Rangers 6 Dunfermline Athletic 1

 Scottish Premier League, Sunday 25 May 2003

It was turmoil but, at the same time, anyone who hasn’t lived through that atmosphere and the emotions is missing something. (Alex McLeish, post-match)

It was the kind of afternoon that made you feel sorry for those who don’t like sport. The kind who sniff at the emotions invested in professional athletes engaged in real competition but will happily lose themselves emotionally in professional actors pretending to be other people. The sporting conclusions that remove the breath of those already immersed can’t be contrived by even the best writers for stage and screen. Imagine not experiencing that gradual increase in belief during the final day of the Ryder Cup at Medinah or complaining that the match-winning innings by Ben Stokes at Headingley, when all looked lost beyond saving, was the first item on the news. Like the end of any great tale, the impact is heightened by the narrative that precedes it. Cup finals and prize fights endure, of course, but they are bite-size stories. Europe’s victory in 2012 was special because of the hammering they took for a day and half before some light was opened at the end of the Saturday and the stage for the Sunday was set. Stokes’s innings would have been sensational in any setting but the ebb and flow of a test match provided even sharper context for its miraculous brutality. Once again, a football league season, when it goes down to the wire, infuses those final games with so much story and emotional investment. It’s not just about the fluctuations of one isolated 90 minutes, it’s about fans going through the full gamut on a weekly basis. It is torturous, it can be unbearable, and there’s nothing quite like it.

Rangers have won the league championship on the final day of the season six times in the last 50 years and only the 2-0 defeat of Motherwell at Ibrox in 1978 didn’t make it onto the 50 Greatest Rangers Games list compiled in 2019. By some quirk of beautiful group-think, the Heart and Hand listeners managed to choose the five that did in perfect order of ascending drama. In 46th and 15th place respectively, we had the 2009 win at Tannadice and the 2011 victory at Rugby Park, examples of the ‘standard’ story of these affairs, the one where the team that starts the day with their noses in front and in control takes care of business and walks away with the title as most expected. Then, in tenth place, we had the ‘gift’ at Fir Park in 2005. The one where favours are required and are duly, albeit so rarely, received. A day when everything is out of your team’s control and so with it becomes weary agony and then searing ecstasy. In eighth place there was the final day ‘showdown’ with Aberdeen in 1991, the result of pure fixture caprice, where the two challengers are able to fight it out directly for the main prize. Finally, in seventh spot, we have the most dramatic conclusion of them all. Rangers and Celtic were locked on points and goal difference at 3pm that Sunday afternoon. All that separated the two was the fact that Rangers had scored more over the course of the season. With Rangers at home to Dunfermline and Celtic down at Kilmarnock, neither side had destiny fully in their grip as they took to the field. In a beautifully tense combination of the usual scenarios, both sides needed to do their own job but both also needed to know what was happening at either side of the M77. It produced a day that has never been quite matched in Scotland ever since.

Once again, the full story provides the finale with more weight. Season 2002/03 was an exceptional one in itself, before we even get to the twists and turns of its denouement. Rangers fans started the season, Alex McLeish’s first full term in charge, with reason to be optimistic. Despite having gone two campaigns without winning the title, the first time fans had experienced that since 1986, McLeish had grabbed the two domestic cups of 2001/02, both with memorable defeats of Celtic along the way. He inherited a very talented squad but one that needed to smile again and feel loved, after the scorched earth of the Adovcaat era’s conclusion. That feel-good factor continued to sweep into the new season. Despite dropping two points at Kilmarnock on the opening day and taking only four points from 12 against Celtic, Rangers recorded their best points average since the war (2.55 per game and with everything pre 1995/96 adjusted for three points for a win), and to date, the only time a Rangers side has averaged over 2.5, with Advocaat’s 1999/00 hitting that mark dead on. As with almost all great achievements, these new heights were driven by competition, the incessant accumulation of points being simply necessary against a very strong Celtic side.

Rangers Review: Alex McLeish clutching the League CupAlex McLeish clutching the League Cup

Indeed, by the middle of March, the script was being written for this season to be Celtic’s year of destiny. Despite Rangers having the better of the first two derby clashes, Celtic won the third and sat three points behind with a game in hand. More than that, they were still in all four competitions as their UEFA Cup quarter-final against Liverpool was finely poised after the first leg. As their run developed, so did the taunts. ‘You’ll be watching The Bill when we’re in Seville, it’s going to be three in a row!’ Apparently, they were going to win the lot! By the end of the month, the scale of that ambition had been halved. Inverness Caledonian Thistle were quickly becoming Celtic’s bête noir as they were eliminated from the Scottish Cup in the Highlands, but not before Rangers had won the Old Firm League Cup Final at Hampden, a game they almost contrived to throw away. The first hour was magical, a 2-0 lead that should have been more, created by fast, dynamic, interchanging attacking football, the very opposite of the more robust, rudimentary O’Neill approach. Complacency then met brute strength and the lead was eventually cut to one, and then almost eliminated entirely, but John Hartson dragged his penalty wide of the post in the dying minutes.

