Falkirk on the same day knowing that a win for Rangers would see them resigned to also-rans. But news from the north-east that Rangers were down to ten could have given them hope, despite them going a goal down to Falkirk after only 40 seconds. Celtic went into the game against Falkirk three points behind. If Rangers slipped up at Pittodrie, Celtic could have closed the gap to a point going into the last game of the season. But the battling spirit now injected into this Rangers squad would see them get the job done – with a little help from Falkirk.
The big moment came on the 40th minute when Rangers won a free-kick just outside the box on the touchline. Cooper sent over an inviting cross and Terry Butcher rose to head the ball into the net, with Jim Leighton a stranded spectator. The scenes of celebration were exuberant as Rangers put one hand on the league title trophy.
The lead would only last four minutes, however, as Brian Irvine levelled for the Dons. As Rangers went in at half-time they knew there 45 minutes away from the title as things stood. They were level with Aberdeen and Celtic were a goal down to Falkirk.
The second-half was a bit of a non-event, with Aberdeen coming closest with an effort that hit the post. Celtic had equalised against Falkirk through a Brian McClair penalty but that did not change the dynamics – Rangers were still on course to be champions as long as they matched Celtic’s result.
With three minutes to go the news came through from Celtic Park that Jimmy Gilmour – nephew of Celtic legend Jimmy Johnstone – had put Falkirk 2-1 up. Barring a minor miracle Rangers had secured their 39th league title.
When the final whistle went, the fans came on to the park in scenes of celebration that mirrored the images from Wembley in 1977 when Scotland had beat the Auld Enemy.
Souness was emphatic in his summary, although apologetic about his sending off: “From a personal point of view it was not ideal”, he said. “At the end of the day I have let myself, my players and my family down. I am not proud of that. Watching the second-half from the stand was pure agony, but at the end of the day I was delighted for the fans who have waited so long for this moment. The league will always be my number one priority and once Graham Roberts joined Terry Butcher and Chris Woods at the club, we got the response from the other players.”
Terry Butcher, who has just became the first man to captain Rangers to a league title since John Greig, was equally as delighted: “It’s been a tremendous year. The signing of Graham Roberts was the turning point. He took a lot of pressure off me. And now I have doubles my medal tally in one year”.
Graham Roberts, the man who had proved to be the final piece of the jigsaw in what was a memorable campaign said: “I knew as soon as we caught Celtic we could do it. We knew then we were good enough. Although the nerves showed at times, it was a great finish to the season”
The following week at Ibrox Rangers would be presented with the league championship trophy in front a capacity crowd. They were scenes that had not been seen down Govan way for the best part of a decade. But under Souness, and then Walter Smith, they would almost become an annual event as Rangers would win ten of the next twelve league campaigns.