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Rangers 2 Marseille 2
UEFA Champions League Group Stage Wednesday 25 November 1992
‘We can reach the final again. Our only problem is the Glasgow team.’Bernard Tapie, pre-match
‘The European Cup has become a historical anachronism … it is not modern thinking,’ remarked Silvio Berlusconi when Diego Maradona’s Napoli were pitted against six- time European champions Real Madrid in the very first round of the competition in 1987/88. ‘It is economic nonsense,’ he said, ‘that a club such as Milan might be eliminated in the first round.’ The AC Milan president’s primary motivations were no doubt for his club and, by proxy, his media company Mediaset which owned Italy’s first private TV station Canale 5; however, there was a wider point too about how European football was structured. It wasn’t that he wanted to eliminate the chances of a David v Goliath story as is often said, it’s that he wanted to prevent a Goliath v Goliath happening before the competition had time to even gather pace.
A league format amongst Europe’s champions was nothing new; in fact, it was the initial plan of the original creator of the tournament, Gabriel Hanot, in 1955 but the quality of travel and communication at the time was the biggest logistical obstacle. Liverpool raised it again soon after being knocked out at the first go by Nottingham Forest in 1978 but these ideas had never caught fire. The time for change was now more pressing and Berlusconi approached the leading name in advertising, Saatchi and Saatchi, to draw up a proposal. As it happened they had an executive by the name of Alex Fynn who had, just that year, given a speech at the launch of the Rothman’s Football Yearbook, advocating a European Super League that made better commercial sense for the champions of the continent. ‘The key,’ according to Fynn was, ‘more event games between the big clubs in the big television markets.’ He proposed an 18-team league comprising of two or three clubs from Europe’s four big leagues and representation from Scotland, France, Portugal, Holland and Belgium.
It was a step too far for UEFA and they didn’t entertain it. The pressure for a better structure couldn’t be ignored forever though, and a suitable compromise came from inside Ibrox Stadium. Rangers were at the time the most influential club in British football and changing the landscape had been on the club secretary Campbell Ogilvie’s mind for some time. ‘Domestically, there was a ceiling,’ Ogilvie said to The Daily Telegraph in 2018. ‘In Europe, you could be out after one round. I remember we played Osasuna in 1985/86 and went out. That spurred on discussion for all clubs of our size – how do we take this forward? Can we get European football into some sort of structure where we could at least be guaranteed six games, three of them at home? That was where it started from.’ At the third attempt, Ogilvie’s plan was accepted and a group stage replacing the quarter-finals was introduced first in the 1991/92 competition and then at an earlier stage in 1992/93 where it would be re-branded in its own right. Berlusconi’s charge, it was thought, had been headed off a pass; however, the media magnate was happy. The original plan was a stalking horse, never imagined to be accepted so soon. This gave him, and the other owners of Europe’s biggest clubs, something that they could work with.
‘It felt like the European Cup with a group stage, a shiny new badge and a theme tune. Instead of being knocked out in November or February, we knew that we would now still be there by April at least,’ said Ian Hogg. We weren’t to understand just how big this would be as we turned up to Ibrox on that soaking wet night, but it did feel important that we had this amount of European football guaranteed, with no away goals causing instant elimination. Rangers would make nearly £5m from these six fixtures, which was a significant windfall at the time. The eight stars logo, symbolising the eight teams to make it to the two groups, were everywhere around the stadium, including the match ball itself, and music inspired by Handel’s Zadok The Priest thundered out for the first time to those in the ground and watching at home on television. This was an instant marketing drive that hasn’t stopped at the time of writing. The whole structure of European football was changing and Rangers were at the heart of it.
The unseeded group draw in Geneva could have been a lot worse. Berlusconi’s AC Milan, the best side in Europe, were on the other half along with PSV Eindhoven, who still had the dynamite of Romário up front, and also FC Porto. It was clear, that Marseille were the favourites to qualify for the final in Munich from Group A. This was their second trip to Ibrox in four months after visiting for a pre-season friendly in July where they were exceptional in a comfortable 2-1 win. By November, however, all was not quite plain sailing in the south of France.
The week before this game, Marseille had sacked their coach Jean Fernandez due to indifferent form and replaced him with their technical director Raymond Goethals, a wily 70-year-old Belgian in a Columbo trench coat who was tactically gifted but no stranger to the darker arts, as evidenced by his conviction for match-fixing whilst manager of Standard Liege in 1982. One would assume that is the kind of business that would normally end a managerial career, but these were not normal times. It was the era when club owners started to become as famous as the managers and star players, whose mouths they stuffed with gold. Bernard Tapie had much in common with Berlusconi in that he had charisma, wealth and a burning desire for footballing and political glory that wouldn’t be curbed by the mere triviality of ethics. He had also given his club the same charismatic injection in 1986 that Rangers had received from Souness, and the two clubs’ fortunes were eerily similar in that both had won four domestic titles in a row and were well in contention for the fifth by the time they met here. Red Star Belgrade had defeated both clubs on their way to winning the big prize in 1991; however, their win over Marseille in the final was infamous for its boredom. Tapie was now obsessed with this over everything else, but realised that because of their physical and mental strength Rangers were a serious obstacle.
