Celtic 2 Rangers 4, Sunday 31 August 2008

‘The real glory is being knocked to your knees and then coming back. That’s real glory. That’s the essence of it.’ (Vince Lombardi)

I have a reputation for being something of a pessimist when it comes to assessing the chances of my football team. It’s not uncommon at all, actually, this kind of self-preservation approach to the inevitable bumps and bruises associated with investing a great deal of emotional energy into a group of people that don’t know or care about you. Nor is that reputation entirely justified in my case.

Many a new season has arrived when I have felt league success was just upon us only to be let down in the spring. Only once in over 30 years of following Rangers have I felt at the outset that a league flag would be beyond the reach of that team and they have proved me wrong. Given the crushing disappointment of May 2008, which included the loss of a European final and a league title on the last night, the sale of Carlos Cuellar, who, despite being at the club for only one season, was genuinely loved by the support, and the return of Kenny Miller, who genuinely wasn’t, I couldn’t help but feel that 2008/09 wasn’t going to bring the success that we were desperately hoping for.

The trip to Kaunas hadn’t changed that feeling. After a frustrating goalless draw at Ibrox, Rangers looked set to progress in the return leg when Kevin Thomson scored just after half an hour but were pegged back before succumbing to a long-range winner late on. European finalists in May, out in the first round by August 5. The pressure really was on, as Thomson recalled when he spoke to me in 2019.

"We did struggle that night and got what we deserved," he said. "We lacked that wee bit of composure, class, know-how. Leadership maybe. I got the hairdryer from Walter that night and you’re looking at the start of that season thinking that this is a huge year and we need to prove people wrong after thinking that you were top of the world a few months prior. This is part of being a Rangers player though. You have to deal with disappointment but I was lucky that I was part of a team and had a manager that could cope with that."

The disappointment sparked life into the transfer activity. Steven Davis became a permanent fixture and Pedro Mendes also arrived with the American, Maurice Edu. Fears about the loss of Cuellar started to subside when it became clear that Madjid Bougherra was an able replacement with an ability to form another successful partnership with Davie Weir, albeit in a very different style. All the focus, however, was on the return of Miller, who by this time had played for both Rangers and Celtic and thumped the badge after scoring for Celtic in an Old Firm victory. It was a huge gamble by Smith to bring him back and one that didn’t initially excite the dressing room.

"To be honest Kenny was an anti-climax for me when he was linked with us," said Thomson. "We were a bit surprised with that and weren’t that excited about him coming in. In his first game at training, I was over him like a rash, kicked him all over the pitch. He didn’t like it but he changed my opinion in a couple of weeks. A great teammate who would go that the extra mile for you, a huge character and he turned out to be a really good signing for us."

The big test came at Parkhead at the end of August. Both sides had won two league games and drawn the other, but this had not been a happy hunting ground for Rangers in recent years, with only four wins in the previous ten visits. A key to any success was Thomson, a man with one of the best Old Firm records in history. In his seven matches, he won six and lost one, a dead rubber at the end of a season where Rangers had already been crowned champions. Perhaps most importantly in the ten games he missed during his spell at Ibrox, Rangers lost six, won only twice and drew the other two.

"The games were made for me. I liked the build-up, I thrived on the intensity," Thomson added. "I liked to think that I was a big-game player and that my mates could rely on me to be a catalyst if the chips were down and we really had to win."

With a mixture of Dutch courage and a buoyancy provided by the later signings, fans like Steven Campbell made their way to Parkhead full of confidence.

"Mendes was a huge signing," he said. "Very few have had debuts like that where you just knew right away how important they’d be in a season. Celtic hadn’t really done any big business so, given that it was an 8am start and we were well lubricated by the time the double-deckers reached their neck of the woods, morale was high." 

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Walter Smith’s courage was of the more natural kind. His Parkhead Playbook was well-worn and a little frayed around the edges by now. He ripped it up by going with both Miller and Daniel Cousin - whom most had expected to leave Ibrox since the window opened following his red card in Florence - up front and with a ball-playing midfield of Charlie Adam, Mendes, Thomson and Davis. Smith, in the past, when taking Rangers sides in far better form than this to the east end, would have focussed entirely on cramping Shunsuke Nakamura and Aiden McGeady. Although still a serious consideration, there was clearly more emphasis on what Rangers could do to Celtic.

