It is an incredible feat to win a league title several seasons in a row, and Rangers’ achievements in the late 1980s and early-’90s were incredible. Their constantly improving philosophy, stylish football, and domination of the league was impressive, while their consistency frequently raised questions of just how far they could go.
Throughout the years though you could not deny the ability of the Rangers sides to win in an entertaining manner with displays full of vibrancy and effervescence typified by having memorable legendary players at the helm from the quiet reserve of Andy Goram and Richard Gough in defence to the high goal scoring of Ally McCoist.
Goram was signed from Hibernian for only £1 million – a snip by today’s standards – considering how vital he kept 20 clean sheets in the league season. His form was imperative to the success of Rangers during these years, with his name being synonymous with excellence and revered as one of the best goalkeepers in Europe along with another goalkeeper in place with a formidable domestic side, Peter Schmeichel.
Richard Gough was the only player to appear in all nine seasons of this period, he joined Rangers from Tottenham Hotspur in 1987-88 for £1 million, becoming the first Scottish footballer to move for that fee, and he was a fearless defender who did not shirk challenges but had the intelligence to come out of defence and play confidently with the ball at his feet also.
Then there is Ally McCoist, perhaps, one of the players so identifiable with this Rangers side. He was a goalscorer who was more than prolific, winning the European Golden Boot for two consecutive seasons – the only Scottish player to do so. He was the top marksman in Europe, spoken in such luminous company as Jean-Pierre Papin and Marco Van Basten.
And yet, while those players gilded with a balletic quality, McCoist was the spit and sawdust sort of striker, the fox in the box who was clinical in latching upon defensive errors whilst still able to score crackers such as seen in the 1993 League Cup final against Hibernian.
During the 1992-93 season, the year they won the fifth domestic treble, the most impressive results during the campaign came away from home. A 4-0 away win to Dundee United (who would eventually finish fourth) in September as well as a crucial 4-3 win at Hibernian in late January which kept up an impressive undefeated streak. Having lost away at Dundee 4-3 on August 15, the next defeat came against the Auld Enemy, Celtic on 20 March 1993. That was 29 league games unbeaten culminating in a league title victory of nine points
Researching this can do funny things and change your perspective – whilst the achievement is not to be underestimated, the feat needs to be put into context which only history and numbers can do so.
At the time, Scottish football was going through a sea change of transition both on and off the field. The arrival of Graeme Souness to Scotland’s second city in the mid-1980s was a shaking of the system to its core. With Alex Ferguson moving south to Manchester United, Souness quickly became the big noise in the SPL and yet he backed it up with results, the first of the nine was won under his stewardship in 1988/89 as they overcame Ferguson’s old side Aberdeen by a six-point margin with a +36 goal difference, losing six league games with a points tally of 56.
This is important to note, as Scottish football was still awarding only two points for a league victory and one for a draw. The change of format to the now accepted norm would not occur until the 1991/92 season when three points for a win would be awarded.
Two more seasons of title victories occurred in 1989/90 and 1990/91 with both teams beating Aberdeen again to the league title, the latter being the tightest title race Rangers would have in the run of nine. Aberdeen were second by two points. This would be Souness’ last season as he left for Liverpool. He would be replaced by the talismanic Walter Smith.
Walter Smith had worked under the underappreciated Jim McLean at Dundee United, a side that won the league in 1983, and he brought the work with McLean to the fore. Plenty of running, psychologists and dieticians, yet a side built on cohesion and regularity.
In 1992/93 football altered as it was the first season of the new Champions League format replacing the European Cup, going from a knockout competition to a group format. Rangers would feature prominently in this first season of the new format, getting within one goal of the final, ultimately succumbing to eventual winners, Olympique Marseille.
Their path in the Champions League was difficult and there was one popular encounter – a Battle of Britain encounter with Leeds United in October and November in 1992. Rangers would win and land in a group format with Marseille, CSKA Moscow, and Club Brugge. Those four sides would play each other home and away, with the group winner qualifying for the Champions League final.
Yet, it was the Battle of Britain that remains in the heart. You had the oddity of Englishmen playing for the Scottish side – Trevor Steven and Mark Hateley – facing Scotsmen Gordon Strachan and Gary McAllister facing the champions of Scotland. Rangers entered the first-leg on the back of 12 successive league victories, whilst Leeds were suffering from a championship hangover. Famously, they went all of this campaign with only one English league victory.
