50 Greatest Games – Sample Preview 2
Celtic 1 Rangers 2
Skol League Cup Final Sunday 26 October 1986
Well done is better than well said.’Benjamin Franklin
At the time of writing we would have to go back to Scot Symon in 1954/55 in order to find the last successful Rangers manager who didn’t win a trophy by the end of their first full season in charge. The pressures associated with managing modern-day Rangers are immense and few are afforded a sluggish start. By the time you are reading this, one hopes that Steven Gerrard has already bucked that trend by adding silverware following a barren, if still positive, first season. His arrival in the summer of 2018 attracted many comparisons, almost all of them unfair, with the spring of 1986 when Graeme Souness swept into Scottish football. Souness’s natural swagger and ambition were consistent with a financial backing that was hitherto unheard of in this country, in addition to the British footballing market place being far more accessible than anything Gerrard could imagine whilst sitting in the same chair.
It was imperative then that the hype was backed up with tangible success and quickly. The new player–manager had brought an arrogance and assurance that the support both desperately needed and craved; however, it was an image that could look very much like insecure bravado if it wasn’t backed up with the accumulation of shiny objects. Thankfully, the first opportunity to gather forward momentum arrived just as the clocks went back, in the shape of the Skol League Cup Final. Souness had already notched his first league win against Celtic, an Ian Durrant goal making the difference at Ibrox in the August, and it would be our most bitter rivals who lay in wait in this first opportunity for success. The start to the season had been less than smooth; however, Rangers approached this final still in the UEFA Cup and only three points off the top of the table. With such a massive transition from hopeless also-rans to a modern professional outfit, keeping the pace in the first quarter of the season was to be commended.
It was clear as he walked off the Ibrox pitch with a calf injury the previous Thursday night, a 2-1 UEFA Cup win over Boavista, that if Souness was to be successful at Hampden, it would be all manager and no player. Rangers kept the pretence of a possible starting berth going right up to the day itself (Souness said after that he saw ‘no point in giving our opponents an advantage by saying so’) but the players knew the he’d be missing and could prepare accordingly. When Souness envisaged being involved in his first trophy-winning match he must surely have assumed that he would be on the park and the frustration at missing out was clear as 3pm approached and he made his way to his main stand viewpoint. ‘I can remember after saying “all the best” in the dressing room, coming up the stairs, it had just kicked off and I was late in getting up there. I actually paused for a moment to go through the doors. And I didn’t want to go through those doors, I wanted to get back on the line because it’s so hard watching the game. There was pressure on that one.’
He still exuded confidence, whether up in the stand or down on the bench in the latter stages of the game. His suit was so sharp it looked as if it was tailor-made for him in Italy before he departed Genoa. In contrast, his opposite number that day, Davie Hay, was sporting a green blazer over a mustard v-neck sweater, and, although the blazer and knitwear combination has been pulled off immaculately by Mourinho and Guardiola in recent years, Hay spent the entire afternoon looking like a coach driver who was worried that his party of pensioners were spending too much time at Southwaite services.
Celtic too had been in European action in advance of the final. A first leg 1-1 draw at home to Dynamo Kiev was generally considered to be the end of that tie; however, Hay remained defiant. ‘You may think I’m a crank or a crackpot,’ he said, ‘but going there with a 1-1 draw might suit us better than had we been travelling having won the match 1-0.’ Celtic would lose 3-1 but Hay needn’t have worried about people’s reaction to that particular quote. Despite being described by Archie McPherson before the game started as ‘one of the most unflappable characters in the business’, he’d outdo himself by the end of the weekend.
Cammy Fraser would start in the absence of Souness, although he too wasn’t 100 per cent fit. Rangers packed the midfield with him, Ian Durrant and Derek Ferguson in the centre of the park and Davie Cooper and Ted McMinn operating further wide. McCoist would be up front on his own and, with Dave McPherson missing from the usual four-man defence, it would be Jimmy Nicholl, Ally Dawson, Terry Butcher and Stuart Munro lining up in front of Chris Woods. Celtic’s only injury concern was Tommy Burns, who had been on the end of a terrible tackle against Kiev, and he was replaced by Tony Shepherd in midfield, but they still had a formidable front three of Alan McInally, Brian McClair and Maurice Johnston for Rangers to contend with.
