‘Nothing, it has been said, is true but change, nothing abides.’

 Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song

On this morning, 25 years ago, the chase for that historic 10th title in succession was very much on. As Rangers set off for Perth to face St Johnstone, they sat three points clear of Celtic and Hearts, with one final Old Firm clash to come at Ibrox and with the only squad who knew the road well. Too well, as it turned out. In the end, it would be a legend that caught up with itself right before the final call.

Walter Smith’s January appeared to be turning out a lot better than he may have feared in the first week of the month as his side lost to Celtic and then lost their goal machine, Marco Negri, for four weeks. Losing the New Year game was seen as something of a bellwether for both sides’ fortunes come May. Not since 1981 had either lost and ended up ahead of their great rival, so when Paul Lambert thundered home that decisive goal in a 2-0 win at Parkhead to bring Celtic within a point, those who trust omens knew what was to happen next.

Except, it didn’t really happen like that. Celtic drew away to Motherwell the following weekend and were 1-0 down at Tannadice with 14 minutes remaining when they were next on league duty. Craig Burley’s winner three minutes from time was arguably as important as his goal that broke the deadlock against Rangers. The champions meanwhile toiled at home without Negri but still took all the points to extend their lead at the summit. Danger averted most thought. Normal service had been resumed.

Rangers lost 2-0 that day and, within 48 hours would be clawed back level at the top, when they could easily have started the weekend six ahead. They would only win one of the next five league games as the wheels came off in dramatic fashion before that famous last stand - led by old boys like Ally McCoist and new ones like Jonas Thern - brought the dream agonisingly close to reality.

The story of season 1997/98 is a building with a hundred sliding doors, whose inhabitants awoke to countless false dawns. Footballing mirages that toyed with the hopes of thousands who had believed that history was theirs to make at the time and, in the years that have passed, a myriad of hooks and excuses to explain away the great collapse. All ignoring the greatest truth that nothing lasts forever. The fundamental law of sporting gravity; what goes up…

Of all the venues where season 1997/98 would pivot the most, no one would have predicted a sports club based in a city centre hotel. And yet it was on a squash court in Glasgow’s Hilton on the evening of Wednesday 7 January, where fortunes were said to have turned the sharpest. One new Rangers player, accomplished at the sport, was there due to an insatiable desire for any kind of competition. Another, a novice playing only his second game, was there to supplement fitness and improve his short-space reactions. When Marco Negri took his eye off the ball, it thundered back with interest, detaching his retina and disabling the Rangers goal machine, which had produced an incredible 33 goals before the New Year. If Negri had been wearing goggles, or just fancied a night in instead, Rangers would have won 10-in-a-row.

Unlike many operations on Rangers players around that time, this was excellently handled and without complication. The striker was given a month of recuperation with no training and was ordered to wear dark glasses whenever he was out during the day. Arguably even more damaging was the chain reaction that it set off in other areas of Negri’s life as internal doubts and demons were given prominence, tensions in his relationship with his girlfriend Monica were opened up and a breakdown in relationships with Lorenzo Amoruso and Walter Smith - the former getting involved as an unwanted intermediary in his domestic strife and telling the Rangers manager that his compatriot wanted away - which were never properly resolved. He perhaps had a point when he asked himself why Smith didn’t put an arm around him at this time in the way he did numerous times with Paul Gascoigne but regardless, he was allowed - and he allowed himself - to become more distant and introspective. He was never the same again.

When this is used as the main reason for or at least a key part of the collapse, a wider view is imperative. Injuries happen regularly in sport and this was effectively a four-week pause, not a ligament injury that ruled him out for the season. How players respond is the key and Negri simply didn’t. The real story is the various weaknesses that such moments expose. 23 goals in his first ten league games is the standout headline but seven in the next ten before the injury is less-quoted. Although still impressive, it is perhaps a sign of a tapering back towards a less spectacular norm. He would score four more goals for Rangers after his return, all of them from close range. His variety as well as his number of goals dried up, in addition to the increasingly sullen and unkempt image that he portrayed that winter. Negri’s inability to deal with the lay-off and respond - he felt that his peripheral vision was badly affected even when the pain had passed - was more than matched by his teammates who were too heavily reliant on him for goals. That is the real reason for such a costly implosion, a more reliable truth, than the freak barrowload of goals that filled that early season promise. It wasn’t Negri’s loss that was most damaging, it was the lack of firepower elsewhere.

