Leighton had just conceded the third, in a game where he had been ultimately hopeless, and Scotland were on their way home from France 98. Little did I realise then that I wouldn’t be seeing them in a summer tournament again or that I eventually wouldn’t be able to care less.
1996 was a great year and I recall it fondly. I was fortunate that my dad and I got tickets for the title winning game against Aberdeen (a day I’ll never forget) and saw Gascoigne score an incredible hat-trick to secure 8 in a row. A few weeks later Brian Laudrup would give the most complete display a cup final will probably ever see as we annihilated Hearts 5-1 in the Scottish Cup Final. I had become a goalkeeper during this period, finding I had a fair degree of natural talent for it and I put away my dream of being the next Ally McCoist in favour of being Andy Goram mkII.
That season was needed as shot in the arm of a support that were still in a general malaise after the incredible high of 92-93, coming 90 minutes away from making the European Cup Final and completing the domestic treble. The hangover lasted pretty much the entirety of the following two seasons, as incredible as that is to think. Luckily there was scant challenge domestically and we strolled to two more titles whilst barely getting out of second gear all season. 95-96 changed that. A resurgent Celtic, back playing at a ‘revamped’ Parkhead mounted a credible challenge, in so much as for the first time in my Rangers supporting life I was genuinely panicked we might not win the title. Thankfully, despite Celtic only losing once in the league all season, we seen them off by five points.
Euro 96 was all most thought about that summer. I was a Scotland fan back then and given that the majority of the team were Rangers players during the early-mid 90s it was even easier to get behind them. I imagine most Bears would still have followed the national team with interest back then. The UK was probably at its peak in terms of Britpop culture whether it be Oasis/Blur, Damian Hurst or the Spice Girls and being British was cool the world over. To top it off the two oldest international football teams, both British, had been drawn in the same group at the tournament. The home Internationals had come to an end in the 80s so this was my generation’s first taste of the fixture that we would remember properly. Whether you supported Rangers, Killie, them (I eventually met a few as I got older and was allowed further away from my own street to play)everyone had a Scotland strip on over those couple of weeks. To think now I can barely stand in the same room as most of them it’s slightly odd looking back.
Having become a goalkeeper I found myself becoming more appreciative of Andy Goram than I had been and I basically spent the three games watching him. I observed that he didn’t wear his knee pads for that tournament, strangely, as these had become a permanent fixture of his kit. This is when he also stated rolling his shirt sleeves up and over too. He never did that before Euro 96. As it is, and as discussed in The Number Ones pod covering him (nice plug) he made a magnificent save in each of the three games from Seedorf, Sheringham and Turkylmaz respectively.
Scotland again went out as gallant losers. A credible draw against Holland was followed up by a two nil defeat against England at Wembley. With Scotland one down, Ally McCoist is brought on as a substitute, that he wasn’t starting was a disgrace in itself as both Roxburgh and Brown had weird notions when it came to playing anyone but Ally until the final group game of tournaments. Scotland won a penalty. The script is written for Ally only for McAllister to pull rank as captain and cannon the ball straight off Seaman. England literally go straight up the park and one dentist chair later are two nil up. I must say it’s only VERY recently that I have warmed to McAllister...
A single goal victory over Switzerland isn’t enough to see us through as Holland’s consolation goal in their 4-1 defeat by England sees them go through in second place on goals scored. I recall how delighted I was when Ally scored and I wonder whether I’d have cheered it as much had it been John Collins or the likes.
The highlight of that summer was my dad and I receiving letters to say we had now reached the top of the waiting list (remember that?) and we could get season tickets for the new season. I still have the white book for my juvenile ticket. We were placed in the newly finished Govan East Corner (where I still sit to this day, just further back) and due to late summer holidays didn’t sit there until we defeated Dundee Utd 1-0 with Gazza scoring a late cracker. And with that my life was irrevocably changed. Every other Saturday I was and am still at Ibrox. I was the envy of some of my friends which to a certain degree was pleasing, without being too facetious all the same. Boys would approach me at school to ask what the weekend’s game had been like and if I was going that night. There would be knowing glances between older boys whom I’d seen in clubs before games with their dads etc Times were good.
