The single most disappointing season in my whole life as a Rangers fan. Yes, there was administration, the season where Alex McLeish finished third and Ally McCoist’s Championship season. This season tops them all – 1997/98. We won nothing. We were appalling in Europe. Worst of all, we didn’t win 10-in-a-row.
The ageing squad
There was no doubt Walter Smith needed to recruit at the start of this season. Richard Gough, David Robertson, Mark Hateley, Trevor Steven, Alan McLaren and John Brown all departed the club. Stalwarts of the dominant 9-in-a-row team. Andy Goram, Ally McCoist, Gordon Durie, Stuart McCall, Ian Ferguson and Ian Durrant were all the wrong side of 30 and way past their respective bests. Brian Laudrup had been persuaded to stay another season and there were hopes that Paul Gascoigne could carry on the form of the last two seasons.
Of the players that left, I always felt more should’ve been done to keep David Robertson and Richard Gough. Gough had played 40 games with Joachim Björklund and Gordan Petric, another season would’ve seen a further improvement of this defence. Sometimes stability and consistency are better than bringing in, on paper, better players. It was hoped that Sebastian Rozenthal would make a return from the horrific knee injury he suffered and fulfil his obvious potential. When it became apparent that the striker wouldn’t, another replacement for McCoist was bought.
It was an Italian invasion of sorts in the summer of ’97. Lorenzo Amoruso, Sergio Porrini, Gennaro (Rino) Gattuso and Jonas Thern all arrived from Italian clubs. We also signed Ståle Stensaas, Tony Vidmar, Antti Niemi and Jonatan Johansson. A solid mixture of proven experience and promising potential. Each player would go on to have an ‘interesting’ Rangers career.
The Italian Stallion
Lorenzo Amoruso was a part of a successful Fiorentina side that had reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup. Again, this was something of a coup. It’s well documented that Manchester United tried to sign Amoruso, going as far as trying to persuade him to travel to Manchester on his way to Glasgow. Amoruso, in his own words, is a man of honour. He travelled to Glasgow, fell in love, and the rest is history. Manchester United signed Henning Berg and won the Champion’s League the following season.
In true Rangers fashion, at the time, Amoruso was signed with an injury. He’d had an Achilles injury that had been operated on in June. It looked like it had been a success when he played in the ultimate hubris ‘Nike family day’.
If you don’t know what this was, let me explain. Rangers had a massive squad and had signed a new kit deal with Nike therefore, as a show of strength (and marketing genius), Rangers played a squad match in front of a full Ibrox. Both teams capable, on paper, of winning the league title. It was no coincidence that the strongest defence had Amoruso and Bjorklund at centre half with Niemi in goals.
Amoruso had to go back under the knife a further two times in 1997 and wasn’t seen again until the Scottish Cup semi-final on the 5th April 1998 as a 19th-minute substitute for Gordan Petric. Incidentally, Amoruso was immense as Rangers beat Celtic 2-1. He started just a week later as Rangers won 2-0 at Ibrox in the final Old Firm derby of the season. A game that put Rangers top on goal difference with just four league games left.
Nike family day pre-season 1997
A proven winner
Sergio Porrini we knew. A solid, no-nonsense defender with a Champion’s League winner’s medal in his trophy cabinet. We were signing a regular for Juventus, a good Juventus at that. He looked a definite upgrade with Alex Cleland at right back after Stephen Wright’s knee injury all but ended his Rangers career the previous season. However, as Smith had done with Basile Boli, he played Porrini out of position at centre-half instead of right-back where he had played for Juventus in two Champion’s League finals. Hoping he would be adequate cover for Amoruso’s prolonged absence. He wasn’t and Gough was re-signed in the November of 1997.
Swede dreams are made of this (sorry)
The player we were most excited about would be Jonas Thern. Anybody who watched football properly knew who Thern was. He was your stereotypical, Rolls Royce central midfielder. What they didn’t know is that he was going to retire to his homeland until he got the phone call and a huge offer from Rangers. His technical ability was perfectly demonstrated scoring one of the finest volleys you will ever see in a 2-0 victory over Celtic. Thern, Gascoigne, Jorg Albertz and Brian Laudrup in the same midfield, guile, craft, power and creativity. Add these to the defensive reinforcements and 10-in-a-row was in the bag, surely? Spoiler alert, not so much.
