The esteem in which a player is held by bitter opponents can sometimes speak volumes about football excellence.

In Glasgow, a city with a rivalry glowing white hot with animosity, even grudging respect can be considered an acknowledgement of significance.

So hearing the former Celtic manager Martin O’Neill enter into an unfettered rave about Michael Mols was quite startling.

The Irishman was asked on a podcast if the player could have been Rangers’ answer to their rivals’ prolific talisman Henrik Larsson.

“Absolutely no question about that,” he enthused. “He was a magnificent footballer.

“If injury had not afflicted him… an absolutely brilliant, brilliant footballer.”

It’s a quote that points to the penetrating impact the Dutchman had on Scottish football after he arrived as another Dutch recruit to add to Dick Advocaat’s growing Oranje army when joining in a £4m deal from Utrecht in 1999

And while hopes were high, few predicted just how big an impact he could make, despite being Holland’s player of the year.

It’s a daunting prospect to arrive at Ibrox and feel the weight of history on your shoulders.

Even a striker as vaunted and ultimately successful as Mark Hateley found his initial spark hard to find.

Mols, on the other hand, went off like liquid dynamite.

13 goals in 20 games is a successful return for a Rangers striker, especially when 10 of those appearances were in the Champions League, but it’s only a fraction of the story.

It was the manner of his performances that struck a chord with the Rangers support that still vibrates to this day.

A smile seemingly permanently etched across his face, Mols twisted and turned with an alacrity that left defenders utterly bamboozled. His all-around play transformed a treble-winning side into an even more formidable animal.

He was key to one of the most storied European nights in the pantheon of the club when a performance of panache, grit and guile saw UEFA Cup holders Parma dispatched 2-0 at a bouncing Ibrox after strikes by Tony Vidmar and Claudio Reyna.

That night was marked by a clamorous din so epic in it’s deafening intensity that the roof may have taken flight had it not been nailed down.

Four days later Mols made up for his lack of goals against the Italians by thrashing four past Motherwell with a performance of herculean proportions – and against a Rangers legend with Andy Goram in between the sticks.

He was to make his mark in the Champions League too, with a double in the 4-1 thrashing of PSV Eindhoven in Glasgow, a match where he comprehensively upstaged his then international competition Ruud Van Nistelrooy.

Sadly, the same competition was to bring the curtain down on a four and a half month period that nobody who witnessed could easily forget.

A reckless lunge, miles from goal, by Bayern Munich keeper Oliver Khan forced the striker to take evasive action.

As he skipped over the Bavarian man-mountain he was caught on the right leg, forcing all his weight onto his left knee as he landed.

Watching it, even today, is to feel a sense of ever-growing dread.

Even on the grainy 14-inch TVs of the period, it was obvious that something very troubling had just happened.

And so it proved.

Mols was to spend the best part two years getting back to fitness and never again found the world-class form of his blockbuster arrival.

This is the story of that time.

Utrecht - “It was always Michael who gave us a way out.”

Mols arrived at FC Utrecht in 1996 as an established player in the Dutch top-flight but one who was yet to fulfil the promise of his technical gifts.

With a goal record of just better than one in four, he was never going to attract the interest of the biggest clubs despite his obvious talent and a single Dutch cap.

But there was something about the marriage of Mols and the Domstedelingen that just clicked from the start.

He improved with every passing year, 13 goals in his first season, 16 in his second and 20 in the third – by which time he was an icon with the home support.

His boss for the final 18 months of his spell Mark Wotte puts his meteoric rise down to a change in physical conditioning.

“Michael was a late developer,” he said. “He was not ready for the first team of Ajax then he went to SC Cambuur which was a second division club, then he went to FC Twente before Utrecht.

“At every club he developed himself as a more mature player.

“What I immediately recognised was that he was very motivated to develop more in a physical way. When he was a young boy he was thin and not muscular. He was quick and explosive but most of his physical development he did in Utrecht with a coach called Rob Druppers.