READ MORE: Celtic 2-4 Rangers: The Old Firm 'Game of Glory' decided by Walter Smith's nerve - Martyn Ramsay

The replacements had their own injury worries to deal with and, ironically, there was one loss that would eventually provide Rangers with hope and some degree of glory. Ally McCoist was all set to go out on loan for the rest of the season, in order to give himself one final shot at a World Cup place. Newcastle, Fulham, Sunderland, Everton and Birmingham City were said to want him down south and Smith was happy to give him his wish. The day before Negri’s squash match, McCoist damaged knee ligaments in training and was ruled out for six weeks. It put paid to any loan but, although no one could know at the time, it would be an injury that would eventually be of benefit. Ironically Smith was waiting on more concrete assurance that Sebastian Rozental’s latest treatment would bring about a return before he gave McCoist the final approval. He would eventually return but - despite hope given from the Chilean national team camp, with whom Rozental trained in preparation for a friendly with England - there would be another setback soon enough. Within a couple of days, he was left with Gordon Durie as the only recognised striker and the following month at Rugby Park, even he would suffer, as a horrendous collision led to serious concerns about his consciousness which thankfully came to nothing.

All Negri had been doing in that first half of the season - his 30 league goals before the turn of the year comprised nearly 60% of the Rangers total, with Jörg Albertz being next in line with four - was negating the nightmare at the back, caused by another sliding door, but this was one with Rangers’ fingerprints all over it. For £5m, Walter Smith thought he had the perfect replacement for the departed Richard Gough. Lorenzo Amoruso - sunglasses perched atop a head that looked as if it was carved from the Parthenon itself - had impressed for Fiorentina in the Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final against Barcelona’s attacking trident of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Stoichkov and turned down Manchester United in order to keep his word to Smith. He looked perfect. Both the player and club knew that he needed a clean-up operation on his Achilles which would delay pre-season slightly but with no drama. Despite Amoruso wanting to use a Belgian specialist in Antwerp, Rangers persuaded him to go to London to see their guy instead. It was botched, as was the second one and the player on whom so much solidity relied, was out for seven months. It would show as Rangers shipped comical goals at an alarming rate, something unthinkable had the Italian been fit and ready from the start.

Arguably the player with most interest around them that summer was Brian Laudrup. According to Ajax, an agreement was reached between the clubs for around £4,500,000 before the noise around the potential exit forced Murray to change his mind and hold his ground. An offer of £4m over the next three years was rejected by the player, who could - and would - leave in the following summer and potentially derail the season by talking to new clubs from the winter onwards. Laudrup - whose brother Michael was already at Ajax - was quoted as saying that he ‘wanted to be with a good style and a good trainer’, placing further scrutiny on Smith’s capabilities in European competition. An agreement was eventually reached - although the correct word would be impasse - whereby Laudrup’s contract situation wouldn’t change but he wouldn’t be going anywhere this season and furthermore, he would be the new Rangers captain, a role to which he was unsuited. With the loss of Gough, the uncertainty over the state of mind and professionalism of Gascoigne and Goram and some of those stalwarts reaching the end of their time, it is understandable why Murray changed course and stuck to it. But there was still a clear level of denial about how simple contractual situations like that can be when a player evidently no longer wishes to be there. Laudrup’s first job on day one of pre-season was to clear the air with Gascoigne, whom he had publicly criticised during the summer about his lifestyle. An uneasy start then for two creative gods, around which so much was expected. It wouldn’t get much easier.