Thern volley v Celtic
The one that got away
The two other Italians couldn’t have contrasted any more in style. One, aggressive, dynamic and terrier-like, the other, moody, quiet and dare I say lazy. Rino Gattuso and Marco Negri. Gattuso is the reason I never really took to Dick Advocaat, that maybe sounds weird given the success he had but let me explain. Advocaat tried to play Gattuso at right back with Barry Ferguson and Giovanni van Bronckhorst in midfield. Gattuso wasn’t happy so Advocaat let him return to Italy. We had, possibly, the most complete defensive midfielder of his generation and we tried to play him at right back.
Imagine Gattuso sitting behind Ferguson and Van Bronckhorst? All three had immense work rates and quality on the ball. Gattuso was just 19 when he signed for Rangers and still played an impressive 37 games in midfield in his first season under Walter Smith. What might’ve been…
Moody Blue II
And so, we come to Marco Negri. The very definition of enigmatic. He scored 30 goals in the first 19 league games (23 in his first 10!), he then scored 3 in the following 17 after New Year. Negri was averaging a goal every two games in Serie A for a struggling Perugia side when he was scouted by Ewan Chester. He outscored Gabriel Batistuta, Hernan Crespo, George Weah and Oliver Bierhoff in 1996/97 and was 5th top scorer with Roberto Mancini and Giuseppi Signori.
There is no doubt that if Negri had continued his incredible goalscoring run, Rangers would’ve won the league. Had it not been for that fateful game of squash with Sergio Porrini and the resulting eye injury, things may have been different. A detached retina that left Negri unable to do any form of training for a month. The injury affected his peripheral vision therefore he couldn’t see crosses/passes coming if he wasn’t looking at the ball. He’d been rushed back into the first team in the hope he would score enough goals to get Rangers over the line. The reality was, the injury was a virtual career ender. The same unfortunate script that Rozenthal before and Michael Mols after him would play out.
No last hurrah
On April the 12th, Rangers were sitting top of the league with four games to go and a place in the Scottish Cup final secured. It was still possible for Walter Smith to bow out with a domestic double. Oh aye, Walter Smith announced in October 1997 that this was to be his last season as manager. Rangers subsequently dropped points in 11 of the next 22 games, a run of form that would prove costly. It would also see a period where Smith finally ran out of patience with Gascoigne, selling him on 26th March to Middlesbrough (incredibly) for £3.5m. Remember this was immediately before two potentially, season-defining, Old Firm games, giving an indication of how far his stock had fallen. It was fun while it lasted. It was maybe just as well, I don’t think Gascoigne would’ve been Dick Advocaat’s type of player.
I bet Smith would love to have the second half of this season again. Celtic were gifted the title, this isn’t bitterness, this is a fact. If Rangers had beaten Kilmarnock 1-0 at Ibrox on the 2nd May, the penultimate game of the season, the league and 10-in-a-row would’ve been won. Despite all the previous failures, a poor run of form and injuries to key players, Rangers had their destiny in their own hands. There wasn’t to be one last hurrah for the ageing squad because they couldn’t get over the line. Too many of them had poor seasons, most importantly, even Brian Laudrup was miles below his usual standards.
Hearts are broken
Smith’s last game was to be the Scottish Cup final. They wouldn’t blow this one surely? Rangers had battered Hearts 5-1 two seasons ago. Laudrup was at his mercurial best. The Laudrup Final – even though Gordon Durie got a hat-trick. I watched this game after playing for my local amateur side against a team from Berwickshire, it could’ve been Ayton or Chirnside or Greenlaw. I’ve tried to wipe it from my memory. After the game, I got a lift to the pub with the manager (a Hearts fan) and such was the custom, whoever you walked in the pub with, this was who you were drinking with. We walked in just as Colin Cameron scored a penalty to put Hearts 1-0 up after two minutes. It was to be a long night.
The players had let Walter Smith down after the two Old Firm games. They thought it was job done and they were wrong, the ability to win when they had to was no longer there. No fewer than 14 regular, first-team players would leave the club after this season. The dream of 10-in-a-row was gone, and so were childhood heroes for a generation of Rangers fans. What was to happen next was as exciting as it was unprecedented.