‘A Scottish club getting to the Europa League final, it shouldn’t really happen, should it? Let’s be honest.’
40-year-old, two-time Europa League finalist, FA Cup runner-up, and multiple titles and trophy winner Allan McGregor said that earlier this week.
Now, this is the same man who has spent most of his career at Ibrox and was present the last time a Scottish team reached a European final. That happened to be Rangers as well although McGregor missed that particular final, and the 2008 Scottish Cup final, through injury. Because the Gers were beaten by Zenit St Petersburg despite holding out for most of the game but they had to watch the Russian side lift the trophy instead.
It meant that legendary boss Walter Smith ended the season with just the Scottish FA Cup for that particular season with Celtic pipping them to the Scottish Premiership title again. That has been a trend and it’s one that has continued this season with the Gers not quite at their best. Because in hindsight, the 2021/22 season was supposed to be all Rangers and nothing but Rangers. They had walked through last season unbeaten for the first time in their history and became only the second team to do it since Celtic managed it.
They did it during the 2016/17 season but the run for Rangers meant that Steven Gerrard’s team had completely wiped the Bhoys off the face of the Premiership as they finished an incredible 25 points ahead of them. It also saw them equal a league record for most the clean-sheets and set the record for most goals in their 32 win and 6 draws season. Yet two games into this season and the record was broken. 40 games and then they fell flat with the 1-0 loss to Dundee United sandwiched between a 4-2 loss to Malmo.
If we don’t win anything … I don’t think it will be forgotten about; it has been a monumental achievement.
That meant the Gers were dropped out of the Champions League on their backsides and thus had to qualify for the Europa League the hard way. Even then, despite facing the Armenian side Alashkert Yerevan FC, Gerrard’s side barely beat them. Not exactly a stellar start to the season, was it? It meant that McGregor isn’t all wrong when he says that Scottish teams don’t really make European finals because they don’t.
Hell, over the last twenty-two years only two sides have made that cut in both the Champions League and Europa League/UEFA Cup. That was Rangers in the 2007/08 season and Celtic in the 2003/04 season. Go back even further and Scottish teams have made only seven European finals across all tournaments since the 1955/56 season, the very first season of the Champions League.
However, they have always been in and around a European competition but haven’t been competitive or good enough to come close to reaching finals, let alone competing in finals. Winning it is an even rarer feat for a Scottish side with Celtic, Rangers, and Aberdeen (in that order), the only three Scottish teams to lift a European crown. Yet, the last one came all the way back in the 1983/84 season with a certain future Manchester United manager lifting it.
It means that since history almost always seems to repeat itself, this could be a rather massive game for Rangers and Giovanni van Bronckhorst especially after they ceded the title to Celtic. The Bhoys somehow, despite an even poorer start as compared to their rivals, have lifted the Premiership yet again. But that has come as no shock to anyone, especially after Steven Gerrard left in November for the lure of Premier League football.
Much like Brendan Rodgers before him and Neil Lennon before him and a handful of others before him, the English league simply offers more money and the chance to do more. That’s why nobody was shocked that Rodgers came to Scotland in order to get his career back on track while Gerrard used it as a stepping stone towards his ultimate goal. Postecoglou looks like he is going the Gerrard route while Van Bronckhorst is following Rodgers’ footsteps after a failed spell in China.
And yet as Celtic faltered and failed to make it out of their group stages, Rangers did make it through. But then Borussia Dortmund were placed in their route and that’s where the true Scottish legend appeared. Because you see, despite a serious lack of knockout wins from Scottish sides in Europe, there is still a legend that looms over them. The iconic Celtic win over Barcelona at Celtic Park will forever live in memories especially if social media survives the haul because of what the ground urged their team to do.
Borussia Dortmund will now understand the myth especially after they lost 6-4 on aggregate although Rangers did beat them 4-2 at the Westfalenstadion in the Round of 32. Red Star Belgrade and Braga proved to be slightly tougher than the German giants but even they were slain until RB Leipzig stepped up to the plate. This was where even the serious Rangers fans had no modicum of hope and yet Ibrox stepped up again.
Despite a 1-0 loss in the first-leg, Leipzig felt the weight of the world as 50,000 fans roared and made the stands rattle. That was especially after goals from James Tavernier, Glen Kamara and the former Lord John Lundstram ensured a place in the final at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan for Rangers. But more than that, it meant they could do something no Scottish team has ever done for almost 55 years. But back to McGregor and what he says stands because this Rangers team should have zero chance of making a European final.
A team with a 40-year-old goalkeeper, with a right-back that can’t seem to stop scoring, with a team packed with former Premier League rejects and has-beens from yesteryear all filling up space shouldn't be here. And yet, here they are but for Rangers, it means far more than just creating Scottish history, it means escaping Celtic’s shadow. Their relegation to the third division following administration and a near escape from being liquidated in 2012 meant that Rangers disappeared from the Premiership.
But they fought their way back up and won back promotion into the top tier at the end of the 2015/16 season and realised that the world they returned to was different. Because during that spell, Celtic had thrived and to be fair, the Bhoys had been doing the same for more than a decade prior to that. History tells us that Rangers have 55 league titles and Celtic have 52 (according to Transfermarket). But until the start of the 2000s, Celtic barely crossed 35 with Rangers the force to be reckoned with.
However, since the turn of the century, the Gers have won just six league titles although they did have a streak, just before administration and near liquidation, where they won three in a row. But much like how Rangers were dominant between the late 1980s and the late 90s, Celtic have made the 2000s theirs and that includes this particular season. Despite all his success on the European stage, Van Bronckhorst and Rangers have been poor, by their last season standards, in the league.
They’ve drawn more games, have suffered three times the number of losses and to make things even worse, two of those three losses have come at Celtic’s hands. But it won’t matter one bit if Rangers beat Eintracht Frankfurt, lift the Europa League and in the process become the first Scottish team to lift that particular trophy. They’ve already made history by becoming the first Scottish team to reach the Europa League final and the first one since they themselves to make either the UEFA Cup or Europa League final.
But win it and it means more.
It means that their administration, their near-liquidation and especially the fight back to the Premiership wouldn’t matter because they won Europe. It would be a near miracle given that Eintracht Frankfurt themselves have a similar pedigree but as McGregor said “Four years ago we were just thinking about qualifying [for group stages]. Five years ago we were losing to Progrès Niederkorn. I came back to Rangers in 2018. A European final in 2022? If you were being honest with yourself back then, you’d think there was no chance.”
Tell that to the fans because, if reports are right, Rangers have 100,000 fans following them to Seville despite only being allocated 9000 tickets. That says it all and then there’s the narrative because the comparisons between this final and the 2007/08 final are right there. From their league position to their opposition in the knockout rounds to James Tavernier killing it on the Europa League, a shock goal-scorer thriving. That's football, where history almost always tends to repeat itself.
Think that they are convinced any of that matters? Tell that to the 100,000 people in Seville. Tell that to the team playing with the memories of the the late Walter Smith and the late Jimmy Bell in their heads. Tell that to Rangers.