Reflecting on an incredible season for Rangers and their world record 55th title, Dubai Loyal speaks with former manager and Rangers legend Alex McLeish, not only about the team’s tremendous successes of today, but as we take a walk down memory lane we reminisce about former world record achievements in our club’s history that will never be forgotten.
It’s been over two weeks now since the day that Rangers really did light up the world. Rangers made history as the first ever football team to light up the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building with the world’s largest LED screen to celebrate a world record 55th league championship. The Day Rangers Lit Up the World will now live forevermore in the history of our great club, which is even more poignant when you consider that we are now entering our season-long 150 year celebrations.
This was of course a remarkable season with a spectacular turnaround in points over Celtic who were going for what they would term their 10 in a row, more commonly referred to as Terry Munro amongst Rangers fans. Rangers finished an incredible 25 points ahead of their nearest rivals, setting a new Scottish record of an astonishing 26 clean sheets in a 38-game season. Rangers also emerged from the season undefeated, winning 32 of their 38 games and drawing six, earning the Invincibles title; something they hadn’t achieved since the season of ’98-’99.
“Hold on,” I hear you say, “I don’t remember that.” Well of course you won’t because I am referring to season 1898 – 1899 when Rangers prevailed throughout the whole season, not only undefeated, but having won every game in the league that year (all 18 games). That was a phenomenal achievement then, and what was also a phenomenal achievement this season was the fact that Rangers won every one of the 19 home games they played.
It seems remarkable that we achieved our world record 55th title to set us up perfectly for these 150th celebrations. The club has a proud history of marking special anniversaries with momentous achievements. After all, no true Rangers fan will forget our superb triumph in the European Cup Winners’ Cup in Barcelona in 1972 on what was our 100th anniversary. What might not be so easily remembered was the fact that this was the third European final in which Rangers had competed. In 1961, Rangers were the first ever British team to compete in a European Cup Final (remember and keep that one up your sleeve for those spouting forth in green and grey, losing over two legs to Fiorentina).
In 1967, Rangers faced the might of Bayern Munich in the European Cup Winners’ Cup Final which was held in Nuremberg, perhaps giving Bayern a slight home advantage. It was definitely a case of what might have been, because Rangers had a goal chopped-off in regulation time before the game went on to extra time where Bayern Munich scored a solitary goal to lift the cup.
At I write, we have just passed the anniversary of another momentous occasion; or is that two? I am talking about Helicopter Sunday; but is that 2003 or 2005?
In 2003, the league title went to the wire, where the helicopter really did not know where to land. Rangers were going for a then world record 50th league title with Celtic out to stop them on the last day of the season. This season, it would come down to goal difference and goals scored. At Ibrox that day nobody was certain about to whom the title was going until a certain Mikel Arteta strode forward to score a penalty, making it 6-1 to Rangers. This was in fact the deciding goal to clinch the league and set another world record of becoming the first club in the world to win 50 domestic league trophies.
It was after winning this 50th title that Rangers added the now famous five stars above the club crest in recognition of this world record achievement. Alex McLeish was the manager that day when Rangers secured their world record 50th title in his first full season at Ibrox, claiming his place in Rangers history. He actually went even further that season, winning the treble when Rangers saw off Dundee in the Scottish Cup after having already beaten Celtic earlier in the league cup.
Alex was only the sixth manager in Rangers’ illustrious history to win a treble and, to this date, remains the last manager to have achieved this feat with Rangers. I am sure that Alex will be delighted to have that honour taken from him; hopefully in season 2021-2022 by our current manager Steven Gerrard.
Getting back to the subject of helicopters, whilst we have now just set another world record in achieving our 55th title to the sheer delight of every Rangers supporter across the world at finally reclaiming our place at the top of Scottish football and at the top of the world in lighting up Burj Khalifa, there is still another helicopter Sunday that we will never forget.
