There was, in all honesty, little indication of what was about to unfold. The usual anticipation at dining at the top table of European football was there – and there was a little extra spice and anticipation injected due to the new ‘Champions League’ format. But the truth of the matter is that when Rangers took to the field to face Danish champions Lyngby on 16 September 1992, nobody had any indication of the outstanding European campaign that was about to unfold.
In all Rangers would play ten games in their Champions League campaign of 92/93. They would win six, draw four, lose none and come within one goal of the final in Munich. They would go unbeaten in two enthralling encounters against the eventual winners Marseille – and would beat the English champions Leeds Utd home and away.
The campaign is unprecedented in terms of amount of games unbeaten in Europe by a Scottish club. In their relative campaigns that led to European glory in Barcelona, Lisbon and Gothenburg; Rangers, Celtic and Aberdeen would suffer defeat on route to their finest hour, as would Rangers, Celtic and Dundee Utd on their respective journeys to their Uefa Cup final appearances.
To go on such a campaign and not even get a crack at the final feels particularly cruel, more so when you consider the shady shenanigans of Bernard Tapie and Marseille. But the fact that glory ultimately eluded this campaign should not diminish anything from the accomplishment itself.
The campaign started fairly routinely against Danish champions Lyngby. The first leg at Ibrox was secured with a convincing 2-0 win, with Peter Huistra and Mark Hateley bagging the goals. The away leg was a fairly similar affair with Ian Durrant getting the only goal and securing the win and a berth in the second round knock-out stage.
Who Rangers would play next became a subject of conjecture due to a critical error on behalf of VfB Stuttgart in their first-round tie against Leeds Utd. With a 3-0 first-leg win secured, Stuttgart suffered a 4-1 defeat at Elland Road – putting them through on away goals. However in the closing minutes of the game Stuttgart fielded an ineligible player – bringing on a fourth foreigner and breaching Uefa’s three foreigner rule. The game was awarded to Leeds Utd by the same scoreline as the first-leg and the tie declared a draw.
Rather than throwing Stuttgart out of the competition, the ruling body ordered a one-off play-off match between the two clubs in a neutral ground – Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium. When Leeds Utd secured the victory in the Catalan capital with a 2-1 scoreline, a ‘Best of British’ feast was secured between the champions of Scotland and England.
People often talk about their favourite atmosphere at Ibrox, many of those of us lucky enough to have been there the night Leeds Utd rolled into town will cite this as the night that couldn’t be topped in terms of drama and atmosphere.
The game would be one of the all-time European classics to be held at the famous old ground – with Rangers securing a home victory to take to the second-leg thanks to goals by McCoist and an own goal from Leeds keeper John Lukic, but only after coming back from an early Gary McAllister strike.
The second-leg tie at Elland Road would go down as one the greatest nights in Rangers’ European history. Written off completely by the English press in particular, Rangers went down to face the champions of England to a backdrop of the game being a routine victory for the Yorkshire side. But Rangers took an early lead through Mark Hateley, which cancelled out United’s away goal at Ibrox, and left Rangers sitting pretty in the tie.
Leeds had a fine side at the time and their stars included the aforementioned Gary McAllister, current Scotland boss Gordon Strachan, the late Gary Speed and Frenchman Eric Cantona. Cantona in particular would go on a mission to get Leeds into the group stages – only to be denied time and again by Andy Goram, who arguably put in his best performance in a Rangers jersey.
The battling spirit that defined this side came to the fore on this night as Rangers dug in to ensure their place in the first ever Champions’ League group stage. Time and again they defied Leeds and then on the hour mark came the moment that sealed the tie. Rangers broke up the park on the counter through Ian Durrant, who sent Hateley away down the left-hand side. The big Englishman looked up and sent in a magnificent cross for his strike partner Ally McCoist who headed past Lukic and killed off the tie. A late Eric Cantona goal would prove to be nothing but a consolation for Leeds and Rangers progressed. After the game the team was joined in the away dressing room celebrations by Sir Alex Ferguson. “You couldn’t have seen a prouder Scot” said John Brown on Sir Alex’s mood that evening.
Rangers had secured their place in the first ever group stage of the Champions League in fantastic fashion. Unlike today, however, only champions entered the competition and so there were only two groups of four. Rangers were drawn in Group A with Marseille, Club Brugge and CSKA Moscow. Group B compromised of AC Milan, IFK Göteborg, Porto and PSV Eindhoven. The winner of each group would meet in the final in Munich.