The atmosphere was electric from the start, especially in the jam-packed Rangers end of the ground. In amongst it behind the goal was a young Scot Van Den Akker, on his first trip to Hampden to see Rangers. ‘We sold the tickets out for that game in a day or two. Celtic had tickets on sale on the day of the game. They were league champions, they were top of the league, but they knew the possibilities of the Souness Revolution.’ The two sides had met at this stage of the competition in March 1984 and there were large parts of the Celtic terraces empty on that day; however, this probably had less to do with a fear of a bumbling Rangers side and more to do with the fact that both team’s seasons were fizzling out. This situation was different and it was indeed odd that there was such a struggle to fill their allocation.
The first half was characterised by half chances and full tackles. Celtic captain Roy Aitken was allowed two bad ones before a third, all of which inside the first ten minutes, finally warranted a booking. McInally was also booked before committing an even worse foul on Jimmy Nicholl at the corner flag, whilst Murdo McLeod was fortunate to escape a card following a common assault on Stuart Munro. The chances came from the scattering of inevitable free kicks, with McClair and Butcher going close from cross balls early on and Cammy Fraser hitting the post from a dead ball just outside the box. There was some fluency too. McMinn went inches wide, Durrant blazed over after some nice work with McCoist and Celtic had the best chance of the opening 45 minutes when Johnston hit the post after being sent through by Aitken, and Woods saved from the Mark McGhee rebound. It was evident early that, although Rangers had the bodies in midfield, they either weren’t fully fit or tactically disciplined to maintain the shape as they had done in August. Derek Ferguson, who was succeeding in his attempts to model his play on his manager, was becoming increasingly isolated.
The same pattern continued into the second half, with Celtic always looking like they had options when in attack and Durrant and Cooper looking especially frustrated and tightly marked. Johnston and Nicholl went into the book and yet again Aitken was allowed to commit atrocities in the name of football without a second yellow card, this time on Cooper on the edge of the box.
With just over an hour gone, Cooper was fouled again, this time by Peter Grant near the corner on the Rangers right side. The free kick was swung in by Cammy Fraser, missing its intended target Butcher, but also Roy Aitken. Instead it came through to Ian Durrant, with Tony Shepherd in close attention. Controlling the ball instantly with his left thigh, Shepherd was taken out of the game, and Durrant drilled it low past Bonner into the net. For the second time in eight weeks the 19-year-old showed a level of composure amidst the madness that was well beyond his years. As was tradition, the bears in the Rangers end showed far less. ‘He had the silky touch that others lacked,’ recalled Scot. ‘I’m so glad that it fell to him. The usual bedlam followed. You ended up 25 yards away, probably missing a shoe.’
Celtic responded strongly. Owen Archdeacon missed from a free header, McClair then hit the bar with a free kick before deservedly getting his side level with a superb goal that gave Woods absolutely no chance. Aitken was allowed to run freely through the middle of the park before giving to Johnston who laid it off to McClair on the edge of the box, where he unleashed a rocket into the top-right corner. With just 20 minutes left, the dreaded momentum swing was only going in one direction. ‘Cammy Fraser wasn’t fit. Derek Ferguson was our midfield. We simply weren’t tracking runners. They were more connected. McCoist hadn’t had a sniff and McMinn and Cooper were playing their own game,’ said Scot. ‘Strangely we all wanted the final whistle. Everyone was exhausted. Penalties would be a good result.’
Souness replaced the tired Fraser with Dave MacFarlane in an attempt to provide some much-needed solidity. The game was naturally becoming more and more stretched but the pattern remained the same: Rangers had good delivery from set pieces that caused concern and confusion in the Celtic box and Celtic were dangerous and numerous on the break, but the Rangers defence was becoming more adept at dealing with them. If Celtic had stopped conceding so many needless fouls in dangerous areas, they may well have won the cup.
With seven minutes to go Murdo McLeod’s only answer to Cooper’s skilful run was to take his legs away, and Rangers were handed yet another opportunity to cause chaos. The move started with some brilliant play by man-of-the-match Ferguson, and it was apt that he should then deliver the resulting free kick. Not for the first time that afternoon, it went to the back post, where Aitken and Butcher had been fighting for supremacy. In this instance Aitken lost his man and had to grab him back. Butcher offered little resistance to the pull and fell to the floor, whilst referee David Syme considered it briefly before giving the penalty. The Rangers captain may have been happy to fall, but it was unquestionably a foul, Jim McLean was in no doubt on co-commentary, and yet another from Aitken who had been on a booking since the tenth minute of the match.