‘Gascoigne produced one of the most controlled performances of his career’, beamed The Times on 13 October, ‘and played with a sustained quality and maturity, illuminated by flashes of technical brilliance’. "Doesn’t quite sound like me, does it?", the player wrote, years later. It certainly didn’t - not in any of his performances in the calendar year at any rate - yet, there it was right in front of the watching world. A ‘grown-up fuck you’, the sportswriter Rob Smyth called it. Intelligent, composed and canny, Gascoigne was brilliant in Rome as England managed the storm and qualified for the World Cup, to be held in France the following year. Back in the city where he was once adored. Going back to the stage where it all began. It would prove to be, of course, one of the greatest false dawns in modern British football and these sporting mirages - so seductive to fans despite the build-up of evidence to the contrary - littered the autumn of 1997 for Rangers. By then fans knew that the story was definitely coming to an end but so many were so dazzled by the brightest lights and in turn, believed that it was one destined to have a happy ending.

So many simple narratives of this era endure and this season is no different. The story of Gascoigne is 18 months of brilliance and 15 of disgrace. Off the field, it is hard to argue, with too many Chris Evans and Danny Baker-related incidents to count. On the field, he was almost certainly performing below the standard which he had set but the notion of a constantly poor contribution has a little hole in it and that can be found in the October and November of 1997. Gascoigne was brilliant, shockingly so. Central to the play, directing the tempo, the odd bit of magic, it was enough to convince many that he was back to his best just when club and country required it. The highlight of this encore was arguably in a 7-0 win at home to Dunfermline where Negri scored four but wasn’t the star attraction. Gascoigne was, scoring twice and involved in everything. His first was reminiscent of the wonder goal that won the league in 1996. His second was a 20-yard chip that he took on the upset without missing a beat. It was a beautiful goal to cap off a virtuoso performance. It would be his last for Rangers.

With two Old Firm games in 11 days, November was always going to be important, even in a season of such fluctuation. Celtic had the better of the build-up to the first as they finally secured the signing, for £1,900,000, of Paul Lambert from the Champions of Europe, Borussia Dortmund. Rangers-mad as a child, it was a player who Rangers could have gotten if they had wanted to move sooner. There are arguments as to why, by the autumn of 1997, this wasn’t viable. Smith had lots of midfield options from experienced players (McCall, Ferguson, Thern), those in the middle of their career (Gascoigne, Albertz, Miller) and genuine prospects (Gattuso and Barry Ferguson). It is also unlikely that Smith would be allowed to spend money on players that David Murray had no idea a new manager would want. But there was almost certainly a sniffiness around Scottish players - even one with a Champions League medal in his pocket - when the restrictions were down and the money was available. Longer term, there is merit in the argument that Lambert may have curtailed the career of Barry Ferguson into the new century but, of all the 20 signings that both clubs made that season, none were as significant in deciding the outcome of the title.

It made no immediate difference at Ibrox, with Lambert seeing only 14 minutes of action as a late substitute. What is most obvious watching it back is the clear move to compact conservatism of Wim Jansen’s side compared with his predecessor. Rangers, usually playing the role of reactor, were dominant and well worth the three points on 8 November. Andy Goram had to make a brilliant double save in the first half but Rangers could and should have had more goals than the solitary Richard Gough strike before the break - Marco Negri’s record-breaking run of 10 league games with a goal came to an end - but it was enough to send Rangers two points clear of Celtic, whilst still a point behind Hearts with that re-arranged game at Parkhead in hand.

The lead over Celtic had been extended to three by the time the two met again but not as much as it could have been. The defeat at Ibrox had ended Celtic’s eight-game winning run in the league and their wobble continued with a 2-0 defeat at home to Motherwell. Coupled with Tosh McKinlay breaking Henrik Larsson’s nose with a training ground head-butt before the Ibrox game, it was clear that results were something of a veneer. This was not a side who were obvious champions-in-waiting. Rangers didn’t capitalise fully up at Pittodrie. The ridiculous rules around international football meant that Paul Gascoigne played for England in a friendly against Cameroon at Wembley whilst his side were in a crucial battle in Aberdeen. There were chances created but Rangers lacked the fluency they had shown over the previous month. Eoin Jess put Aberdeen ahead with a long-range effort in the first half - it was all Aberdeen were reduced to - and Albertz finally made the Rangers pressure pay when his header brought the sides level. Laudrup missed a good chance later on but there was a lot of huff and puff and little reward.