“He was the national championship athlete of Holland and he was very motivated together with Mols to make him stronger, fitter, quicker and more explosive. So when the rest of the boys were off, Michael would do a separate physical session and I think he benefitted in Scotland from this investment in himself.”

Former Aberdeen and Scotland striker Scott Booth found himself on loan with Utrecht after failing to get into a side stacked with internationals at Borrusia Dortmund.

The striker talks glowingly about his former strike partner and his ability to bring others into play intelligently.

“Molsy just had incredible balance and was able to play with his back to goal so cleverly,” he said.

“When you join a new club you are immediately assessing the players that are going to be playing quite close to you because you want to understand if you can get a good relationship.

“I had that with Molsy, he was great to be in a partnership because he was intelligent.”

Beyond his qualities on the pitch, Mols also took his responsibilities as the clubs’s talisman seriously off it.

When Booth arrived as a fish out of water, his strike partner made an effort to help him settle.

Mols showed the newly arrived Scotsman and his wife the best places to shop, eat and drink around town before treating them to dinner.

“He was just really kind,” Booth remembers.

As time went on, Mols’ influence on the pitch continued to grow and as his development accelerated, he became the absolute focal point of Utrecht under Wotte.

He said: “I played a 4-5-1 and then a 4-4-1-1 and the first question my players would ask was always, ‘Where is Michael?’

“He had a privileged position in my system and the players were okay with it because they could see he was a special player who could win a game, even when we were under the cosh.

“It was always Michael who gave us a way out.”

With 20 top-flight goals in 98/99 and five international caps over the period, he was always going to attract interest and so it proved when Rangers came calling with a £4m bid.

It was the perfect move for the player and club, allowing him to depart on the kind of fluffy terms that wouldn’t have been experienced had he moved to one of the Netherlands' giant trio of Ajax, PSV or Feyenoord.

After his final match at Utrecht’s Stadion Gagenwaard, the player undertook a lap of honour as fans serenaded their departing legend with the Michael Mols song soon to be heard echoing around Ibrox.

Looking back at footage, the striker’s face is contorted with pain as he attempts to hold back tears amid the show of unbridled affection. He fails.

Move to Rangers – “It was not a surprise that Advocaat and Michael were a good match.”

Amongst the interested parties that summer, including boyhood club Ajax, Rangers stood out.

With a squad brimming with attacking menace and a strong Dutch contingent in situ – a move to Govan would see the 28-year-old perfectly placed to continue his late bloom.

Advocaat had been monitoring the striker since his days as boss of PSV and his quality was well known to the members of the squad familiar with the Eredivise.

Left-back Artur Numan was one of those who were in no doubt about what he could bring to the table.

He said: “I played against him for PSV when he was at Utrecht.

"Dick Advocaat knew all about him from that time and that’s why he was desperate to sign him.”

Mark Wotte was resigned to see his talisman go, no matter how integral he had been to his team’s hopes.

Mols had simply offered too much to Utrecht to be held back any longer.

“We knew there was a lot of interest and his ambitions were to make a step up,” he admitted.

“We knew that we could not keep him. Whenever you have to decide to let a player go because he doesn’t want to renew his contract you have to respect also his great spell.

“Rangers had a great name in Holland because of Dick Advocaat and all the Dutch players playing there. It was not a surprise that Advocaat and Michael were a good match.”

Arrival at Rangers – “Wow! What have we signed here?”

Barry Nicholson was just a 19-year-old kid battling against the odds to force his way into a star-studded team when Mols arrived.

Rangers Review: Barry Nicholson in action for RangersBarry Nicholson in action for Rangers

The Fleetwood coach marvels to this day about that era and the quality of squad at Ibrox.

He recently caught his Rangers supporting son watching old footage on YouTube, with the youngster totally unaware of the scintillating football that was regularly on display in the decade before his birth.