On the 22nd of May, 2005, once again led by Alex McLeish, Rangers again won the Scottish league for the 51st time in what was arguably the most incredible finish ever to a league season; even more incredible than the aforementioned league win for the world record 50th title in 2003.
With Celtic two points ahead on the last day of the season, they set off for Motherwell full of confidence whilst Rangers went to Hibs with only hope, knowing that they must win and the unthinkable happen (that Celtic would lose). In Celtic’s case it was going to plan at first, as they found themselves one nil up and seemingly cruising towards the title. Rangers went in 0-0 at half time with the title looking like a lost cause.
The helicopter pilot had surely filed his flight plan to Fir Park Motherwell at that point with green and white ribbons already adorning the cup. But as football often does, it ultimately delivered the most dramatic ending to any season.
Nacho Novo scored for Rangers to give us just a slight glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, the football gods might smile kindly on Rangers. Those football gods didn’t just smile on Rangers; they positively beamed on them with Scott McDonald scoring his first goal to put Rangers incredibly in the driving seat. Had it finished then, Rangers would have won by the slimmest of margins on goal difference. However, the league was secured beyond doubt as Scott McDonald scored a second and the decisive winning goal for Motherwell, prompting the helicopter to alter its course and the replacement of the ribbons once more to red white and blue.
Dubai Loyal was fortunate to catch up with a good friend of the club in Alex McLeish recently and hear his thoughts on a few of the points mentioned above.
DL: Alex, what was it like to win the world record 50th title and become the manager that was responsible for the five stars that still sit proudly above the club crest on every top worn to this day by the players and the fans alike?
AM: As a kid, all I wanted to do was play football and when I began to improve, I developed an attitude of never give in and my ambition was to be a professional footballer and to make the grade. I suppose my playing career at Aberdeen and Scotland would suggest I didn’t do too badly as a player. It would have been my dream to play for Rangers; the team I supported as a boy growing up, influenced
by my dad Alex. Whilst I never managed to play for Rangers, when I was recommended as their manager by Dick Advocaat, it was an incredible honour to be considered as I thought that Rangers would stay on the foreign manager path. To get the call empowered me and my confidence soared when I started to work with a fabulously talented squad.
To follow in the footsteps of Dick Advocaat at Rangers was Simply the Best and I was full of energy and ready for the challenge. I tweaked a couple of things tactically, for example, playing three up against a Celtic back three, which made for a lot of work and strategy for the eight other players. However, they cracked it and we
had amazing success against our rivals who had been beating us previously. We increased the tempo of our assertive passing when I first came in and five trophies in a row later, my wonderful staff and I were rejoicing in the knowledge that we got the team playing to the level expected of them.
When we won the title it didn’t really sink in that we had become world record holders, because I knew the following week we had a cup final and I couldn’t lose focus because winning the treble was, at that point, seen as the major goal. It was only after the treble had been secured and I was presented with a commemorative medal; in fact, two commemorative medals, that things began to sink in and the realisation that we had achieved a world record with our 50th title.
Winning the 50th title was an absolutely momentous achievement for all of us at Rangers, as well as my wonderful supportive family, close friends and of course the incredible Rangers family worldwide. It was of course a huge honour to win that particular milestone of the 50th and world record title.
The two medals I received from Rangers remain very special to me and my family to this day. The first was for 50 titles and a world record, and the second medal was for treble winners in 2003. In fact, the chairman also presented me with a special watch as personal recognition of that achievement, which I still value extremely highly to this day.
DL: You then went on to win the treble that season, beating Dundee in the Scottish Cup Final. Did you think then that you would remain the last Rangers manager to have won a treble?
AM: As I said, winning the treble was a fantastic achievement that I am sure the whole Rangers family enjoyed and appreciated. It is pretty sad that the treble of 2003 remains the last won by Rangers, but the way Steven Gerrard has improved, not just the playing squad at Ibrox but the whole football side of things, I am sure it will not be long before he is winning his first treble.