It was during this period, when I was about 14 years old, that I became aware of the way of things in the West of Scotland. Before I go any further I’m not saying we are right or they are wrong, if anything I’m highlighting how daft it all was especially as children. I had only a couple of years before discovered that there was such a thing as a Roman Catholic, when I asked my mum why kids from the other side of the street had to get a bus to go to another school. I had family friends, who as it turned out were RC, but interestingly were not interested in football which meant it never ever became an issue that I was ever aware of. I had been raised COS and had went to Sunday school until it wasn’t cool and I would have been identified as a protestant but until this point it wasn’t something I placed too much on. That would change one day after a run in with older boys at playing fields in another town whilst having a kick about. The boys, all Celtic supporters who must have went to the RC secondary school away in Kilmarnock as they certainly didn’t go to mine, decided they were joining our game. Given they were older and we didn’t know them we were wary but it started well enough, until we started winning anyway. Then the fouls became more blatant and their language to describe us a little more ‘choice’. One of them clearly thought he was Di Canio as he had the white boots on and was basically trying to take on a group of 13-14 year olds by himself (he was probably about 17-18) only to find me a bit of a brick wall, much to his annoyance.
I’m far less outgoing and sure of myself as I was back then, so his chagrin only made me cockier and all the more goram-esque (I wish). This led to him almost breaking my arm as I slid out to collect a ball that was about 70-30 in my favour. Trying my best to hold in my tears (not cool to cry around other boys) I hear him laughing and mutter something that I knew (given my education at Ibrox and from my elder peers) was a slur to my denomination. I responded with something along the lines of ‘Yes well at least I’m not a coming together of religious zealots with a penchant for children’ or something along those lines, which leads to them chasing us all over the place. Thankfully being a fly wee b*stard I escaped pretty much unharmed, several stud marks down my arm asides. This incident led me to look at all of that persuasion the same for quite some time and I realised then I would not be having any ‘banter’ with fans of that side, ever.
Back to Ibrox – five of us would travel from the valley and the three adults took turns about driving. As I have mentioned before travelling from that part of Ayrshire to Glasgow used to take a very long time as the A77 only ran to Newton Mearns and from there you had to traverse across the south side until you reached Ibrox. Given the two non-drivers wanted a drink before the game this led to us leaving about midday on a match day and we would always go to the Tradeston Serviceman’s Club. I don’t even know if it’s still there. I and the other minor would be left to sit in a small room with hordes of Northern Irish kids with usually a couple of older people who would be lying sleeping along the seats watching them. I have always admired our support from over the water and all that must entail for them to attend a match on a Saturday, hats off and all that. We would be given a can of juice and crisps and be left to it. That she was a girl and about five years younger than me made it a very long and awkward two hours or so. This improved as she got older and spoke more and even when I was 18 I still sat in that room with my pint and her with her Irn Bru.
As fate would have it my first season ticket was for 96-97 and our 9 in a row season. We also won the league cup by beating Hearts 4-3 in the snow and rain at Parkhead. Back then you had to rip out the special match voucher that the paper that day instructed and put it together with all those you wanted to sit with (primitive friends and family scheme) and pop in a cheque or postal order and wait. Given we had two children in our five we always got tickets and they were always together. We had friends who weren’t always as lucky. The 96 league cup final was my first and it had everything and must have been a great spectacle even for a neutral. This day was notable as the first time I would put going to the football ahead of playing. I had been lucky that all Ayrshire boys’ club games at my age were played on a Sunday and apart from league cup finals very few games were being played on Sundays up here then. This was the first time there was a real clash and perhaps tellingly I chose to go to the final rather than play for my team where I was undisputed first choice goalkeeper. This set a trend for the rest of my time playing football and was aided by the bad knee I was already starting to get. Was I being unfair to my team? Probably. Did I care? Obviously not, as I would later lie about being injured the day of the one nil victory at Parkhead in the March of 97. Watching it back on TV later I noted I was about two rows behind the guy that can be seen ‘fake crying’ mocking the Celtic supporters at the divide. Narrow escape.
