Rangers fans took Manchester by storm on 14 May 2008 as the club sought to add to its silverware collection with a win over Zenit St Petersburg in the UEFA Cup Final.
They last won a European trophy in 1972 under the leadership of Willie Waddell, when the Ibrox men captained by John Greig, defeated Dynamo Moscow 3-2 in Barcelona. A goal from Colin Stein and a brace by Willie Johnston was enough for the Gers to secure the European Cup Winners Cup competition for the first time.
There was great belief among Rangers fans that this would be their year once again and who could blame them. Walter Smith’s men had shown great courage to reach the European final in what was a rollercoaster of a journey.
Having defeated German and Italian opposition after a disappointing exit from the Champions League, Rangers would once again face a Russian side in the final. But only after an exhausting run of 68 competitive matches.
Champions League Qualifying Rounds – FK Zeta & Red Star Belgrade
Not much was known about the Montenegrin side FK Zeta when both teams were drawn for a Champions League second round qualifier. The first fixture was at Ibrox and Rangers won the game comfortably 2-0 with goals from David Weir and Nacho Novo.
In the away leg Walter Smith’s side won 1-0 thanks to a cool strike from DaMarcus Beasley.
Red Star Belgrade were the opponents in the third qualifying round. Rangers fully understood the threat posed by the Serbian champions having played them in European competition twice before.
The first game in ’63-64 ended 8-6 to the Bears on aggregate. And in ’90-91 a strong Rangers team were overwhelmed 3-0 in Belgrade after a one-all draw at home. Red Star would later go on to win the competition.
There was to be no repeat of the 1990-91 defeat though as super Nacho Novo’s 89th minute strike ensured Rangers progressed. The away tie at the Red Star Stadium finished scoreless.
The European adventure was just beginning and it wouldn’t be an easy journey. The Bears, however, were now on tour. Sun, sea, drink and football would now become the staple of a Rangers fan as they followed the famous around Europe.
Champions League Group Stages
Rangers would face Stuttgart, Lyon and Spanish giants Barcelona in Group E of the Champions League. One of the hardest groups in the competition.
No one gave them a chance against teams from Germany, France and Spain. And television pundits expected them to limp out of the tournament with zero points.
But Rangers soon had them eating their words with two wins and a draw in their opening three matches.
A 2-1 victory at Ibrox against Stuttgart, followed by an heroic 3-0 win away to Lyon, and a 0-0 draw at home to Barcelona left the Gers sitting comfortably in the group.
In the opening match against Stuttgart, a goal from Charlie Adam and a dramatic late winner from the penalty spot by Jean-Claude Darcheville was enough to secure three points.
However it was the victory over Lyon on 2 October that sent shockwaves throughout the competition.
The French champions were favourites to qualify with Barcelona, and although they eventually would, it wasn’t plain sailing.
Summer signings Lee McCulloch, Daniel Cousin and DaMarcus Beasley sucker-punched the French side. Beasley who had scored on his debut in the second round qualifier struck the ball into the net once more. The American adding the final goal to cement a fantastic victory away from home.
This result would set the squad up nicely for the pending visit of Barcelona on 27 October.
Despite earlier results television pundits once again expected a Rangers defeat and they had a point.
On paper – Ferguson, Papac and Hutton versus Barcelona’s Henry, Messi and Ronaldhino, suggested an easy victory for the Spanish side. But Walter Smith and his players showed no fear and produced the greatest defensive performance of the competition.
After the draw Lionel Messi lambasted Rangers for employing anti-football tactics. A Solid defensive display left the Argentinian playmaker a frustrated figure.
Speaking to reporters after the game Messi accused Rangers of not wanting to play football.
“They went for anti-football and I’m left with a bitter taste in the mouth,” he said. “We were tired and they weren’t interested in trying to win so it was inevitable that the pace would drop.”
The Barcelona legend echoed the words of Rennes manager Jean Prouff, who said similar during the Barca Bears triumph in 1972.
At times during both competitions it may have seemed Rangers were playing ‘anti-football’. But it was necessary with injuries and domestic fixtures piling up.
Teams must play to their strengths. It was difficult to watch at times, but it was successful. And for the fans it was nail biting stuff as Rangers rode their luck for much of that seasons European run.
UEFA knockout stages
All hopes of progressing in the Champions League soon came to an end. The final three matches didn’t go to plan with a loss away to Stuttgart and Barca, and a home defeat to Lyon.
A late winner for Stuttgart meant Rangers required a point in their final match to qualify. However Lyon, who had recovered from the shock of the earlier defeat, won the game 3-0. Leapfrogging Walter’s men into the next round.
The Bears weren’t finished though and entered the UEFA Cup knockout stages. In their first game against Panathinaikos at Ibrox the match ended nil-nil. An away goal was vital in the return leg if Rangers were to reach the next round.
The Athens side defended stubbornly in the first game but began the home fixture as expected and bombarded Allan McGregor’s goal. The Rangers keeper pulled off several fine saves in the opening exchanges, but was unable to prevent a 12th minute strike by Ioannis Goumas.
The Ibrox side weathered the storm for much of the game. Then with nine minutes remaining Nacho Novo scored the all important equaliser. The wee Spaniard scoring an away goal which would catapult the Glasgow giants into the last 16. With a tough double header against Werder Bremen to follow.
