Football has always enjoyed a habit of allowing fate to hand out head-to-head scenarios that have that wee bit extra spice. Where a game looks like it will initially be just a routine fixture, the footballing gods have frequently found a way of adding an edge to proceedings. This was definitely the case on 4 September 1982, when Rangers travelled to Fir Park for their opening league fixture of the 1982/83 campaign.
For John Greig and his troops the trip to Fir Park wouldn’t just represent a game against the newly promoted Lanarkshire side – it would represent a game against a Motherwell side now managed by former Gers manager Jock Wallace in his first game in Scotland since returning from Leicester.
Rangers were trying to improve on the relatively poor season of 81/82 where the club had finished third, won the League Cup and lost the Scottish Cup Final to Aberdeen in a 4-1 extra-time drubbing.
Rangers had been busy in the close-season, securing Craig Patterson from Hibs, Robert Prytz from Malmo and Dave MacKinnon from Partick Thistle in an attempt to invigorate what had been considered an ageing squad. Sandy Clark would also arrive from West Ham.
Despite the new arrivals all the focus was on a face from the past in Wallace on the opening day, the man who had dramatically walked out on Rangers four years previously after securing a famous treble. John Greig, Wallace’s captain throughout his time in charge at Ibrox, had been handed the job of managing Rangers after Wallace’s sudden exit and was still in charge at Ibrox, which added that little bit extra to what was an already interesting fixture. Wallace and Greig shook hands warmly before proceedings – although there was undeniably an awkwardness between the pair.
In the build-up to game Big Jock said: “I’ve been away from Ibrox for four years and it’s difficult to say how I feel about facing them. But the last time I managed a team against them was at Berwick – don’t forget that”.
The clash between Wallace and Grieg added to the occasion and that was reflected in the crowd, which was a healthy 19,159. In fact such was the size of the crowd that there was an overspill at one end of the ground, with many supporters spilling over the barriers and onto the park. The game itself was a cracker, producing four goals and a late comeback by the newly promoted side.
Rangers started well and had a very early chance when a Cooper corner was met by Colin McAdam, only for Motherwell goalkeeper Hugh Sproat to make a point-blank save. However Rangers wouldn’t wait too long before they took the lead.
Seven minutes in, John MacDonald was put clean through on goal and was fouled by Alex Forsyth. New signing Prytz stuck the penalty away and Rangers were off to a flyer.
Rangers continued to push and could have gone 2-0 up when Sproat came out of his box to head a clearance which landed at the feet of Robert Prytz about 35 yards from goal. The Swede reacted quickly, but his long-distance lob into an empty net went slightly over the bar. With no other goals scored the sides went in at half-time with only the one goal between them.
Rangers continued to push for the killer second goal in the second-half and after 65 minutes it seemed like the points would be heading to Ibrox.
Davie Cooper picked up the ball on the left-hand side and ran at two defenders, going past one and nutmegging the other before laying it off to Ian Redford who fired home and put Rangers into an apparently unassailable lead.
Rangers had other chances to put the game to bed. John MacDonald was creative down the left-hand side, beating two defenders before cutting in and lofting ball over Sproat, only for his effort to be headed off the line. The headed clearance didn’t go far and eventually found its way to Cooper who also attempted to loft the ball beyond Sproat, only to see his effort come off the bar. Rangers would rue missing these guilt-edged chances.
With 15 minutes to go the game would be turned on its head as Motherwell struck back and set up a very interesting end to the game. A long-ball into the box seemed harmless enough, but the Rangers defence switched off and Cleland, who had started the game on the bench and had not long entered proceedings, beat Jim Stewart to the ball and made the score 2-1.
From a seemingly untouchable position, Rangers suddenly found themselves in a game – and all those earlier missed opportunities now looked like they could be costly. And so it would be.
With 11 minutes remaining, Rangers conceded again. A free-kick thrown in from the right-hand side was met by Joe Carson, whose header went in off the post. Rangers had blown their lead and now faced the real prospect of dropping points on the opening day of the season.
Despite all their efforts, Rangers couldn’t find a winner. Even when Motherwell were reduced to ten men in the closing minutes, after goalscorer Joe Carson was dismissed for kicking John MacDonald, Rangers failed to muster the goal which would have secured the victory.
After the game John Greig was obviously frustrated at the result and commented: “We produced a lot of good things and the team did well, and I thought we had done enough to win. We dominated the match and should have had it well a truly sewn up.
“Somehow though, we allowed Motherwell to get two goals, and they were only in our penalty box area on a few occasions”.
An obviously emotional Wallace said: “I was pleased with the way we fought back after losing two daft goals”.
Wallace’s stay at Motherwell would last just over a year. Rangers under Greig would struggle again throughout 82/83 and would finish the season trophy-less. A difficult start to the following year’s campaign would see Greig relieved of his duties and Wallace reinstated as the manager of the club he loved.