The youngster’s stunned reaction was met with a wry smile by the 38-year-old who simply told him: “That’s what your Dad was up against trying to get into the first team!”

Amid big-name arrivals that were already in place, the likes of Andrei Kanchelskis, Giovanni Van Bronkhorst and Gabriel Amato, Mols was not a name that turned Nicholson’s head – until their first training session.

“I didn’t know anything at all about him when he arrived to be honest,” he acknowledged.

“With Michael, first day in pre-season, the balls come out it was like, ‘Wow! What have we signed here?’. He was unbelievable.

“He was another one who came in, and I don’t know if this is a Dutch thing, but he was super confident in his own ability.

“He was a good finisher as well and quite tough. You might think with Dutch players coming over to Scotland you can get stuck about them but he took knocks and could take hard tackles from defenders and just get back up and get on with it.

“There was no doubt about his ability, but it was also about hunger and desire. He scored two worldies on his debut (a Champions League qualifier against Haka) but what I liked about him was that he was a proper number nine and he’d be onto anything dropping around the six-yard box.

“He was one of the players who arrived and you definitely got the impression he didn’t need a lot of time to settle in. Because he had that little Dutch connection around him he probably felt at home very quickly.”

One man who wasn’t surprised that Mols took to life in Govan like a duck to water was Booth.

Playing as his strike partner had left him convinced of his old friend’s qualities and that he had everything in his locker to make hay in the more rugged confines of the SPL.

“I never doubted he’d be a success at Rangers,” said Booth.

“I was over in Holland looking back and it was just great to see that he was doing so well and people were raving about him.

“He had that sort of little wiggle he had to lose a player and that made him impossible for certain defenders to deal with because he had that great balance and could read what defenders were going to do.”

Ah yes, the turn.

The Mols trademark – “It was unique, I’ve never seen another player do it.”

When it comes to his old pal, Artur Numan likes to take the piss.

Rangers Review: Former Rangers buddies Mols and Arthur NumanFormer Rangers buddies Mols and Arthur Numan

The affable Dutchman laughs out loud when asked about the swivel turn that Mols employed to leave defenders with twisted blood.

“He learned that on the dance floor. He was like John Travolta!” the affable full-back recalls with a belly laugh.

But make no mistake, he’s deadly serious about his former teammate’s innate ability to glide past defenders.

“What made him special was when you passed the ball to him he moved to the left and very quickly, within a hundredth of a second, wooft, he turned to the other side. He was so quick.

“For Rangers he had a fantastic impact. He was unbelievable.”

It was a startling piece of skill and one Mols would employ often in games, taking the ball with his back to a defender.

“It was unique, I’ve never seen another player do it,” said Wotte.

“Before receiving the ball he dropped his shoulder to the left, and automatically all the defenders stepped to the left as well, and then he was gone on the other side.

“It was amazing timing. Even when the ball came at high speed he managed to have his first touch with the outside of his foot, he turned the defenders like they were statues and then he created space to make a shot or pass. That was the Michael Mols move.

“Everybody in the stadium in Utrecht stood up and applauded when he did this move.

It’s the sort of skill that captures the hearts of watching fans and like their counterparts at Utrecht, the denizens of Ibrox were quickly smitten.

Scott Booth laughs at the memory of Mols' magical skill: “The turn is just the kind of thing that brings a smile to your face isn’t it.”

The attitude – “As we were talking he produced a Michael Mols DVD from his shorts.”

While the numbers were exceptional, Mols was winning hearts and minds with more than goals.

His happy-go-lucky demeanour on the pitch and plucky refusal to be subdued by some of Scottish football’s dark artists gave the fans a real sense of his inner character.

And they loved what they saw.

“A big thing with the fans’ connection to Michael was his attitude,” said Nicholson.

“When he stepped onto the pitch every time he looked like he was absolutely loving being a Rangers player, loving wearing the jersey.”