On the Wednesday night, Rangers were greatly improved. Missing Laudrup through injury, they weathered an early Celtic storm and went on to dominate the game and create the best chances. With McCall called back into defence with Gough and Bjorklund, the Rangers midfield was Gascoigne, Gattuso and Thern with Albertz and Cleland providing the width for Durie and Negri up front. Negri missed a great chance in the first half and then an even better one with just over twenty minutes to go as Rangers sought a record sixth consecutive Old Firm win. By that point in time Rangers were down to 10 men and a career and a season turned again. John Rowbotham had only taken care of a handful of Rangers games since that infamous match against Aberdeen at Ibrox two years before and certainly none as high profile as an Old Firm match. Given that there were seven bookings in the first half at Parkhead - five for Rangers and two for Celtic - the signs were clear that he had lost the run of this game too. With just over 30 minutes left, Morten Wieghorst became the latest to try and rob Paul Gascoigne of the ball by tugging his shirt and nibbling at the back of his legs. Gascoigne’s response was always to use his arms and, sometimes his elbows, to protect himself and, more importantly, the ball.

Rangers Review: Morten Wieghorst holds his face after a challenge from Paul Gascoigne which led to the Rangers midfielder being dismissed. Morten Wieghorst holds his face after a challenge from Paul Gascoigne which led to the Rangers midfielder being dismissed. (Image: SNS)

Much had been made of this since his arrival and, with Rowbotham still under pressure to show retribution for his failure to show him the red card against Aberdeen, the risk was high. When the midfielder presented him with the opportunity, he didn’t hesitate. Gascoigne first tried to shake the Dane off by returning the desire to swap shirts. Then there was another attempt to hold off his marker on the chest before his arm was raised and came down on the side of Wieghorts’s face. Of all the altercations that Gascoigne was involved in of this nature, this was by some distance the softest and most innocuous.

However, it was a red card that was very much in the post and, technically, correct. As was the reaction by the authorities who banned Gascoigne for five games in total because of an accumulation of bookings. "I thought the red card was harsh," Wieghorst said afterwards. "I was pulling his shirt and naturally, Gascoigne became frustrated. I am sorry he was sent off." 

Rangers players were less diplomatic. One un-named player said that night "The referee was a joke from the first whistle. There is no doubt sending Gazza off was payback for that Aberdeen game. He was being fouled all night, but you could see the ref’s eyes light up as if it was a chance to get even. Some of the stuff that was happening was outrageous. When Gazza went to take a corner he was pelted with missiles and fans were running downstairs to try and get onto the pitch to get at him. Yes, we are furious. All Rangers have had to listen to in recent years is that Old Firm refs are biased towards us, but I don’t think you’ll hear much of that today." 

With uncharacteristic bluntness, Smith was even more direct when he said "There was no way he could have refereed in an impartial manner and he should not have been appointed to the game." It was the last night when Paul Gascoigne was anywhere near his best and this coda - seven weeks of vibrant but mature exhibitionism - was a hauntingly sad finale.

The drama wasn’t over, however, and neither were the season pivots. Another Rangers breakaway found Negri in space for the third time and he didn’t miss on this occasion, arguably the hardest of the three, his hard left-foot drive wrong-footing Gould and putting Rangers ahead. Rowbotham then made a decision that was arguably more significant to the outcome of the season. With 10 minutes remaining, Alan Stubbs - on a booking - clattered into Marco Negri at waist-height on the touchline. It was wild and out of control and a clear yellow card, if not more. Rowbotham, perhaps because of the fact that he had so recently cautioned the defender, decided to do nothing. Jansen kept throwing Stubbs up to provide a focal point for Celtic’s late aerial bombardment and Rangers, on the whole, dealt with it comfortably. There was one more chance for Thern on the break but he was exhausted by the time he swung his foot at the ball. From the clearance, Celtic won an injury-time corner and Richard Gough held his head in his hands. Goram dealt with the set piece but the danger wasn’t fully cleared. When Jackie McNamara sent in one final cross, Stubbs found himself on the right side of Gough for once and steered the ball into the corner of the net. The Rangers dressing room was in despair as well as fury, even though it was a record unbeaten 10-game Old Firm league run without defeat. A six-point gap and a third defeat on the spin for Celtic would have been almost certainly too much for a side with no league-winning experience to deal with. It gave them a lifeline - from a player who should have been in the shower - and the race continued.

