The manager used to tell the players before games, 'Give Brian the ball, he’ll do something good with it.' They could find me anywhere on the pitch – left, right or centre.

Brian Laudrup

Stan Mortensen was a post-war professional footballer of high regard. Over 300 appearances for his beloved Blackpool and 23 goals in 25 caps for England, including the first-ever World Cup goal by an Englishman at their ill-fated tournament in Brazil. The highlight of his career was arguably the FA Cup final of 1953, when he became the first and, thus far, only player to score a hat-trick in that famous match, including a thunderous free kick as Blackpool came back from 3-1 down to win 4-3. It remains one of the famous finals in the competition’s long history and it was quickly named in honour of one man.

That man wasn’t Mortensen. Sir Stanley Matthews was arguably the most famous player in the world at the time and this realistically was his last chance to win an elusive cup winner’s medal. Such was the romantic desperation to see him succeed, his two assists (the final one bringing about the winning goal) ensured that it was his name that was forever associated with the 90 minutes. When Mortensen died in 1991 it was said that his final moment would no doubt be known as the ‘Matthews Funeral’. If he carried any bitterness with him about such a performance being overshadowed into eternity then surely Gordon Durie would know how he felt. He had made a bet with Paul Gascoigne at the start of the English superstar’s first season at Ibrox that he would outscore him, and going into the final game of the season, the Scottish Cup final at Hampden against Hearts, Durie was one ahead of his rival. His three goals that afternoon would win him the bet but not the Man Of The Match award as once again a genius stole the limelight.

I got his signature before Walter Smith and David Murray. As I was preparing to fly out of Glasgow Airport on a family holiday, Brian Laudrup had just flown in to seal the deal, after being lured by the promise of a free role and an easier life compared to the shackles of Italy and Serie A. It was an exciting signing, quite literally in the form of my boarding pass, but there were genuine questions over his love for the game following such an unhappy spell in both Florence and Milan. Rangers’ other high-profile signing that summer of 1994, the former Marseilles defender Basile Boli, created more of a buzz. It wouldn’t be long into the 1994/95 season before it was clear that in actual fact a Rangers legend had arrived. He was simply playing football at a different level than any other player I had seen pull on a blue jersey.

"It wasn’t that at the start," recalled David Robertson when he spoke to me in 2019. "I remember the first pre-season game against Clyde at Broadwood. I remember coming in at half-time thinking, 'This guy is not as good as people make out!' But it turned out that we weren’t as good as he was and we had to catch up to him. He was making passes that I simply wasn’t reading. But as time went on I knew that if the ball got to Laudrup, I could make a run and nine times out of ten he would find the pass to me. He made our lives so much easier." By October Laudrup couldn’t go to take a corner without the fans visibly showing that they weren’t worthy of him. He was an instant sensation that, along with the redoubtable Mark Hateley, brightened those two seasons between 1993 and 1995 when Rangers in general were relatively flat. It was therefore no surprise at all that if a Scottish Cup Final was going to be named after a player, it would be him. What was a little surprising, however, was the season in which it happened.

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1995/96 – Laudrup’s second season at Ibrox - was more subdued than his first. His 13 goals from 38 appearances from his free role in his debut year was impressive, not to mention the umpteen assists for Mark Hateley. By this cup final he had only managed four goals in 32 games, although the last of them was the decisive moment in the semi-final against Celtic, a brave but brilliant lob that sent Rangers back to Hampden. However, this was the season that Rangers had another genius creating magic. If Laudrup’s complete freedom the season before showcased his individual talent, it arguably caused problems in the overall Rangers shape, resulting in a disappointing campaign where ‘only’ the league was won. Smith changed formation to get the best out of Paul Gascoigne, using wing-backs, deploying three at the back and ensuring some real workforce around the England midfielder in order that not just he but the entire unit flourished. It worked. Gascoigne scored 19 goals and Rangers averaged over 2.5 points a game in the league, the only time in the nine-in-a-row era when this was achieved (where all seasons are adjusted to three points for a win). Even if Laudrup was playing a more reserved role, this was still a Rangers side in top gear.

Hearts, however, had proved to be a problem that season, winning the previous two fixtures and scoring five goals without reply, including an Allan Johnston hat-trick in a 3-0 win at Ibrox in January. Unlike the last Scottish Cup Final that Rangers appeared in (two years before when they had slumped to a calamitous 1-0 defeat to Dundee Utd, who had also notched up a 3-0 win at Ibrox that season), it felt like a team on an upswing instead of one in a slump. All the talk that week was about the possible arrival in the summer of Gianluca Vialli from the soon-to-be Champions’ League winners Juventus. He instead chose Chelsea, citing the draw of the capital and the need for press attention. On the eve of the final, Richard Gough remarked that he should have a word with Gascoigne about how intense life can be as a Rangers player.

