Glasgow Glory: Rangers’ European Cup Winners’ Cup victory of 1972

It's approaching the 50 year anniversary since Rangers' last and, to date, only success in Europe as they overcame some of the continent's greats to lift the European Cup Winners' Cup in Barcelona.

Matthew Crist

Glasgow Rangers’ only European triumph to date has somehow slipped into the mists of time – surprising really, seeing as it is still one of the greatest achievements in the club’s illustrious past, not to mention most dramatic.

When Rangers lifted the, now defunct, European Cup Winners’ Cup trophy on 24 May 1972, it was their 14th attempt at cracking Europe, stretching back to their first European Cup campaign in October 1956 – and their 83rd competitive European fixture.

In 1961 – just a year after the ECWC began – they lost a two-legged final 4-1 on aggregate to Italian side Fiorentina while six years later – just a week after Celtic’s European Cup heroics in Lisbon – Rangers lost 1-0 after extra-time to Bayern Munich in the final in Nuremberg.

On the pitch Rangers were going through something of a fallow period in the late 1960s and early 70s; they were without a league title in seven years – the run would stretch until 1975 – and the Scottish Cup had eluded them since 1966.

To make things worse, their rivals in the East End of Glasgow were enjoying their greatest ever run of success and on their way to a record-equalling nine league titles in a row.

Ironically, it was Celtic’s success that had opened the door for Rangers to compete in Europe in the first place. Having won the previous season’s Scottish Cup final against their bitter rivals after a replay, the Hoops were otherwise engaged in the European Cup; so Rangers qualified in their place.

Rangers v Bayern Munich

Having overcome Stade Rennes of France in the first round, Rangers then faced Sporting Lisbon in one of the most remarkable European ties of all time as, having drawn the tie 6-6 on aggregate – the Dutch referee hadn’t realised that Rangers had scored three away goals, which should have seen them through and ordered penalties to be taken.

After his side lost on spot-kicks, Manager  Willie Waddell went looking for the nearest UEFA official to remind him of the rules and the result was quickly overturned; but not quickly enough for the morning papers, who still reported that Rangers had gone out.

Rangers would face Italian side Torino in the quarter-finals, and at the Stadio Communale Willie Johnston gave them the lead on 25 minutes, but having faced a second-half onslaught as the Italians threw everything at their opponents, Waddell’s men were happy to leave with a 1-1 draw.

For the return leg at Ibrox, 75,000 fans saw the only goal of the game scored by Alex MacDonald, meaning the Gers went through 2-1 on aggregate – the first time the Glasgow club had beaten Italian opposition over two legs.

Rangers’ reward was a semi-final match-up with the mighty Bayern Munich: a team which contained such great names as Sepp Maier, Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Müller and Uli Hoeness.

In the first leg in Munich, Bayern threw the kitchen sink at Rangers with every one of their outfielders registering a shot at goal in the first 20 minutes as the visitors could barely get out of their own half, yet still escaped from Germany with a 1-1 draw thanks to an own goal by Rainer Zobel.

The Germans were still fancied for the game in Glasgow but nothing could have prepared them for that evening at Ibrox where 80,000 supporters created a cauldron of an atmosphere.

Incredibly, the very same night on the other side of Glasgow, Celtic were also in European action against Inter, meaning a combined 160,000 people were watching football in the same city on the same night.

After just 45 seconds a long-range strike by Sandy Jardine sent the Rangers fans into raptures, before Derek Parlane delivered the all-important second goal to put, arguably, Germany’s greatest ever club side out of the competition.

Dinamo Moscow would be Rangers’ opponents in the final in Barcelona’s Nou Camp stadium as 110 charter flights, 203 buses, not to mention a convoy of cars, would take an army of Rangers fans to Catalonia – vastly outnumbering those travelling from Russia.

Rangers took the game to their opponents, hoping to break them down early and force them out of their shell, so when, on 23 minutes, Smith dispatched a long ball that allowed Stein to crack the ball into the roof of the net, the plan seemed to have been perfectly executed.

Five minutes before half-time, things got even better for Rangers when Willie Johnston headed home a clipped high ball, again from Smith and the game appeared as good as over four minutes into the second half when a long ball forward was missed by two Dinamo defenders for Johnston to steal in again to make it 3-0.

The 1972 Rangers Cup winners

But Dinamo substitute Vladimir Eshtrekov reduced the arrears on the hour mark and with just three minutes remaining, an error by Mathieson allowed Aleksandr Makhovikov to score; suddenly it was game on, again.

Such was the tension that, when the referee blew for offside in the dying minutes, many of the Gers fans thought that-was-that and streamed onto the pitch.

Whether this was just over-exuberance or a deliberate ploy to end the game early, nobody knows; but the scenes that followed were ugly as supporters and police officers clashed on the Nou Camp pitch.

Order was eventually restored but the earlier invasion was only a precursor to what would happen when the final whistle did actually blow, as thousands of fans rushed on to celebrate – meaning players, supporters and those watching on TV would be robbed of seeing an actual trophy presentation.

Instead, after getting back to the dressing room, captain John Greig and manager Waddell were called into a small room where the chairman of UEFA handed over the trophy.

The ugly scenes at the end of that final hadn’t overshadowed this famous win for those who had waited so long to taste European success, but a subsequent European ban for fan behaviour meant that Rangers would not be able to defend their crown the following season; ensuring that there would be no chance of a repeat of one of the most exciting, yet crazy cup campaigns in European football.

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