Two costly errors by German keeper Tim Wiese gave Rangers a 2-0 victory over Bremen when the sides met at Ibrox on 6 March. Goals from Daniel Cousin and Steven Davis ensured that Walter and his young side would defy all expectations again. Something they would continue to do throughout the tournament.
When the sides met again in seven days time the German side won the game 1-0. However it wasn’t enough to prevent the Gers progressing to the quarter-finals.
Best fans in the world
Rangers purchased the entire allocation of 2,500 tickets for the clubs second leg quarter-final against Sporting Lisbon, costing £50,000. The gesture was a thank you to the clubs loyal support who had shown ‘extraordinary commitment’ throughout the campaign.
The opening game had finished scoreless and Rangers needed to score in Portugal if they were to reach the semi-finals. Confidence was high and a victory over Sporting would take them one step closer to Manchester.
One memory that will stick in the mind of every Rangers fan is Steven Whittaker’s wonderful solo goal to secure his team a well deserved victory.
It was an edgy affair for much of the first half and looked likely to remain so until just after the restart when Jean-Claude Darcheville opened the scoring in an emotional night for the player and club.
Rangers crushed the Portuguese team throughout the second half and in the last minute Steven Whittaker took everyone by surprise when he picked the ball up in his own half to cruise past a number of defenders and rifle the ball into the Sporting goal.
Speaking to the Daily Record two years later, Darcheville spoke fondly about his short tenure at Ibrox and his important goal in Lisbon.
“When I put the ball in the net a whole range of emotions came over me. I stood there taking it all in.
“In the end it did mean so much. I heard the Rangers fans sing my name and realised how happy they were.
“It was decisive but so was Steven Whittaker’s goal in the last minute.”
“After that we started to believe something special was happening. We were in the last four and had dreams of going all the way.”
Manchester brace yourself … Rangers are coming
Injuries and suspensions were taking their toll when Rangers met Fiorentina in the Semi-final on 24 April.
Walter Smith’s first-choice midfield was decimated with six injuries and two suspensions. His first-choice central pairing, Barry Ferguson and Kevin Thomson were both suspended. While Charlie Adam, Lee McCulloch and Allan McGregor were injured.
Undeterred the Ibrox men held the Italians for 90 minutes and once again would need to do all the hard work away from home in the second leg.
Talking to the press afterwards Smith remained unconcerned as it was a situation his players encountered in earlier rounds.
“We’ve done it before and, hopefully, we can do it again,” the gaffer said.
It would take a penalty shootout to separate the teams. Rangers defended heroically for the full 120 minutes, with Neil Alexander in top form.
Fiorentina were camped in the Rangers half for almost the entire game but no matter what they did they couldn’t break down a resilient backline.
Daniel Cousin’s dismissal in extra-time for a head-butt ensured the players would be under the cosh until the final whistle. You could feel the tension in the air as the Rangers fans watched anxiously from behind the goal.
They have travelled across Europe and watched their heroes batten down the hatches in recent years. But this was the clubs most important game in a generation.
The Italians were now favourites to progress as the Ibrox team were missing first choice keeper McGregor. Alexander was an unknown at this point but was exceptional in both games.
He would save a spot kick from Fiorentina’s Liverani before Vieri became the villain blasting his penalty over the bar.
Barry Ferguson missed for Rangers but Nacho Novo crushed the home support when he calmly slotted Rangers into the final.
Follow in the footsteps of our team
The most successful football club in the world would break another record as an estimated 150,000-200,000 Rangers fans descended on Manchester.
Both Rangers and Zenit received 13,000 tickets each for the event which didn’t deter thousands of Bears from making the journey.
The script appeared to be written as Walter’s men would face The Little General, Dick Advocaat, and his well drilled Russian team in the final.
The former Rangers manager took charge of the St Petersburg side in 2006, four years after leaving Ibrox.
In Advocaat’s first season in Scotland he won a domestic treble and in his second, Rangers broke an SPL record by finishing 21 points clear of Celtic.
The fans loved him and in the 2000 Scottish Cup final they wore Orange clothing as a mark of respect to the Dutchman’s homeland. Little did they know he would eventually break their hearts.
Thousands of Rangers fans partied in the Manchester sun. They had travelled from Scotland, Northern Ireland, the USA, Canada and Australia to watch their heroes.
The players meanwhile were preparing for the biggest game of their careers. Zenit were no pushovers and didn’t have an easy route to the final.
They defeated Villarreal, Marseille and Leverkusen before demolishing German giants Bayern Munich 5-1 in the semi-final.
It was always going to be a struggle for Rangers to get anything from the game. But they deserved to be there as much as the Russians. It was no easy journey for Walter’s men either.
Zenit would win 2-0 on what turned out to be a disappointing evening.
Rangers sat too deep throughout the game and offered little going forward. Maybe fatigue had finally set in after such a long run both domestically and in Europe. However the team had done themselves and the club proud.
Still Simply the Best
The situation Rangers found themselves in post-2012 has deprived a lot of young Bears the opportunity to experience the same success from past years. And despite a disappointing end to Steven Gerrard’s first year in charge, the club are heading in the right direction.
When the Gaffer gets the right level of consistency Rangers will once again be knocking on the door of Europe’s elite.
Did you attend any of the games in 2008? Share your experiences with other Rangers fans in the comments below.