What had started as a burgeoning riptide under Graeme Souness in 1986 was now a fully formed tidal wave by 1992. Its genesis can be traced back to the stewardship of Chief Executive David Holmes in the mid-80s and the purchase of the club in 1988 by an enigmatic young businessman by the name of David Murray. Both men had modernized Rangers business operations in a manner that was incomparable with their peers, thus creating an infrastructure capable of attracting a caliber of player that wouldn’t have given Scottish football a second look only a few years previously. Rangers went from a side who had finished 4th prior to Souness arrival to routinely lifting the titles by the end of the decade. While this domestic success had laid the groundwork for what was to become a dynasty throughout the 90s, their start to the new decade wasn’t one they expected.
Graeme Souness was cutting an agitated figure by 1991, created largely by what he felt was a suffocating claustrophobia of working within Scottish football. A lengthy touchline ban was perhaps the final straw needed to turn his attentions elsewhere, starting rumors that his services had been courted by Liverpool in 1990. Souness would eventually sign in April of 91 with the Anfield side and had probably expected to see out the remainder of the season, especially as the title race with Aberdeen was going to the wire. Despite being a close friend of Souness David Murray’s show of strength was as brave as it was remarkable, stating that Souness departure was to be immediate much to the chagrin his adoring Rangers fanbase. The timing of the whole affair could not have come at a worse time, especially as Rangers were visibly losing momentum as the league reached its climax, yet between all the chaos it provided Murray with an opportunity to promote a man that was every inch a Rangers manager.
Prior to joining Rangers as assistant manager in 1986 Walter Smith had served as No.2 to Jim McLean at Dundee United, during what was an unprecedented period of success in the club’s history. His transfer to Rangers was unique in that he was to serve under a player-manager, something that hadn’t happened at Rangers before or since. Souness spent much of his first season as an active squad member, leaving Smith to lead daily training sessions and largely manage game day tactical decisions as a de facto Head Coach. In many respects Smith had been a manager in waiting for some time.
Smith’s promotion to manager was by no means a token gesture by Murray, sentiment was not a commodity that the new owner of Rangers dealt in. Nor did he have to, especially when Rangers were an attractive proposition for many of the best coaches in the continent at the time. Smith was a highly respected figure in Scottish football, but most importantly had the complete buy of the Rangers squad behind him. Smith would navigate Rangers to a league championship title in May of 1991, with his side securing a 2-1 victory over title rivals Aberdeen at Ibrox on the final day of the season.
Smith would go on to a successive title defense in his first full season in charge, this time by a nine-point margin over nearest competitors Hearts. Rangers would close out 91/92 with a 2-1 victory over Airdrie in the Scottish Cup final, bringing the trophy back to Ibrox for the first time in over a decade.
Season 91/92 would also provide Smith with his first sojourn into European football, with Rangers drawn against Czechoslovakian champions Sparta Prague. The First leg of the tie would see Rangers losing 1-0 in Prague, leaving them with it all to do in the return leg in Govan. In front of a raucous Ibrox crowd Stuart McCall scored a goal in the 47th minute, getting Rangers back on level footing and taking the game to extra time. Three minutes into extra time McCall would score another to give Rangers a 2-1 advantage, lifting the roof off an exhilarated Ibrox. Moments later Rangers had the ball in the net again, but this time Scott Nisbet turned a deflected clearance past Andy Gorm to make it 2-2 on the night but. With the result remaining unchanged after 120 minutes Sparta Prague advanced to the 2nd round on the away goals rule.
Sparta Prague would advance again by the away goals rule in the second round, this time seeing off pre-tournament favorites Marseille in what was a shock result. They progressed into UEFA’s first experiment with the format moving away from the traditional knock out stages and instead implementing dual group section play across six matchdays between the final 8 sides. The eventual group winners of each section, Barcelona and Sampdoria, went on to play in the final at Wembley Stadium.
The success of the previous years competition reformat served as the catalyst in 92/93 serving as the liftoff point for UEFA to take its flagship club competition into another stratosphere. What had once been a quaint yet universally respected competition, was about to be propelled forward by a jet powered marketing machine. No longer referred to as “The European Cup”, the debuting nomenclature “The UEFA Champions League” was emblazoned for everyone to see from any vantage point. As a television viewer we were greeted with a new standardized broadcast title sequence, equipped with a small number of banner sponsorships that would receive continual brand recognition throughout the telecast.
As a stadium attendee we’d also see a more uniform approach to signage, with UEFA enforcing that clubs replace their field perimeter billboards with carefully designed pops of color containing UEFA sanctioned product placement. Perhaps the most iconic introduction, and something that has remained consistent despite the competitions many incarnations, was the newly designed Champions League logo that was plastered across any empty stadium real-estate like decorative wallpaper.