The first game of the group was against the big spenders in Europe at that time, Marseille. And it was not difficult to see that French side were strong contenders for the competition outright as they gave Rangers a footballing lesson for most of the game, taking a 2-0 lead through Alen Bokšić and Rudi Vőller, which in all honesty could have been a lot more.
But just when all was seemingly lost, Rangers pulled a result out of the jaws of defeat. On 75 minutes Walter Smith introduced Gary McSwegan to the fray, replacing Trevor Steven, and within a minute he had made a huge impact by scoring a marvellous header that brought Rangers right back into the match when they were seemingly out if it.
A now seriously re-invigorated Rangers sensed that there was a result in the offing where previously there had been none, and with eight minutes remaining Mark Hateley scored the equaliser that secured Rangers a point.
Next stop was Bochum in Germany to take on CSKA Moscow. Due to the severe weather in Russia the game was switched to a neutral venue – and at their first time of asking Rangers secured a Champions League victory on foreign soil with a an early Ian Ferguson goal securing the three points.
Then came the double-header against Club Brugge. The away leg came first where Rangers would again battle back from a losing position to secure a point. Tomasz Dziubinski scored right on half-time to give Brugge the lead, but Rangers came storming back in second-half and Peter Huistra scored a deserved equaliser on 73 minutes.
Now at the half-way stage of the group, Rangers were sitting joint top of the table with Marseille.
The second-part of the double header would prove to be crucial and costly in equal measures. The game itself was another cracker. Rangers took the lead on 41 minutes through Ian Durrant, but the game, and indeed the campaign, was turned on its head when Mark Hateley was sent off just before half-time.
Things got even worse for Rangers just seven minutes after the restart when Lorenzo Staelens pulled Brugge level and left Rangers in a precarious position. However fate was to be behind the Glasgow giants yet again.
With 18 minutes remaining, Scott Nisbet threw in a cross that was deflected on the way in to the box. The deflection put a wicked spin on the ball and as it bounced in the penalty box it inexplicably changed direction and went over a bemused Dany Verlinden’s head in the Brugge goal – and gave Rangers a crucial 2-1 lead, which they held on to.
Rangers then headed to the south of France to meet Marseille. The French champions were top of Group A but only on goal difference, which meant if there was a winner in this game then they were through to the final. Rangers, however, were handicapped by the suspension of Mark Hateley after his sending off against Brugge. Given the magnitude of what was at stake, this was a big miss.
Marseille started well and took the lead on 18 minutes through Franck Sauzée. The French side looked up for the game and had a other chances to go further ahead, the signs started to look ominous for Rangers. But as they had done so often in this campaign, they dug deep and came out with another moment to treasure early in the second-half.
Trevor Steven swept in a corner which was headed out towards the edge of the box, where the on-running Ian Durrant hit an outrageous shot with the outside of his right foot into the far corner of Fabien Barthez’s goal. In the remainder of the match both teams came close to securing the goal which would have booked their place in the first Champions League final – but yet again the teams couldn’t be separated and so it was down to the last game to decide the group.
Rangers would play host to CSKA Moscow and Marseille would head to Brugge. Again the atmosphere at Ibrox was electric when both teams came out of the tunnel. After nine games in a bruising campaign, Rangers were potentially 90 minutes away from a European Cup final – but their luck was just about to run out.
Marseille got the early goal they needed in Brugge to settle any nerves they may have been feeling – thanks to an early Bokšić strike.
Rangers, meanwhile, struggled to break down the CSKA defence – with chance after chance going begging. Ally McCoist missed several key chances, Trevor Francis hit the bar when it seemed easier to score and even John Brown brought out a huge save from Evgeni Plotnikov, who had an inspired night in the CSKA goal. No matter how hard they tried, Rangers just couldn’t get the goal to secure the victory.
It was all academic in the end, however, as Marseille held on to their 1-0 lead in Brugge and secured their place in the final, where they would beat AC Milan thanks to a goal by future Ranger Basile Boli.
After the final whistle against CSKA the disappointment was palpable, but there was still a sense of pride at the enormous achievement the players had secured with their efforts. To go ten games undefeated in Europe – against the calibre of players and clubs Rangers came up against in that campaign – was incredible. One more goal in Marseille would have done it – in fact swapping a draw in the group stage for a win from the knock-out stages would have got Rangers there too. But it wasn’t to be.
Given how football has gone over the last 25 years you have to wonder if the 92/93 campaign won’t only represent the last time Rangers come close to winning Europe’s top prize, but the last time a Scottish club puts in a serious challenge for the big cup.
Domestically Rangers would secure a famous treble in 92/93 – but it is the European campaign that brings most pride from that magnificent season. They were a side that just didn’t know when they were beaten – regardless of the opposition.