READ MORE: How Rangers' most dramatic title decider came to match any Hollywood drama - Martyn Ramsay

It is interesting, in the weeks leading up to these games - the type of situation where Rangers had routinely held on to a 1-0 lead - that prominent players were playing down the quest for ten. "If we had failed to get to nine, it was as though the previous eight titles did not matter, and that put a lot of pressure on us," said Gough before the clash in the east end. "This year, for me the pressure of going for 10 is not as great." Laudrup had said similar a few weeks earlier. "I must say that I feel less pressured this season than I did last year…We knew that we could not fail. This season I think the intensity is less. Obviously, we all want to beat the Celtic record - but it will not be such a sense of failure if we don't win the championship this time." That intensity had previously produced concentration levels in these fixtures that Celtic couldn’t match. It might have been a coincidence but it furnishes an established belief that the hunger was no longer sufficient to keep pushing these players to the end.

Paul Gascoigne’s early departure from Ibrox was probably sealed as he warmed up as a substitute on his next visit to Parkhead, on 2 January. "When I was warming up, all the Celtic fans were giving me a load of stick, most of them shouting variations on the wife-beater' theme," he wrote in 2005. "They wound me up so much that to annoy them in return, I pretended to play the flute again. Mad? It was suicidal. I was just so furious with them for shouting abuse at me that I did the only thing I could think of that would shut them up." The reaction to this one was a different world from the misplaced joke in the summer of 1995. Rangers fined him £20,000 and Fergus McCann took the opportunity to make some moral and political capital from the incident whilst demanding that the SFA take some disciplinary action. Gascoigne had death threats at traffic lights and in the post, some from fans and one, allegedly, from the IRA. It was yet another unnecessary chapter in a life that was spiralling even faster out of control.

Smith’s patience was now nearing the end. "People think Gascoigne and I have a father-and-son relationship," he said in 2000. "Well, I’ve got two sons and I have never felt like hitting them, but have certainly felt like smacking Gascoigne a couple of times." The player wrote in his book that he was technically sacked by Smith on a number of occasions - told not to come back the next day and that he was finished - but that quasi-paternal relationship always came to the fore, with Smith so often doing what he could to keep his genius in check, even taking him on a helicopter ride over the city to try and appreciate the place that Ibrox Stadium had. But there are limits to every relationship and Rangers and Gascoigne were at theirs. David Murray and Walter Smith had always made it clear during the constant speculation that the choice was always with the player. When offers of nearly £3.5m were on the table and the chairman made it clear that the figure might not still be there in the summer, Gascoigne took the hint. Needing to feel loved at all times, he chose Bryan Robson and Middlesbrough but changed his mind three times on 25 March before signing the following day. Teammates like Stuart McCall were convinced that he would stay and felt the blow personally. "Everybody in the dressing room was very disappointed - the players were as upset as the fans. Everybody wanted him to stay. The boys were amazed and I was one of them. When I spoke to Gazza he said he wasn't totally happy with the decision, he didn't want to go. For the first time in years, he had found happiness on the park and truly loved the dressing-room craic and the gaffer. It was a love affair with the club as a whole." Fans and media saw it as a sign that Rangers had effectively chucked the season. "That was my initial reaction too," wrote McCall later that year. He wouldn’t be the only player or supporter to make the argument that, although the midfielder was clearly way past his best, and that others were coming into far better form in the Rangers midfield, some of those vital games at the end could have been broken by a Gascoigne moment of magic. In the autumn certainly but he had shown so little after coming back from his ban that it was a forlorn and ethereal hope. It was another mirage.