It was also a Rangers side in good form. A run of 18 wins in all competitions had come to an end at Tynecastle on the Saturday but a 1-1 draw still kept Rangers in a comfortable position at the top of the pile in Scotland. Walter Smith had his headaches, however, as fitness and the requirement to play a maximum of three non-Scottish players left him threadbare. The biggest blow was the loss of Ally McCoist, who had already scored 32 goals by this stage in November, whereas captain Richard Gough declared himself fit despite being nothing of the sort. ‘It was the kind of situation that littered that first Champions League campaign,’ remembers Ian Hogg. ‘We played a strict 4-4-2 with not a great deal of flexibility so it needed both Hateley and McCoist. It was a devastating blow to lose either (they’d play together in fewer than half of the matches) and it changed how we would have to play significantly.’
Smith appreciated the significance of the fixture but seemed to suggest that this season was viewed as a stepping stone towards future success. ‘My ambitions for Rangers must lead there. The experiences gained this time will help next time around.’ Like the majority of us he was excited, but aware that we probably weren’t yet ready. His defensive unit was a familiar one to anyone following Rangers that season, with Goram behind a back four of McPherson, Gough, Brown and Robertson. The midfield would comprise some experience in the form of Trevor Steven, Alexei Mikhailichenko and Stuart McCall but also saw 19-year-old Neil Murray making his first appearance since an outing against Stranraer in the League Cup back in August. Ian Durrant was pushed further up the field to support Hateley. The Rangers bench for the inaugural Champions League fixture included three youngsters – Steven Pressley, Gary McSwegan and David Hagen – goalkeeper Ally Maxwell and the 34-year-old reserve-team coach Davie Dodds, who had to come out of retirement to be registered. Marseille could afford to leave the likes of Dragan Stojković at home and fielded a standard 3-5-2 with a young Fabien Barthez in goal, Basile Boli and Marcel Desailly being marshalled by the sweeper Bernard Casoni with Éric Di Meco and Jocelyn Angloma on either side. The midfield that night was a three of Franck Sauzée, Didier Deschamps and the highly rated Ghanian Abedi Pele, leaving just Alen Bokšić and Rudi Völler up front.
The common telling of this story is that Rangers were pulverised for 75 minutes before coming off the ropes to snatch point and the continent’s hearts. It’s generally accurate, although the first half an hour was fairly balanced. Marseille had more of the ball, dominated midfield with that extra man in there, but it was Rangers who had the best early chances. Durrant and McCall were involved in a clever bit of work around the box and Mark Hateley was a nuisance to both Barthez and Basile Boli, who had boasted during the week that he would keep him out of the game. The 21-year-old goalkeeper, whom Ray Wilkins had described in the Scotsport studio before the game as ‘a bit iffy at crosses’, flapped when under pressure from the Rangers target man and a fantastic opportunity to put Rangers in the lead was spurned by ‘Miko’ as he dragged his shot wide when most of the goal was gaping open.
If Rangers were happy to pass up gifts, Marseille were not, and on 31 minutes they were in front. Richard Gough came to clear an aerial ball but went too soon and found himself quickly underneath it. Völler, waiting behind him, controlled the ball immediately and took it into the corner, where he was followed by both Brown and the recovering Gough, keen to make up for his error. This left Bokšić unmarked in the box if his partner could find him, which he duly did. The Croatian could have controlled and steadied himself, such was the space afforded him, but instead he drilled it low past Goram first time. Ibrox, as it had been for much of the Leeds United game, was relatively flat, a mixture of nerves and awe at what the fans were watching. This goal didn’t help and nor did the French pressure before the break, when both Deschamps and Pele could have added more goals.
The Rangers captain was nowhere near fit enough to continue, and the 19-year- old Steven Pressley would replace him at half-time, moving out to right-back with Dave McPherson tucking back into central-defence. The difference in the teams, as the second half got underway, was the ability to keep possession, even on a filthy night and a dreadful pitch. Rangers never tried to build from the back, using Goram’s artillery fire for Hateley as often as possible. Ten minutes after the restart John Brown lost the ball in the Rangers half to audible groans, attesting to the tension and frustration from the stands. Marseille kept the ball for a bit before Sauzée attempted a cute but speculative lob over the backline. Pressley took the bait and stretched out a leg to knock the ball past the outrushing Goram when, perhaps on a non-monsoon night, it may have rolled out for a corner. On this night it stuck in the mud and Völler wouldn’t score a simpler goal in his long and illustrious career.