Perhaps the most intriguing Champions league logo of them all was placed inside the center circle prior to kick off. As the teams entered the field, lining up in a horizontal uniform fashion only previously reserved for an international match or a cup final, a group of willing volunteers would waive the banner vigorously whipping up the crowd in the process. Over the stadium speakers’ fans would be treated to the first operatic chimes of “Zadok the Priest”, the Champions League’s new official anthem that has since become so synonymous with the competition. I can only really speak for my experiences at Ibrox of the time, but in those few moments prior to kick off the noise was as thunderous as it was organic. The alchemy between the realization of where your team was competing met with the anxiety and excitement of the occasion, combined to foster this guttural roar that normal matchdays just simple couldn’t conjure.
For the inaugural Champions League several geo-political events led to an alteration in the overall qualification process. The expulsion of any teams from Yugoslavia from competing in UEFA competitions due to the civil war in the region and the unification of Germany, removing any need for an East Germany representative, actually reduced the number of competing sides momentarily.
UEFA’s acceptance of Israel’s membership application, as well as the growing number of countries gaining independence from the falling of the Soviet Union would soon see UEFA’s membership grow to it’s largest ever. Co-efficiency points were used to select the first 28 of 32 participants, with the champions of Ukraine, Ireland, Malta, Israel, Faroe Islands, Latvia, Slovenia and Estonia all taking part in a two-legged preliminary round to fill out the final four places.
The first-round draw is one of the final vestiges of an era the elite clubs had regaled against, in that UEFA used a completely open and unseeded draw. The second round saw a move toward a seeded draw, again based on co-efficiency points, which for the time was still a novel idea. UEFA were acutely aware that for their new financial model to work it would be preferable for the larger TV audiences to have a vested interest when tuning in, especially during a time when the culture of football consumption wasn’t as all encompassing as it is today.
Walter Smith’s curation of his 92/93 Champions League squad began in earnest one year previous. European clubs were moving ever closer to a new ruling that had been announced at the turn of the decade, in which UEFA would be limiting teams to 3 foreign players throughout each matchday squad.
“Only three foreign players plus two `assimilated’ foreigners (those who have lived in the country for five years or who have played in the club’s youth team) can take the field during a single game.”
A UEFA delegate would also state, “We are not prohibiting the signing of foreign nationals, just how many that can appear on the field at one time.” The more cynical among you may deduce that this ruling favors clubs from larger nations as they would have a greater pool of elite players to pick from, yet the reality was Smith was left with no choice but to begin the process of trimming down the growing number of English and assorted other foreign nationals in his squad.
The first major departures in 1991 were Chris Woods leaving for Sheffield Wednesday, Mark Walters for Liverpool and Trevor Steven for Marseille. Their replacements were Scottish internationals Andy Goram from Hibernian, Stuart McCall from Everton and David Robertson from Aberdeen.
During the summer of 1992 further departures included former England international Nigel Spackman to Chelsea and former English youth international Paul Rideout to Everton. Transfers into Rangers in the summer of 1992 were fairly modest in comparison to previous years with Smith only signing former Rangers defender Dave McPherson from Hearts, a reliable and versatile player who had left during the Souness era but represented a solid piece of business.
Moves for Leeds United’s Gary McAllister and Dundee United’s Duncan Ferguson had been discussed in the press at the time, neither of which would come to fruition this particular summer. Smith also made the decision to promote Steven Pressley, Neil Murray, Gary McSwegan and David Hagen from the reserve side, with a number of other youngsters such as Sandy Robertson and Brian Reid also making fleeting appearances throughout the season.
Rangers final piece of business was more opportunistic than carefully planned, as Trevor Steven would return to Ibrox a year after his initial departure. Sold to Marseille for 5 million pounds Rangers were able to acquire him back for almost half that amount as Bernard Tapie, Marseille’s owner, began a financial downsizing of the club.
So with the squad now in place Rangers began the 92/93 season with seven foreign players, a number not without a degree of context required. Gary Stevens and Oleg Kuznetsov had endured an injury ravaged 91/92 season, which would unfortunately continue into the new campaign rendering their participation in European competition as questionable. While we are no where near the level of squad rotation that we see in today’s game, rotating through the remaining five players was viewed as manageable given the spine of this Rangers team was Scottish and all but picked itself.
Join us during this series as we go through this monumental season in the history of Glasgow Rangers. We will relive every kick of their European run as Britain’s first entrant into the UEFA Champions League group stages, as well as a full analysis using modern means.
In addition to our written work we will release a podcast series that will serve as a companion piece to provide further color to these historic encounters.