Fan reaction to the team news was mixed. One fan texted the BBC Scotland online coverage and said, "Playing Daniel Cousin against Celtic is madness, and Kris Boyd isn't even in the squad; Rangers fans have the two most disliked strikers playing up front today in recent years. Wonder who'll get booed the loudest?"

It wouldn’t take long for Cousin to get into the action, hitting the side netting with a header at the near post from a Davis cross, but it was Thomson who made the earliest mark with a scything tackle on Nakamura after eight minutes, for which he received the first booking of the game.

"Walter used to wind me up before the game by saying, 'Right, who is getting it tomorrow'?", Thomson added. "I just laughed and said, 'I dunno' and Walter replied 'I’ll tell you something, if you’re not booked within ten minutes you’ll be sitting next to me'."

"I looked at the clock and was getting a wee bit panicky, I hadn’t been that involved and then Nakamura came into view. There were a few that wouldn’t fight back. They weren’t interested. They could be bullied. He was a good player but he certainly fell into that bracket. Getting a second yellow was a potential problem, but it was a role that Walter was happy for me to have. He had faith that I could boss an Old Firm game with the ball and without it and it was important for me, in order to do that, to leave a mark early."

Much of the early exchanges took place in midfield, and when the ball did get into the forward areas, Miller lacked any touch whatsoever. The same couldn’t be said for Cousin, however. The Gabon international had gone wide on 30 minutes with a volley where he should have done better, but he made up for that six minutes later. Picking the ball up on the right-hand side from a Mendes pass, he displayed an astonishing turn of power and pace like a middleweight champion to leave Mark Wilson for dead. Bearing down on goal, Artur Boruc must have expected a cut back to Miller in space but instead was caught flat-footed as the ball fizzed past his left-hand side and into the net.

"He was Walter’s enigma," Thomson said. "With the bit between his teeth he was unplayable, could swat you away like a fly. On other days he could be thrown around like a crisp packet. That day, however, he led the line and set the tone." 

The lead lasted for 100 seconds. Four minutes before Cousin’s opener, Weir had found himself in trouble in the box and Allan McGregor did well to save his blushes. It should have been a warning. Errors in midfield by Mendes and Davis were compounded in the penalty area as Weir and Sasa Papac combined comically to give Georgios Samaras a gift to bring Celtic level. For fans like Steven, there wasn’t time to catch breath before getting that sense of Parkhead dread again. "You’re not even back to your seat yet. When you get that first goal I imagine players want five minutes to catch their breath, we certainly do, but we couldn’t and there was the 'we’ve been here before' moment." 

The rest of the first half played out at blistering pace, but it was honours even at the break.

"Walter was great in the dressing room," Thomson recounted. "His man-management skills were meticulous, the timing of when to use the carrot or the stick. He gave you that belief that you’d win. Of course, you lose games of football, the best teams in the world do, but they bounce back when others don’t." 

It wouldn’t be long after the restart before the evidence of that was readily available. There was no panic or long hits in hope. Mendes, Davis and Adam knocked it around, kept the tempo high and probed for an opening. There was a decent shout for a penalty on Cousin before the ball fell to Thomson on the edge of the box where he chipped an inch-perfect cross ball to where a Rangers player was waiting in space. It had to be Miller. Peeling off his marker he drilled the volley down into the turf and left Boruc with no hope. "I didn’t get enough praise for the pass! I knew what I meant to do, saw his run, and it was a terrific strike," Thomson added. 

Ten minutes later and it was three. "At 2-1 up we were absolutely bossing it," Steven said. "Broadfoot had made a fool of McGeady down at our corner so morale was high, and when we got a corner at the other side we were singing the name of Pedro Mendes as Davis was about to take it." 