Before Utrecht, Mols’ time at Twente was ruined when he didn’t get full backing from some within the club.

We was a player that needed to feel part of something, to be loved and wanted to perform at his best.

This was something Wotte quickly spotted and used to his advantage to get the best from his star man.

Rangers Review: Mols' former boss at FC Utrecht, Mark WotteMols' former boss at FC Utrecht, Mark Wotte

“The most important thing for Michael Mols is wherever he feels comfortable in a club, and feels appreciated in a club, then you can get the best out of him,” he said.

“When the fans don’t like him or the manager doesn’t like him or there is something else that is bothering him you will see that he is not at his best ability.

“He loved his time at Rangers. When I met him in Glasgow after the move he said it was just like FC Utrecht but two or three times as big.”

Talking to people about the player, his sense of fun is a returning theme.

Mols may have been a teetotaler, but he loved to get in on the dressing room action and when the banter started flying – his cheeky smile was never too far away.

This was a side of the striker that Booth knew well, but he still got a shock when Mols decided to wind him up before a powder keg Aberdeen vs Rangers clash at Pittodrie.

He said: “We were good pals at Utrecht and even after, keeping in touch.

“When I came back to Aberdeen for my final season, he was at Rangers. He had suffered the injury and come back.

“We were playing Rangers at Pittodrie in the second game of the season and we were both warming up. It came to a little point when we were both on the pitch and met at the half-way line to have a wee chat.

“As we were talking he produced a Michael Mols DVD from his shorts.

“It was signed with a message that read something along the lines of, ‘this is how it’s done!’ and he handed it to me!

“I got the shock of my life but knowing Molsy, he’s a cheeky chap, he thought that was good fun, and it was. That’s how I remember him as a player and a person.”

Four Motherwell goals – “I said to him after the fourth one, ‘Come on, stop it now! Four is enough!”

Perhaps Mols’ finest game in a Rangers shirt came on only the third match of the 99/00 season.

While a good start had been made, with two goals against Haka in Champions League qualifiers and an excellent finish against Hearts, the goals had not flowed as freely as he may have liked.

That was all to change one crisp August night in Govan as he tormented the Steelmen’s backline duo of Sean Teale, a 36-year-old veteran and fellow Dutchman Michel Doesburg.

The pair’s recollections differ over how much intelligence was available ahead of facing the Rangers phenom.

Teale, who’s tried to erase the game from his memory admitted: “I knew nothing about him. I had no idea except he had come to Rangers and he was scoring goals.

“Today it’s all written down for you and you know exactly what kind of runs a player is going to make but we knew absolutely nothing.

“We just went on the pitch and well… we found out for ourselves what happened.”

Duisburg, who has built up a successful career in scouting and works for Ajax, remembers the game much more clearly.

“Shaun Teale was the type of defender Michael Mols liked. The big, strong guys who want to win balls in the air and dive into tackles,” he said.

“He liked these guys because they are a little bit sloppy in their turning and he turned them inside out.

“Normally in the Scottish game the two centre-halfs are big strong boys.

“Michael loved the game over there because in Holland you also play with smaller, quicker central defenders but in the UK it’s ninety percent big, strong defenders and that absolutely favoured the way he played.

“Looking at the goals, we couldn’t do much about the first or fourth. It was more during the game, he was taking Shaun inside out.

“It was difficult to get close to him, that was the biggest problem.

“I can remember during the game, I said to him after the fourth one, ‘come on, stop it now! Four is enough!

“He made a remark about Shaun and said, ‘Can you tell me where he is? I can’t find him. These defenders…’

"He was taking the piss.” 

The Injury – “The first thought I had was ‘will he be able to do that turn ever again?’”

It was on the third of November in Bavaria that disaster struck.