Celtic’s European progress was maintained, however, and qualification for that season’s UEFA Cup Final was secured before the final derby showdown of the season at Ibrox in April. A Rangers win would have probably ended the title there and then, as it would have secured an 11-point gap, albeit with Rangers having four games left and Celtic five. There was a general flatness around Ibrox that day. It was pointless to deny it. As good as our domestic season was shaping up, European success, especially for a Scottish club in the 21st century, would have eclipsed it. Celtic rode their wave and were deserving winners. Rangers continued to stumble against fellow Scottish Cup finalists Dundee up at Dens Park the following weekend, with Barry Ferguson missing two penalties in a 2-2 draw. Celtic would defeat the same opponent 6-2 at home in their game in hand, a match moved by the authorities so that they could prepare adequately for the final. There was now no margin for error and for the next two fixtures Celtic got to set the target by playing first. Not only did Rangers have to match their result, they had to score the required amount of goals.

There is so much to admire about this Rangers team during that season. Some of the football was excellent, the team were unbeaten in the league until Boxing Day and they possessed that often crucial championship-winning ability to string together runs of wins (one eight-match run and one seven) but it was the response in this run-in most of all that showed their monumental mental strength. A 4-0 win at home to Kilmarnock and a 2-0 win away to Hearts were bang on the required rate of scoring and it meant that Rangers started the final game with the slimmest of arithmetical advantages. By the time kick-off came, however, they would have the psychological edge too. José Mourinho’s Porto had managed the UEFA Cup Final better during the week and saved us all that particular nightmare scenario. The mood around Ibrox was completely different than it had been a month earlier. Fake police hats were in abundance as thousands of relieved fans could now properly respond to songs about television police dramas without any fear of comeuppance. All eyes were now on the task in hand and, with both sides joined together on a goal difference of +68, that was clear: score more goals than Celtic.

McLeish had the luxury of a clear week’s preparation and a strong squad available from which to select his starting XI. Stefan Klos was in goal, as he was for every single game that season, and the reliable four of Numan, Amoruso, Moore and Ricksen shaped up in front of him. Barry Ferguson and Mikel Arteta, the summer’s big addition, would control midfield, leaving Rangers with a mouth-watering front four of Ronald de Boer, Shota Averladze, Michael Mols and Claudio Caniggia. The start typified the season. The play was patient but with purpose, and controlled passing led to a half-chance for Mols that he somehow managed to squeeze in off the post. It was a dream start after only two minutes and it felt like the Main Stand moved in front of my eyes. Rangers were now +69.

Then, just after ten minutes, the unthinkable happened when Dunfermline, and the experienced Craig Brewster in particular, were given the kind of freedom that a defence not planning on having to play with too much intensity might afford. The ball eventually fell to Jason Dair and he unleashed a brilliant drive into the top left-hand corner. It was a goal that his uncle, Jim Baxter, would have been proud of 40 years before but Dair looked as if he had just scored at the wrong end, which in a way he had. It was a day of mixed emotions for the Dunfermline and Kilmarnock players, some of whom had history with Rangers and Celtic. Dair’s goal was a perfect example of a professional doing their job but without too much relish. +68 Rangers didn’t hang around to respond, and five minutes later the advantage was restored. Again there was no panicked long ball, instead some composed play, although the final ball down the right flank for Fernando Ricksen was a little overdone and his ‘pass’ back to Caniggia was effectively a tackle. There was nothing frantic about the Argentine’s finish, however, as he coolly swept the ball home. Chris Sutton headed Celtic in front soon after so any further advantage was short-lived. It was Caniggia’s seventh goal against the Pars that season as Rangers scored 23 against them in seven games. A perfect opponent then, when you are in the search for goals. There would be one more on the half-hour mark and it came from what appeared to be a lost cause. An Arteta corner was cleared and, after some more patient passing, a speculative ball down the left was sent for Amoruso to chase. Not exactly possessing the frame of a typical winger, it was a bizarre sight to watch this hulk not only chase down the ball, but control and deliver a delightful cross for Averladze to head home. It was not something that Adam Thornton would forget. "That Amoruso assist is so vivid as it was pretty much right in front of me. It was one of those where he was galloping towards a lost cause and you think, 'Just leave it, it’s going out of play, it’s in their area, there’s no danger.' And when he got it I was then thinking, 'Ok well done, just get it back to Numan and we can build something,' but no, no, instead he delivered this incredible cross. But the exhilaration was short lived because news of a Celtic second came through and you knew it was going to be like that all day and that we’d need five or six." The situation at half-time was much the same as it was at kick-off, with the two sides tied on goal difference and Rangers still holding that control on the basis of goals scored. All that breathless drama and we were no further forward after 45 minutes. Within ten minutes of the re-start, an Alan Thompson penalty put Celtic 3-0 in front and ahead in the title race for the first time that day. Rangers, by contrast, and with the pressure now on, were slower and more timid. Any knots in the stomach at the start of the day were now ballooning. There were chances, none better than an indirect free kick from ten yards after Derek Stillie picked up from a back pass but it didn’t go quite to plan. "Here was the moment to get another breakthrough," recalls Adam. "We were expecting Amoruso to hit the top corner, which he did, but it was the top corner of the Copland Rear sadly." Brewster nearly emulated Dair’s effort on 63 minutes but Stefan Klos, such an underrated hero of this free-flowing side, made a brilliant save.