Rangers Review:  (Image: NQ)

The main reason that Gascoigne chose to go was that it was made known to him that the incoming Rangers manager didn’t want him and this brings us to the final and most-quoted reason for the failure to make it 10. Walter Smith had to fight back the tears as he took the microphone on the stage of Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall. "When your time is up, it is up," he told Amoruso later in the week, hinting that, if all of his boys were leaving at the end of the season, then it was right for him to do so too. What he delivered to the Rangers shareholders on Tuesday 28 October was less succinct and distilled. Unusually for Smith, normally a very good public speaker, it was an address that was a little wayward and disjointed. Who could blame him, however? The ovation that greeted him was heartfelt and genuine. And now, the man who lived his boyhood dream was preparing to say goodbye. As is always the case with the comings and goings of Rangers managers, the picture is never entirely clear. Smith said at the time that he had made the call at the start of the season - without any encouragement from Murray - that he wanted to have a crack at 10-in-a-row and see all the new players bedded in before departing with so many of the heroes who had served him well.

Neil Drysdale’s Silversmith notes Murray’s observation in the summer of 1997 that his manager was exhausted with life in the hot seat but wouldn’t dare suggest taking away his chance at confirming immortality. What is clear is that after the Strasbourg defeat in the UEFA Cup - this season was the first where an exit in the Champions League qualifier brought direct entry to the UEFA Cup and hence providing a novel opportunity for Rangers to be knocked out of Europe twice by September - an agreement was reached between the two men in early October. Drysdale states that Smith offered to leave immediately but that Murray rejected it, not wanting Smith to have the indignity of leaving so soon in the season, as well as ensuring that he had time to arrange the successor. A decade or so later - on the eve of Smith’s crowning renaissance, the 2008 UEFA Cup Final - he admitted that "I was nicely sacked." Meaning that the Strasbourg defeat prompted a discussion about the timing of his exit, which would be at the end of the season. This runs contrary to the idea that this was the plan all along. Tired he may have been, but there is a chance that Smith wasn’t entirely desperate to leave when it came to it.

His speech recognised the pressures and failures of Europe and that him leading Rangers into another campaign would likely be counterproductive. Media criticism was nothing new but the vociferous nature of the Ibrox reaction to two European exits in two months was a new dynamic that had a clear impact on the Rangers manager. His weariness in the job was all too clear. He had given a bizarre interview shortly before with The Times when he said when questioned about his tactical nous, "what is a tactic anyway?" But there was more to it than that. "There was a growing sense of anticlimax about the job. Rangers were not given any credit for beating Hearts in the Coca-Cola Cup last year. I went to the press room after the game, and it was like a morgue. There was no sense of achievement. It was: ‘Oh, they’ve won it again, now let’s get on with it.’ There was a realisation on my part that things were changing for me. The next day’s papers all focused on complaints that a foul had been committed on the halfway line in the build-up to our fourth goal. That had an effect on me. I didn’t get any feeling of a great sense of achievement. But I decided to carry on because of Nine-in-a-Row, and what it meant to everybody." He felt that he hadn’t been afforded the credit that he deserved and he had a point. This never-ending circus would take it out of anyone.

It was hoped that the AGM revelation would bring clarity on an issue which was rumbling away. It may have done but it inevitably created more speculation which was already in plentiful supply on a weekly basis. Usually, it was around Gascoigne’s future - either through bad form and Rangers wanting to sell or through good form and English clubs such as Aston Villa, Everton and West Ham United wanting to get him back down the road, much in line with Glenn Hoddle’s wishes - but Marco Negri had to confirm his desire to stay more than once before November, the interminable Laudrup saga continued despite him saying that he wouldn’t think about it until ‘March or April’ and even the future of the old boys such as McCoist - who was linked with Falkirk in November - Durrant, Goram and McCall was an ongoing story. Now, it was who would replace Smith. Despite the clear signs from Murray’s AGM address that it would be European - ‘Northern European’ would technically encompass British managers but the stress should have been obvious to anyone paying attention - Kenny Dalglish, Terry Venables, Bobby Robson and especially George Graham were all linked in the early weeks. None of this, albeit part of football’s daily life, was helpful to a squad still trying to find consistency. One other part of David Murray’s speech that day was well-received for those looking forward but tinged with regret for those who believed action should have been taken sooner. ‘There will be changes because we have to move with the times, and these changes mean there will be no more bouts of indiscipline at the club.’ Standards would change at Ibrox. But not for seven months.