Rangers Review: Mols is carried off the Munich pitch following clash with Bayern keeper Oliver KhanMols is carried off the Munich pitch following clash with Bayern keeper Oliver Khan

Mols had been his usual ebullient self, striking the post with a header and tormenting the Bayern Munich defence when he battled for a fifty-fifty ball with Kahn in the 28th minute.

In his attempt to hurdle the goalkeeper’s challenge he landed with all his weight on his left leg.

He landed at a visible awkward angle, forcing impact to his knee and cruciate ligaments.

It’s excruciating to watch and made all the more impactful by Mols’ obvious distress in signalling for help before he even fully hits the ground.

Nicholson didn’t make the squad for the game but mention it and he’s transported back to that cold November night, 21 years ago

“I can remember vividly watching the game on TV.

“And probably the first thought I had was, ‘will he be able to do that turn ever again?’. It was such a huge part of his game

“After the injury was he ever the same player again? He was still an unreal footballer but didn’t have the same impact as he did during that early period.

“It takes a lot to come back from a cruciate injury. I know there is brilliant surgery and rehab nowadays, but you are talking 21 years ago. To come back from it and getting back on the pitch was an achievement.

“It’s such a shame because looking at the impact he had, he could have broken records for fun at Rangers.”

Wotte is another who recalls the moment with a shudder.

“I can still see him making the jump over Oliver Kahn. It was terrible.

“His turn was a 100 percent knee movement. You have to go left to right very quickly so you have to make a quick turn and that was his trademark. His agility and his explosiveness to get players on the wrong foot. He was very unlucky with that.

“He was really making the last ten percent he needed to become an established European striker coming into the national team, being very important for Rangers and making an impact in the Champions League. Then you get this injury.

“Normally at 28 or 29 you are at your peak and this peak was broken. After that it was difficult for him to get back to the same level. That’s the way it sometimes goes in football, it’s just bad luck.

“We was still a respected Eredivise footballer after the injury but he was never as good as he had been at Rangers. That was his highlight. That was his top potential.”

With Mols performing at home and abroad at the highest possible level, Louis Van Gaal had been keeping an eye on his progress.

With international stars in his way the route to a starting place was fraught but glowing reports were hitting the desk of the European Cup-winning boss.

Numan was a first pick as left-back in the side and laments Mols’ loss to Holland with Euro 2000 just around the corner.

Rangers Review: Mols lining up for Holland for a friendly against MoroccoMols lining up for Holland for a friendly against Morocco

He said: “Like everybody else and Michael keeps saying it himself, that injury against Bayern Munich was a big blow for him because at the time he was absolutely fantastic.

“He was also a striker that could have become a big part of the national team. He had good strikers in front of him like Kluivert, Bergkamp so it was difficult but after his injury he had nearly two years out and that was such a shame because he could have been brilliant.”

The injury was to keep Mols out for 10 months before a stop-start return where the player never felt truly right.

He returned in time for the Champions League games the following year but didn’t look comfortable.

After an unspectacular and frustrating spell, he faced up to more surgery and was kept out for another five months.

It meant the injury had robbed him of nearly two years but this story is not one of tragedy.

Mols went on to win five trophies with Rangers, including a treble under Alex McLeish where he was a prominent figure scoring 13 goals in 27 games in 2002/03.

If he never returned to the form of his early months in Royal Blue he still went on to make a mark on the club's history and played until he was 39, ending his career at one of Holland’s biggest clubs in Feyenoord.

And when asked about the injury, Booth stressed that Mols’ journey was still a successful one.

“He still went on to have a really good career after the injury,” he said.

“Even playing against him after that when he was taking the ball he was really difficult to deal with and defenders couldn’t get near the ball. He was still able to twist and turn.

“And yes, any serious injury probably does have an impact on you but he went on to score many more goals and still cause defences problems.”

Injury may have stymied Mols then, but it did not stop him.

And any fan who witnessed his impact for those golden few months at the turn of the century will forever cherish the memory of watching a world-class Rangers number nine in his finest glory.