The ‘9 in a row day’ that was to be held on the May Bank Holiday is probably, along with the 1998 and 2016 Scottish Cup Finals the biggest let down I’ve known in football. It was such an anti-climax. Before the game you could see the party getting ready in earnest. Motherwell didn’t read the script and defeated us two nil. So rather than win it at home in front of fifty thousand and millions more watching around the world we have to go to Tannadice on the midweek with five thousand in the ground and everyone else tuned into a wireless wherever they were in the world. That was a tense evening and I still can’t quite get my head around the fact Laudrup scored with his! Glad he did nonetheless.
Socially my life was changing. My friends and I had started to notice girls and our group had grown resulting in us visiting neighbouring towns at weekends which in turn led to more run-ins with perceived rivals. I feel I should state here that I have never really been in trouble in my life and this, for the most, never got further than verbal sparring. But I was left acutely aware that the older you got the friendly banter tended to dry up between rival fans in the West of Scotland. The religious element would come in to it also but in Ayrshire that wasn’t really a significant problem as the ratio for RCs was very low at the time. It would be unfair to say this all came from Celtic supporters too. Kilmarnock have more than their fair share that absolutely despise us. Of course, why should they have any love for us, but the venomous level their bitterness gets to and will further in 2012 seems wholly disproportionate. Especially given we more or less kept them up in 94 by playing our youth team to allow them to get the points they needed to avoid relegation. They don’t like being reminded of that.
We come up short for 10 in a row. We can debate forever why or how we allowed it to happen but an infinitely inferior Celtic team to the one the two previous seasons take the title by 2 points and l like a lot, I’m sure, have no memory of anyone else winning the league at this point. It was a hollow feeling and one I’ve never felt after any of the titles they have beaten us to since. It was also the day my feelings towards Scottish football soured. The sheer delight that was displayed in the moments after and weeks following it by opposing clubs and their fans was bizarre to say the very least. This was further exacerbated by the coverage of the Scottish Cup Final. About a thousand out of nearly thirty thousand left early and BBC thought it apt to show blimp – cam footage of our fans leaving early. I’ve never seen that done before or after.
We then were expected to come back together as nation for France 98 and whilst it may have calmed for that summer I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that the Rangers support were starting, if they hadn’t already, to turn their back ever so slightly on the national side. Supporters of more provincial clubs were now beginning to make up a larger percentage of the Hampden crowd than they had previously. The Republic of Ireland were failing to replicate their form at Italia 90 and USA 94 leading to a lot of the Celtic support becoming Scottish again, I kid I kid, which in turn led to the media driving for more players from these teams whilst Rangers players involvement in squads shrank. Admittedly the aging Rangers squad at this point was on the decline.
I believe Durie is the only Rangers player to make the Scotland squad for the finals after Goram (who technically was free agent anyway) pulled out at the last kick. The vast majority are made up of the Celtic squad that has just wont the league, even ones who barely got a start for them during the season. McCoist, despite having something of resurgence at the end of the season where he almost dragged Rangers over the finish line himself is omitted for the collective goals of Scott Booth, Darren Jackson and Simon Donnelly. I still don’t know how we didn’t make the final. Yet I watched all three games with friends at various empties over the couple of weeks we were in the tournament. I wanted us to win and there is no doubt it was a great thing to be involved in the opening game of the tournament against Brazil. We do the usual – play well against the hardest team, should probably have beaten the Norwegians who were probably level par with us and get humped by the Moroccans whom we were assured were hopeless before the tournament.
Scotland were out. The summer turned to Rangers and Dick Advocaat for what turned out to be a hysterical summer of signing after signing. I, we were determined get our title back and we waited with anticipation for the season to kick off so we could blow everyone who had taken such delight at our failure the previous season and ram it down their collective throats.
By this time my interest in watching the highlights of other teams in Scotland had began to wane. I still knew most of the opposition squads but I no longer kept goal scoring charts or fixtures on my bedroom walls. These had been replaced with a smattering of Rangers players surrounded by amply breasted half naked women. Puberty and all that...
Gary Spence (@garywolfboy)