"We arrive now at that time of the year where
Ewan Murray witless bores can unpack the warmth of their ‘nights are fair drawing in, eh?’ patter as the clocks go back and into the Darkness we go. Permission to Land is twenty years old in 2023, and the band appears soon at the Barrowlands to commemorate that anniversary. I’ve just about stopped calling the league cup the ‘Skol Cup’, so there will be no accusations that I’m old or out of touch, but I do tend to find music milestones make me appreciate that, perhaps, those days of 28’ jeans and band t-shirts that were closer to medium than maximum may be further away than I’d care to admit. How can Nirvana’s In Utero be thirty years old this year, to say nothing of the clearly made-up phenomenon of a Liam Gallagher tour next summer to celebrate Definitely Maybe breaking out of the 20s?
When it comes to football players, goals, games, controversies, or memories I somehow find it easier to put them in their correct place and to acknowledge that the wheels of time have moved in accordance with reality. Writing a book about the on and off field events of the early to late 1990s – a period where, domestically at least, Rangers were hugely successful – may appeal to the nostalgia market but rest assured this is not an extended prose exercise in sentimental longing. The chief – indeed, the only serious – criticism I could make of Martyn Ramsay’s last book was his thorough decency when dealing with figures or events that could perhaps have been tackled with more of a Souness v Steau approach. Although hardly overpowering or excoriating in his judgment, this recent tome will perhaps surprise some readers; particularly those who are blessed with youth and cursed with a lack of memory of the time.
A book chronicling the run towards nine championships in a row that can deal in detail with what is arguably the best Rangers season in history, and find room to discuss some of the most exciting men to have ever worn the jersey, is what Peter Van Vossen would call een open doel. Anyone who read Revolution: Rangers 1986-1992 will suspect that Ramsay doesn’t miss.
Fans of the Heart and Hand network will have enjoyed the extensive podcast series covering this period, wherein Martyn Ramsay and various scoundrels and cuckolds have put in the hours, detailing and debating the moments that mattered. And it is abundantly clear throughout this book that we are in the hands of an author who has a forensic eye for critical moments and an enviable flair for recalling and retelling the details and highlights.
As a narrative journey through these seasons this is unlikely to be surpassed and should stand as a template for others in how to bring to life both the mundane and perfunctory while illuminating the half-forgotten and emphasising the turning points. I went to a huge percentage of the games mentioned throughout this book and had the pleasure of my distant or mentally shelved memories being unlocked and rekindled as if anew. That kind of talent on the part of an author is both rare and incredibly skilled.
The superb introduction makes clear this is a book about the how and why, attempting both to grapple with the ways in which outside factors helped to turn the club’s outlook inward and to come to terms with whether anything that people at the club did could really have made a difference when weighed against those factors that would rapidly made the game in Europe almost unrecognisable.
Ramsay’s chapter on the 1992-93 campaign is an obvious highlight and clearly one of the ultimate ‘what might have been’ moments in our history. Filled with little details and glorious tidbits that constantly remind you that Scottish football has always been run by some appalling people but overflowing with characters, the season reviews are staggering in their command of events and perfectly chosen glimpses at the outside world.
Martyn employs up-to-date scholarship to illuminate the debate surrounding Marseille and their habitual line-stepping and the level and depth of skulduggery is as breath-taking as it is galling. The loss of Hateley for the game at the Stade Velodrome (and the circumstances surrounding the referee who ordered him off causing the suspension) is perhaps the only matter directly impacting Rangers that should still rankle after all these years. A new generation had their ‘Baxter in Vienna’ moment, but there was never any real prospect of Marseille vacating their European crown.
Perhaps the greatest impact for the reader will arrive when they note the difference a season or two can make to the teams most affected by Bernard Tapie’s corrupt seizure of the continent’s premier club title: AC Milan would scud Barcelona 4-0 in 1994 before reaching the following year’s final while Rangers lost first to Bulgarian and then Greek mediocrities in qualifying. The small window of opportunity had gone.
Those readers keen to see what the author makes of the loss of his favourite fool – Davie Hay – will find much to enjoy as we are treated to the delusional greatest hits of a succession of hapless Yahoos, culminating in the arrival of the blessed Tommy Burns, the quintessential Celtic man as manager and psychological manifestation. Ramsay effectively dismisses the idea of Cavalier Celtic in a chapter where he almost gets carried away with the historical analogies, but although Burns was good value for comedic purposes there was often a dark side to his behaviour and recent revelations would likely confirm that this was a troubled man with a reputation that would not be intact were he still around to defend it. The comparison between Smith and Burns that comes to a head when Walter is finally angry enough to make public his displeasure at the paranoia from the east end serves only to remind us that that the real gulf between the clubs at the time was in the dug-out.
As with his previous book you cannot help but note the relish with which Ramsay attacks the sections that focus more on the complementary or bigger picture of the 1990s. Trevor Steven’s night on a cold island could make for a great Pie and a Pint event at Oran Mor and would certainly be more amusing than the laundry list of players who drank to excess and humiliated themselves and often the club but while the chapter on the rampant excesses of the 1990s may make many younger readers wish they had been there it should (and does) have the effect of sobering you up sharply.
You may not think there’s much new to say about the club v country argument that has been going on since the black and white days and reoccurs on Twitter every time Ryan Jack gets injured on international duty but Martyn Ramsay’s chapter on the acceleration of the issue and the ways in which certain moments allowed for the pretence to be dropped is a brilliant distillation of the shifts in opinion and the oddities that remain for fans of big clubs both within and outwith Scotland. Better still is the chapter on heroes and hero worship, and the peculiar but profound nature of fame in the 1990s, building on and then contextualising the very real difficulties many fans faced as society inflated the worth of the flawed genius and we were often left to question if these men were really worth the bother.