The cracks in Celtic’s discipline that had been visible all afternoon were now a gaping chasm as two further bookings (for Bonner and Archdeacon) were administered following a large delegation sent to contest the decision. Davie Cooper, meanwhile, was ice cool as he waited to take the penalty. ‘Of course Cooper would score it,’ said Scot. ‘I believed he could colonise Mars.’ He sent Bonner the wrong way, stood still as McCoist lifted him into the air and two iconic images were born. Firstly, the two of them, Rangers men who had waited a long time for the club to take off, locked in a celebratory embrace, and the second when Cooper was left to take his own ovation, the back of the number 11 waving at the raucous, wild crowd in front of him.
From the touchline, where Souness was now decamped, the instructions were to breathe deeply and see the remaining six minutes out. No one took any heed. McCoist was booked for a scything tackle on Whyte on the halfway line, which he made great efforts to make look like a 50–50 collision. During this period of stoppage time, matters got out of hand further down the pitch. Munro and Johnston had an altercation, involving a coming together of heads, that was spotted by the stand-side linesman and it resulted in a booking for both, meaning Johnston had to walk. He did so whilst making the sign of the cross, despite all players being warned beforehand about making religious gestures.
Confusion ruled Hampden at that moment, but Scot Van Den Akker wasn’t in any doubt. ‘I was miles away so couldn’t see what happened. But I absolutely hated Mo Johnston at this time so I was very sure that he had deserved it.’ Syme got that decision correct, however he lost control soon after. A Celtic fan had hit him with a coin from the nearby stand and he mistakenly thought that it was Tony Shepherd so duly sent him off too. It wasn’t until his linesman gave him the correct information that he rescinded the card and Shepherd remained on the field of play. The retraction didn’t alter the fact that the match had ended in a shambolic farce that could have been avoided.
It was too much for Hay as he went on the pitch and seemed to suggest that he would take the ball and just go home. Later that day he would tell the press that, ‘if it had anything to do with me I would apply for Celtic to join the English league tomorrow.’ This feeling of robbery was backed by the club’s official newspaper later in the week but it lacked any substance. Hay had an issue with the penalty, which came from a clear pull in the box, and felt that Munro should have been sent off as well as Johnston, ignoring the concept of multiple yellow cards. The truth of the matter was that Celtic’s own indiscipline, made clear in those early stages of the game, cost them dear. Spooked perhaps by the changes at Ibrox and that early defeat, they had lost their head and Syme’s, corrected, error gave them room in the press to deflect from those deficiencies. As Alan Davidson put it in The Evening Times the following day, ‘To the victors the spoils. To the losers a sense of injustice that has hovered around them, like some maiden aunt, for the best part of a century.’
And how the victors enjoyed those spoils. Celtic had been the better side, although they could have been down to ten inside the first half, but Rangers had kept their cool when it counted. For the fans it was simply the confirmation of every assumption that they had made since 8 April 1986. Scot Van Den Akker feels that it cannot be understated. ‘When someone comes in and says that they have a vision and then they deliver their first trophy, one out of one, you had better believe that it mattered to us. When Souness arrived and you had to queue around the block to get tickets, there was a feeling like you had been trapped in a very large box and someone had finally tipped open the box and you could now see the world beyond. That’s what this game was to me. For all the fans there that day, for the first time since his arrival, there was a feeling that we could actually harness the huge support that we had. The stadium had been built for far better teams than we had been watching on the pitch. The trophy room was built for far better teams than we had seen recently. You could see what could happen. It was all possible. Everything was waiting for us. I would have bet on us winning the European Cup in the next five years right there. We hadn’t even won the league yet. We weren’t even top of the table! But we knew what was coming. It was exhilarating leaving that stadium that day.’
It wasn’t that the League Cup itself was the springboard required for further success. Rangers had won it on three occasions in the last five years, but those were seen as brief intermissions from the grim atmosphere that had engulfed the club. It wasn’t that this match was the immediate catalyst for a league-winning run of form either, as Rangers drew two and lost the other of their next three league games. The reason that this match is still loved to this day isn’t just because it was an Old Firm cup final win where Celtic lost the plot entirely whilst our heroes looked supercool. It’s because it was a confirmation that the support’s trust was, finally, well-placed. It is because there is a childlike need deep within all football fans for a father figure at the head of their club that never disappears, no matter how old we get. Rangers was in good hands at last.
One of those hands was clenched in a fist of triumph as Souness looked up from the track to Chairman David Holmes in the main stand seconds after the final whistle blew. Not a thread out of place in the suit. A man in complete control amongst the bedlam. Everything was going to be alright.