DL: What would you say was the most nerve-racking; the league win against Dunfermline in 2003 or the win away to Hibs that clinched the league in the most dramatic of circumstances in 2005?
AM: The Dunfermline game was very special. Of course we knew we just had to keep scoring as many as possible and we should win the league that day, and the players certainly never disappointed. In 2005 at Easter Road things were very different because, in many ways, things were out of our hands and we had to rely on Motherwell winning against the odds. Nacho Novo scored for us in the second half to put us back in with a chance if Motherwell could only score one goal. At the end, nobody was exactly sure what was happening because the Rangers support on hearing Motherwell had scored were totally jubilant and then when there was another huge roar I thought that was it all over at Fir Park, but it wasn’t. It was Motherwell scoring another goal which sealed the title and created the legend now known as “Helicopter Sunday”. Nerve-racking might have been Dunfermline but sheer emotion probably has to be Helicopter Sunday,
purely because the end was so dramatic and it truly was the fairytale ending to any season.
DL: After everything that Rangers have been through in these last few years, how pleased were you to see Rangers and Steven Gerrard secure the new world record of 55 titles?
AM: The momentous number 50 did not resonate with me at the time because of the impending Scottish Cup Final. No matter what number it was, the title and treble were paramount. Celtic were dominating and we had to rise to not only match their challenge but to beat them. The world record 50th title was an incredible bonus having also won the trebel bonus. I’m sure Steven would say the same, that overcoming Celtic was his main aim, and the fact that 55 is a new world record was the icing on the cake. Of course I was delighted to see Rangers win their 55th title and once again sit proudly at the top of Scottish football.
DL: Another piece of history made by you in your time as manager at Rangers was that you became the first manager of a Scottish club to progress through the group stages of the Champions League. With Rangers winning the league this year, this means that Rangers will now go into the Champions League qualifying round, which is great. Do you think Steven Gerrard and this Rangers team will be able to emulate your own success in the Champions League and get us through the qualifiers and the group stages?
AM: Again, it was another wonderful achievement getting through the group stage of the Champions League. I would certainly hope that Steven goes as far as me if not further in the Champions League. However, with the money flowing into the top leagues nowadays it has become harder for clubs outside the big five leagues to compete as equals. That becomes very evident when you generally see the same
teams competing in the latter stages of the Champions League year on year.
DL: I am sure, like every other person on this planet with a connection to Rangers, that you will have seen the videos and press reports of the day that Rangers lit up the world when they put a lightshow on the Burj Khalifa. Knowing you are a regular visitor to Dubai and have I am sure seen the incredible light shows they put on at the Burj Khalifa, what did you think when you saw it light up to celebrate Rangers’ new world record and their 55th title?
AM: Yes I saw that and thought it was spectacular. I had friends contacting me from all over asking if I had seen it and saying what a fantastic effort it was to actually make that happen. The whole thing was made even more special for me knowing one of my very good friends out in Dubai was instrumental in making it happen.
DL: Finally, Alex, thanks for taking time to talk to us and give what I am sure is a great personal insight into some of your very special moments as Rangers’ manager. You also went on to manage Scotland and in fact were instrumental in getting Scotland to this year’s Euros. What are your plans and thoughts for the upcoming Euros?
AM: It was great to be part of the Scotland set-up that allowed us to qualify through the playoff stages and of course I wish Scotland and Steve Clarke every success this year. Hopefully Scotland can progress, although it will be very difficult, because they are in an incredibly tough group. I have a couple of media things that I will be doing during the Euros, and I am really looking forward to this tournament, as I believe it will be really exciting with a number of possible winners and some great football on display.
A final word: Hopefully this short article has enabled some insight into just what it meant to Alex to manage his boyhood heroes, and what the incredible successes he achieved for the club and the Rangers family across the world during his time at Ibrox meant to him and all those associated with him.
Written by R. McGregor – Dubai Loyal