It’s almost quaint to see recounted the polite nature of the arguments of the period as expressed in the Follow, Follow fanzine but for all that a reasonably broad congregation was represented while debating the issues of the day it is worth considering quite what the reaction would have been in the year 2023 had a Rangers team gone on some of the runs endured by fans in this NIAR period. That’s not to say that the writers in the fanzine were always level-headed (or even moderately pleased even at the height of our success) but the Internet was not widespread, and the days of hugely popular message boards (far less social media) were not yet with us. Rangers enjoyed a spell of three wins in twelve league games during the hangover season of 1993-4, retaining the league title despite winning precisely half of their 44 league matches. Can you even imagine?
The reaction to the ongoing, seemingly unending epidemic of injuries (Ramsay is alarming on some of the runs between games where Smith could not name the same side even had he wanted to) may have broken many a keyboard or phone screen.
The perhaps not entirely unrelated issue of professionalism or lack thereof is one of the central concerns of the narrative. Martyn relates the tales from scouts and managers of other teams, not to mention the concerns of many of our foreign signings, and juxtaposes these with the native nonsense that is the bonding, drinking, culture and it is hard to escape the feeling that we simply missed another moment. To be fair, Rangers did import some (often high) quality players from different cultures but not a single useful idea. The case of Basile Boli – one of the most passionate of those who spoke out about our methods, he was signed as a European champion and rarely played in the correct position – seems best to illustrate the issue.
All of which brings us neatly to the issue with which both the author and the reader must wrestle: the Walter Smith conundrum. It should be noted that Walter’s second spell at the club has forever secured his status and nothing related to what is in this book, whether explicit or implicit, implied, inferred or part of the reader’s imagination, will sully his reputation. Indeed, the European performances of Walter’s side on the run to Manchester (when faced with a different reality and forced to adopt a different approach) may make some wonder why after 1993 we were so hopelessly naïve and – even allowing for the financial disparity on show – often so tactically inept.
But it remains the case that Smith (and Knox) were often made to look very silly indeed when tested and cowed into European submission we retreated to domestic focus. Even there, when the last push was necessary having fully committed to the idea of nine (and then ten) there was nothing left in the tank; Walter was effectively a lame duck manager and both of the main thrilling contributors to the latter part of the era (Laudrup & Gascoigne) had run out of effort, patience, and chances. The 1997-1998 season was in many ways a disgrace, but Ramsay manages to elegantly sustain the argument that it was doomed to failure by virtue of the decisions made – and the efforts expended – by so many key men on and off the Ibrox pitch in the years previous.
Just as Rangers had benefitted from the English expulsion from Europe so they would ultimately fail to take full advantage of that break; As late as 1996 Rangers could still announce a profit that placed them only behind Manchester United in the UK but the Shearer transfer of that season (one Manchester United couldn’t make work) demonstrated effectively that the tide was not only turning but about to cut off the border nations. The effects of the Bosman ruling in 1995 came too late to militate against the effects of the three foreigner rule and demonstrate effectively the idea Ramsay correctly highlights regarding the external difficulties that hampered those making decisions at the club.
The author ends the book via a pleasant topping up of cheer with the happier and joyful nature of the period articulated beautifully and given some agreeable context when other, younger, voices are asked for their thoughts on what this extended period of fun players and trophy wins means to them as supporters. The epilogue is perhaps more of a warning – and one we’ve all been pretending not to notice.
There was nobody quite like Walter Smith but of bigger concern to fans in the modern era may be the lack of anyone remotely comparable to Campbell Ogilvie. It’s certainly evident, in the moments when he is quoted or simply when the narrative allows for his contribution towards the formation of the Champions League or his wider role in administrative vision to be emphasised, that the idea of ‘best in class’ was once a serious thought. To have the benefit of Holmes and then Ogilvie in an overlapping period meant that Rangers off the field often outmatched what was possible on the field. If in the period under review, and for a number of reasons, the quest for domestic immortality came at the expense of European respectability then a different challenge awaits the people charged with running the club in the present day. It will require another seismic change in the broader footballing world in order to allow for Scotland’s clubs to ever again be worthy of a place in the higher rungs of European competition but Rangers face a greater threat: that of domestic irrelevance.
Martyn has high hopes that a full biography of one of the men who defined his narrative journey from 1986 to 1998 – a certain national treasure named McCoist – may soon be a possibility but the one book that we’d all like to read is very likely now the one that will never be written. David Murray is by any measure an exceptional man, the ups and downs of his life need not be repeated here, but his impact on Rangers and the decisions he did and did not take over the entire run of his custodianship of the football club mean that he may be the single most significant figure in the history of RFC.
If this current volume ends with the hubristic climax that was almost entirely self-made it is to be hoped that after a suitable period of fatherly leave Martyn Ramsay can be coaxed back to take us towards nemesis. It is rare to read such well-structured, coherent, and enjoyable books on how the club, the nation, and the wider game have changed over the years. Perhaps a little distance from events (and the work needed to make this so impressive!) should allow for a fourth book and after that…on to nine (or ten)?
Readers, both Rangers fans and otherwise, owe him a debt of gratitude for his ongoing contribution.
The Pursuit of History, Rangers 1992-1998 is published by DB Publishing and is available wherever you buy books but especially here:
Martyn Ramsay can be harangued on Twitter (x) @hobbes_ff"