It was perhaps the shot in the arm that was required and a minute later saw the kind of moment that summed up this incredible afternoon. Neil McCann had replaced Caniggia at half-time and had been industrious from the outset. His brilliant cross was met perfectly by de Boer, who ghosted into the danger area from seemingly nowhere and Rangers were back in front. Or were they? The celebrations were halted by the man in front of me who, with a radio earpiece in one ear, shouted, "Wait … Larsson … No, it’s fine, he’s hit the post." At the exact same time as one header flew into the net, another crashed against the woodwork. League championships shouldn’t be judged on those moments. Such a view ignores the 37 other games available to secure the flag. The mistakes made, the opportunities lost. Every point is worth the same. Our need for drama and narrative, however, demands that it be crystallised in that way. On the final day of a season crammed full of moments, that was it. +71 If Larsson had scored, the sense of deflation that would have spread around the stadium may well have been critical. Instead, Rangers powered on and three minutes later followed up one of their finest goals of the season with the worst, but most important. Again it was McCann causing all of the problems on the left and his cross was eventually bundled home by Steven Thompson, a winter signing from Dundee United. It was Rangers' 100th league goal of the season and finally created some breathing space. Celtic would need two now. +72 They’d get their chances. Thompson had another go from the penalty spot but this time he blazed it well over the bar, but Stilian Petrov did manage to get Celtic’s fourth with 17 minutes to go as they re-joined Rangers on the same goal difference. Back at Ibrox, Steven Thompson hit the bar with a header and then tried to force a pretty tired shot at goal but it looked like we were spent for the day until Neil McCann wriggled clear of Mark McGarty and was eventually fouled in the box for an injury-time penalty. "All I can remember thinking at the time was 'I sincerely hope that Barry Ferguson is nowhere near this fucking penalty!'" said Adam. It would be the young Spaniard, Arteta, who had saved the blushes in Dundee from the spot, who stood up when the moment demanded. Players of far greater experience, like Ronald de Boer, couldn’t watch.

Rangers Review: Arteta's fateful penaltyArteta's fateful penalty

"I knew this was a big occasion when I saw Ronald de Boer looking the other way at the penalty. It means a lot to us in this little part of the world but a player of his experience? It just showed you how big a drama this was." He needn’t have worried. The penalty was stroked home with the utmost class and confidence and, even though he sought to ruin such a moment with the worst celebration in the history of the game, he was responsible for finishing the title race as a contest. Only then, deep into injury-time and in the final breath of the season, did we know that it was actually ours. The players looked as exhausted as the supporters felt, strolling around the park, some with face in hands, as we all waited those final seconds for the final whistle to blow at Rugby Park. It was perhaps a moment of drama made more for television, with its split-screen views, than for those of us relying on FM stereo. Television, however, can’t replicate the live experience of that communal celebration when the news came through, nor the shared celebration when Howard from the Halifax adverts, in a career moment that could only be matched by being in the finale of The Office, handed over the Bank of Scotland Scottish Premier League crown to Barry Ferguson. Ticker tape, fireworks and all, there is nothing that matches that roar when your team lifts trophies.

"If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story." said Orson Welles, who knew a thing or two about drama himself. Such is sport that it never really ends. There is always another season. Such was life at 21st-century Rangers, that success could never be enjoyed quite like it was in those sunnier days at the end of the 20th. There was always a spot of grey on the horizon, although the naivety of youth could sometimes ignore that. "McLeish had won five out of five realistic trophies since coming in halfway through the previous season and, at the time, it felt like the start of something," said Adam, 18 at the time. "Which, of course, it wouldn’t be. Amoruso and Numan would leave immediately, Ferguson soon after. Downsizing was now going to be the reality for the foreseeable future." It is perhaps this context that can somewhat diminish the love for this season and this team. "Tactically it was a bit of a breakthrough at that time in Scottish football," said Adam, author of an excellent upcoming book on the Steven Gerrard era at Ibrox, Gerrard’s Blueprint. "The media were incessant that season that we didn’t have this big number nine, an out-and-out striker that we could rely on each week. 'You could win a cup but not a title,' they would say. Celtic had three of them of course. However, we had four interchangeable attackers on the field at all times." It was a flexibility that won a treble, which was confirmed at Hampden the following week in the Scottish Cup final. This match at Ibrox was Rangers’ season in microcosm with six different scorers making their mark on the day and six different players reaching double figures for a season that brought us 100 goals and ultimately decided the destiny of the league.

So much of this afternoon can’t have been good for our health. Grown adults feeling sick with nerves, helpless as we always are to affect anything on the field. But you wouldn’t have it any other way.  'What’s the point? Why put yourself through it? It’s only a game.’ Well, because of the ending of course. Like any good drama.