The initial thoughts of many in the packed Ibrox was that it might have been better to be knocked out before Christmas after all if we had to watch six drubbings, which is what we all feared. ‘You were genuinely thinking that this might be a cricket score,’ said Ian Hogg. ‘We have both experienced players and kids all making mistakes against a side littered with world class talent.’ Rangers tried to respond, this team always did, but Casoni had the offside trap set perfectly so playing through wasn’t working; however, there was still some hope when we could get in some wide deliveries. Free kicks led to a penalty shout when Desailly stopped the ball with his arm and a John Brown effort that was blocked off the line by the same player. The French champions had plenty of opportunities for a third themselves as Goram saved once from Bokšić and twice from Angloma, whilst Völler had two more chances which he wasted.
With 15 minutes to go, Rangers didn’t have a pulse. Smith made a change by replacing the very ineffectual Trevor Steven (playing in a fixture that was always going to either inspire or inhibit following his one disappointing season at Marseille) for another young player, the striker Gary McSwegan. This allowed Durrant to fall into a deeper position and it changed the game. Picking the ball up just inside the Rangers half on a counter attack, his vision and speed of thought released Mikhailichenko on the left-hand side in some space. His first-time cross didn’t go into the mixer, as so many had done, but to the back of the defensive line where McSwegan was waiting. With no time to realise the stage he was on, his header was instinctive and brilliant, looping over Barthez and into the top corner. Ibrox Stadium was no longer flat. Nerves had disappeared, hope was replenished. As a young 11-year-old, just starting to get a taste of these nights, I had never heard a noise like it as people went mad around me in the stand. ‘If you were at the back of the enclosures in those days, in moments like that, you’d be ok, but if you were in the middle, you’d end up at the front pretty quickly,’ said Ian, who was in the West Enclosure that evening. ‘I was beside my mate and there was a massive surge in front of us, leaving this empty space for us to dance about in. Ibrox was rocking and there was a real sense around the ground that we should be losing about 3 or 4 nil but it’s now 2-1. We had a chance.’
For the next three minutes it was all Rangers, and the goal that we seemed to feel was inevitable was scored. Such was the rush of adrenaline from McSwegan’s goal, the move started from Mikhailichenko tracking back and robbing Pele of the ball on the left-hand side. Durrant then pushed from midfield, linking up brilliantly with McSwegan on the edge of the box as he evaded Di Meco’s lunge before returning the ball with the outside of his foot. Durrant’s cross was low and it deflected off Casoni into the six-yard box, where Hateley was waiting and Barthez was not. The noise was sensational. Rangers had been out of this, dead and buried, and now there was parity.
The natural reaction for Marseille would have been to dig in and survive the continual aerial onslaught; however, that would have just invited trouble and a side this good went back to what it did best: attack. They created a flurry of late chances with free kicks being blocked and corners punched away. There was a particular moment that could have led to cardiac arrest when the ball stuck in the penalty-box mud the wrong side of Pele before he had a free shot on goal. Both sides simply ran out of time, however, and the very first Champions League match at Ibrox ended all square.
For those Rangers fans pouring out of the ground, the season expectations had just dramatically increased. ‘The second goal changed everything,’ recalls Ian. ‘Before then we were playing for second place. Now there was a feeling that this was going to become a shoot-out. It was now about who could deal best with Club Brugge and CSKA Moscow. Domestic football already felt under control so now Europe had a real focus. It felt on.’ The game typified that team and that season. The example was set, perhaps foolhardily by their captain, when the odds were stacked against them they simply had to keep fighting until there was nothing left. Rangers may have felt like a modern European football club, at the heart of reforming the game to realise its market potential, however we were still fighting continental prestige with an old- fashioned gritty desire.
No one inside the ground that night had any idea of the monster that had just been unleashed as European football would change beyond all recognition by the end of the decade. Rangers and Marseille felt that this progress would be beneficial for upwardly mobile and ambitious champions like themselves but didn’t see that it was where the television markets were that would dictate the shape of things to come. ‘Mine was a football model,’ argued Ogilvie. ‘I was of the view it was a champions’ competition. I never for one moment thought four teams from the same country would be playing in it. Things evolve and it became obvious that to get the higher TV revenues it was going to need more teams from the big countries that command the TV rights. But we have created super-clubs. There are a limited number of teams that are going to win the Champions League.’
The day after Rangers scrapped their way to a result that fans still feel so proud of to this day, Manchester United bought Eric Cantona for just over £1m. The money wasn’t newsworthy, Rangers had matched that more than once before, but it was a move that would turn the Premier League into a marketable narrative that would soon dwarf our game and has yet to slow down at the time of writing.
That night, however, Rangers were the dominant force in Scottish and British football and that horizon seemed endless. We were now playing on a whole new stage. As the new UEFA anthem proclaimed, ‘Ce sont les meilleures équipes, Es sind die allerbesten Mannschaften, The main event’. For the next five months it felt that we could genuinely be kings of this new European game. Die meister. Die besten. Les grandes èquipes.