"Mendes is having a quiet game," remarked David Begg on BBC Radio Scotland commentary one minute before. What happened next would guarantee his place in Rangers folklore. Davis rolled the corner out to the waiting Portuguese, who showcased the most incredible technique to keep it low and hard as it stayed on an unstoppable trajectory into the bottom corner of the goal. "That wasn’t off the training pitch," said Thomson. "That was off the cuff. Steve seeing Pedro, Pedro seeing Steve. He liked to stay back and had just unbelievable technique. Class is the only word I can use to describe him as a footballer and a gentleman."

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"Sometimes it takes half a second after the ball hits the net before you hear the boys next to you," recalled Steven. "And from then on we felt that we needed to give them a doing." 

Part of Cousin’s success with both Gary Caldwell and Stephen McManus was the physical duel, especially in the air. Dougie McDonald had booked the forward for use of the elbow in between the second and third goal. It was a debatable booking. Just as Smith was in the dugout discussing making a change, probably with Cousin in mind, his second yellow card for use of the elbow was in no way ambiguous. With just under half an hour left to see the game out, Rangers were down to ten men. Confidence levels amongst players and fans was mixed. As far as Thomson was concerned, there was nothing to worry about. "That look Walter gave Daniel I knew very well! Unless you did something stupid, though, he never gave you a hard time for being sent off. But I never worried at ten men. We had the players and experience to cope. We shuffled into position, no great tactical shift was required. We were comfortable."

Was Steven distressed? "Aye! By this time the alcohol had worn off and you start to remember the recent record. Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and Barry Robson had just come on for them and I felt they had been dangerous in the recent matches."

The palpitations wouldn’t have lasted long. One minute after Cousin’s red and only five minutes after coming on as a substitute, Vennegoor of Hesselink aimed a swipe at Broadfoot and saw a straight red. It was a totally unnecessary moment of madness and Rangers took advantage of another one soon after. If the Miller and Mendes goals were examples of exquisite technique, Miller’s second was not. A pretty harmless Broadfoot cross was spilled by Boruc and, when he was able to realise the gift horse that was staring him in the mouth, Miller steadied himself and knocked in the fourth. The travelling support were now in heaven.

"It was bedlam and so many of us hadn’t been in this position at Parkhead. And it was a huge goal for Miller. Like so many, I had gone into the game all 'Billy Big Balls' and said that I wouldn’t celebrate if he scored, but by God was I celebrating then. For boys like myself, winning at Ross County is all good fun, but being there and watching that stadium empty, knowing that it was only 3pm and you had a whole day ahead of you … it doesn’t get much better than that." 

Some of the gloss was taken off a famous victory with a deflected free kick by Nakamura, which wrong-footed McGregor with only two minutes left. For the fans, it didn’t matter so much, but for the players, these things really do matter as was evident by McGregor, immediately following the final whistle in a heavy victory away to Celtic, moaning at Miller and Weir.

"That was just that team and it’s why we had those high standards," explained Thomson. "It was a job. We would go and applaud the fans for five seconds and then I just wanted to get back in and get up the road. I thought we won with class and lost with class. I don’t really have many pictures of me with cups and celebrating goals with fans, and it’s kind of how that team was. It was business and we had to move onto the next game. I’m still raging at the only one that I lost. I saw them having a lap of honour after that win even though we had won the league. It hurt us all and it summed up that group.

"It was the one time where we played Celtic there and absolutely battered them. Not just physically but on the ball. I’ve never played at Parkhead and created so many chances. Even with ten men we still kept the ball. As a Rangers player you don’t get many opportunities to really put on a show in an old firm game, but we really let them off the hook that day when they scored their consolation. It could have been six or seven. It was the perfect blend of gritty determination and flair in midfield. There was simply nobody beating us, nobody who would pass the ball better or rough us up."

There were a number of players who could claim this game as being synonymous with them, especially all three goalscorers. However, more than anyone else, it was about Smith. To show the courage to deviate from his usual approach in this fixture after the debacle in Lithuania, to show the nerve and foresight to bring back Miller when he knew that the reaction would be so hostile and to be able to pick up a tired and devastated squad and led them back up the mountain again is exactly why his second spell is often revered more than his more decorated first. That’s the real glory after all.