None of this helped. From November onwards, Rangers were in a constant tension between the exciting vision of the future and the nostalgic devotion to the past and all too rarely a total focus on the matter at hand. Constant references to Dick Advocaat’s discipline and professionalism only underlined what was going wrong in a dressing room that was under pressure to produce. Sentimentality increasingly grated on a support that had seen fifteen points thrown away between 31 January and 14 March. Smith’s testimonial was stuck in the middle of that, Durrant’s came just days before the penultimate league game at home to Kilmarnock - the 1-0 defeat that was arguably the final twist - and then Archie Knox was given the honour of leading the team out at the Scottish Cup Final.

Rangers Review: Walter Smith and the Rangers players leave the field following the Scottish Cup final defeat to Hearts in 1998. Walter Smith and the Rangers players leave the field following the Scottish Cup final defeat to Hearts in 1998. (Image: SNS)

It was a long and increasingly saccharine farewell tour that had ultimately sucked the energy and focus from an important season. For all the new signings and the blaze of Nike advertising - the season started with a billboard using a picture of Walter Smith next to a school blackboard. ‘Nine out of ten - must do better’ was the main tagline, with ‘Rangers. Now pushing for top marks in history’, underscoring it - there was a constant sense of an ending permeating through the campaign.

On the Tuesday after the tearful Scottish Cup final defeat to Hearts, Walter Smith sat down with journalists to have one final look back at his time as Rangers manager. He understood where the future of football was going and that he, and many of the players who had left with him, were a dying breed of long-timers. Shorter contracts for players and coaches were the post-Bosman future, which would necessitate a freshness of message from his seat. That, more than anything, is what he felt had gone over the last 12 months. When giving his assessment on what went wrong in his final year, he made a pertinent observation on the running theme of the season. "The basic problem that we had during the season - apart from the injuries we suffered, and I am not making these an excuse - was that we had nine players who were going to be out of contract this summer and, because the club was in a state of flux and changes were going to be made, most of these players realised that they would be leaving," he told The Herald. "Therefore, when I made my decision public in the autumn, it was never going to affect the lads. Their futures were already uncertain and anything that I did could not change that. In essence, I suppose, what it told them all was that I was in the same position as they were. I was going to be leaving, too, and it simply underlined to them all that this was an end of the good times we had all enjoyed together." Of all the theories for the lost Rangers season - Smith’s announcement, Negri’s eye, Amoruso’s ankle, Gascoigne’s sale, Laudrup’s uncertainty, passing on Lambert, Stubbs’ missing second yellow - none are greater than the situation Smith set out to the written press. The end of his second spell was announced in advance and yet, his side pushed on to win him a title and a fitting farewell in 2010/11. There was no ‘lame duck President’ creating inertia there and it was because Smith wasn’t leaving with half of that squad. There was youth in there and a lot of players in the prime of their careers, willing to stay and win more. The XI that finished the Scottish Cup final of 1998 had an average age of 30 and that included a 20-year-old Rino Gattuso. The Celtic side that finished with their hands on the title had an average age of 27 and with so little variance around that mean. The failure of 1997/98 was the legacy of poor squad management. A lack of ruthlessness to get rid of a player just as they had turned the corner on the way down. A need to hold on to the boys whom the manager felt he could trust. Smith was left - by choice - with too many players who were simply too old and too tired to find the necessary consistency and tried to do too much in one summer to alleviate that. It didn’t work. Rangers were better than Celtic that season - the head-to-head demonstrates that quite conclusively - but it wasn’t that which cost them dear. Five points out of twelve against Aberdeen and Motherwell - sides that only escaped relegation late on in the season - was evidence of a lack of that necessary incessant drive to win and keep on winning.

The plan that was put in place to win nine was that which ultimately cost the 10.