McAllister gave Leeds a dream start with a rocket from a defensive corner clearance after two minutes before a freak own goal by John Lukic levelled the tie midway through the first half. McCoist gave Rangers the first leg advantage, typically turning home from six yards when Lukic could only parry a Hateley header straight to him.
In the second leg, Hateley gave Rangers a vital lead with a sublime finish uncommon for his style which gave Lukic no chance. It was an uphill battle for Leeds to overcome and it was McCoist who would settle the tie as he was set up beautifully by Hateley on a breakaway counter attack and gave Rangers a 4-2 aggregate victory.
It was one of eight games in which the partnership of McCoist and Hateley would both score in, a partnership that was paramount to the success of Rangers during this campaign. During the 1992/93 season, they combined for 78 goals in all competitions – McCoist with 49 and Hateley with 29 – the next best were Iain Durrant and Pieter Huistra with 7 each.
Ultimately, due to a combination of injuries to key players at vital stages and misfortune in losing their shooting boots, Rangers needed one win from their last two games to qualify. Yet two consecutive draws away at Marseille and a goalless home draw with CSKA Moscow meant that Rangers missed out by one point to the French champions who went on to defeat AC Milan in the final.
A myth in this period was that Rangers were always beating Celtic to the title. This, however, was not true. Celtic were runners-up on only two occasions, with those being the last two seasons of the Rangers dynasty. That was by a four and five-point gap respectively. A commendable effort from the Bhoys came in the 1995-96 season when they lost just one league game all season, but that also states the quality of the Rangers team.
When you encounter the research, the accepted wisdom of the Rangers streak was that the best side was near the end when they were shepherded by Brian Laudrup and Paul Gascoigne. These two mercurial talents who were both near the end of there illustrious careers.
Laudrup had helped Denmark recently win the 1992 European Championships with his brother, Michael, Peter Schmeichel and the forgotten John Jensen; whilst Gascoigne was returning to Britain from Lazio, Italy and his form in the Scottish Premier League led to his second great run culminating with Euro 1996.
The 1992/93 side also deserves a lot of praise. This side won the league by a clear nine points and was scoring for fun. This went hand-in-hand with tactical innovation by Walter Smith, who took over from Souness in 1991.
The change of league format to three points meant that it was rewarding for sides to be attacking so Rangers made it their clear goal to do so. The first season in 1991/92, McCoist scored 34 league goals, and repeated the feat the next season with the same number, despite missing the last seven league games.
This league triumph led them to the Champions League and made household names of Iain Durrant – an attacking midfielder who would score vital goals when making late runs into the box. Durrant was a determined midfielder who would show bursts from an inside-left position predominantly, but he was, unfortunately, injury prone throughout his Rangers career.
Signed to the side from 1985-1998 he played 246 games in total scoring 26 games, and as mentioned seven came in the 1992/93 season. He won six league titles, yet his best season both in terms of fitness was that season when he came to prominence and the hope was he would kick on and become paramount
They conceded only 31 goals all season and were marshalled by the backline by new goalkeeper Andy Goram and a defence by Gary Stevens, Richard Gough, and David Robertson.
The next season, McCoist was as prolific with 34 more league goals, yet he lost the Players’ Player and Football Writers Award to Goram; the team won the league title with one more point reaching 73 points, scoring 97 goals, winning by nine points from Aberdeen in second.
It remained mostly the core squad as the season before, and that is a mark of a good side – the nucleus staying together and getting better in terms of achievement going from a double-winning side, to a treble-winning side and the possibility of European glory.
Looking back, it would bewilder people and Rangers themselves how they could not translate that dominant domestic football to the European matches. This is partly the age-old problem of the domestic league not being competitive enough and too easy to overcome, not preparing those sides for the difficulties of different footballing cultures.
Yet, this Rangers side were a wonder for so many years, playing up-tempo football, crisp-passing moves and showing a ruthlessness in defence not seen before in Scottish football. And yet their dominance did a disservice to the Scottish top division, which throughout the 1980s was one of the continent’s most competitive with several different victors.
This dominance of nine years in a row made the league a shadow of what it was; Scottish players left for the English game and the league ultimately became a duopoly between Rangers and their city rivals, ending when Rangers went into administration. Now, the Scottish Premier League is a bastion of Celtic dominance, yet there remains a time when the town was most certainly painted blue.