No Vialli that summer and no McCoist for the final. He cut a pensive and withdrawn figure as the team paraded the league championship around Ibrox three weeks previously and speculation had mounted about his future. A new two-year deal was signed during the week but sadly a long-running calf injury flared up in training and he would have to make do with watching from the stands as Rangers took the field with no out-and-out centre-forward. Goram took his place in goal that afternoon for the 47th time that season, a fact that might explain the cohesion of that Rangers season as much as the creative firepower Smith had available. Only Alan McLaren played more often in 1995/96 and he made up a three-man defence with Richard Gough and John Brown, with Alec Cleland and David Robertson providing the width as normal. Gascoigne was partnered with the familiarity of Ian Ferguson and Stuart McCall, with Laudrup and Gordon Durie the nominal Rangers forwards. In typical mid-90s fashion, Hearts matched the Rangers shape with Giles Rousset, the popular French goalkeeper, behind Allan McManus, Paul Ritchie and Pasquale Bruno in defence, former Ranger Dave McPherson in the right wing-back role and Englishman Neil Pointon on the other side. Gary Locke, the 20-year-old Hearts skipper, was in midfield with Gary Mackay and Steve Fulton, with John Colquhoun and the dangerous Allan Johnston leading the line.

The game took a significant turn after only three minutes when Locke, the source of so much energy in the Hearts midfield engine, caught his studs in the turf trying to tackle Stuart McCall and was stretchered off. In a time of three substitutes, one of whom was a goalkeeper, Jim Jeffries had to make a fundamental change to his shape before anyone had broken a sweat. Alan Lawrence, a forward, took his place, meaning that Johnston, his main threat, had to come back into midfield to shadow Gascoigne. The movement of Laudrup and Durie was evident early on and Ferguson and Robertson made Rousset work, but in that first 30 minutes Rangers were scrappy, with Ferguson and Cleland booked for persistent fouling and a wild swipe on Johnston respectively. Even though they were imbalanced, Hearts had a good long-range effort from Lawrence, and Colquhoun missed a free header. Rangers, sporting the next season’s new kit on cup final day for the third time in four years, were struggling to find their rhythm. Billy McNeil on co-commentary duty had started to criticise the lack of a penalty box threat without a number nine.

As is so often the case with the most dangerous of threats, for Rangers that day it was one hidden deeper. Durie and Laudrup were not being picked up by a defence set up for the tip of the Rangers team being much further forward. After 37 minutes there was a seemingly harmless exchange just inside the Hearts half, with Laudrup lobbing to Durie, then an exchange of headers before Durie sprung the trap with a more adventurous lob over the top of Bruno that spun perfectly for Laudrup to take on the volley, low beyond the despairing reach of Rousset. It was a fantastic piece of play that took seven seconds, four touches, covered 40 yards and changed the dynamic of the cup final. From that moment on, Rangers stepped it up. Gascoigne nearly scored a carbon copy of his season-defining goal the month before against Aberdeen but got swamped by maroon shirts, Gough tested Rousset with a brilliant header and Durie should have done better as he rounded the Frenchman before running the ball out of play. Hearts should have been further punished when Paul Ritchie, later of the parish, took Gascoigne out of the game with a cynical and dangerous foul right on the edge of the box. He was the last obstacle in the way of a Gascoigne goal and should have seen red. Hugh Dallas perhaps prioritised the spectacle of the showpiece event over the strict laws of the game.

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There was no let-up after the restart as Alec Cleland was in behind the Hearts backline within 30 seconds. Four minutes later the match was ended as a contest in the most bizarre and cruel way. Giles Rousset wasn’t just a cult hero at Tynecastle, he was as responsible as anyone for turning around Hearts’ fortunes that season. Laudrup had created an opportunity over in the right corner after turning McManus inside out, but his delivery was well below his usual high standards. No one was entirely sure if this insipid ball was a cross or a shot and there was an initial groan that it was a good chance squandered followed by an almighty roar as the ball was inexplicably rolling over the line and into the net. A surreal moment that a genius should win the cup by way of some kind of slow-motion accident.

There was sympathy for him in the commentary box but more a sense of disappointment that the contest had concluded early. There was little sympathy for him in the West Stand as "There’s Only One Rousset" bellowed out behind his goal as Rangers pressed on for more. Jeffries replaced Bruno with veteran striker John Robertson and elected for a back four in order to get Johnston into the game, but it was still Rangers who remained on top, with Gascoigne driving at will, Ferguson hitting the bar and Durie popping up everywhere. Jock Brown feared a rout but that would require some better finishing. Durie had five efforts and they were all off-target. Perhaps he needed a chance without the time and space to overthink it.

With 66 minutes played, another Rangers counter-attack completely exposed a young and rapidly tiring Hearts defence. When McCall started the move by slipping a ball through to Durie, Rangers were once again 40 yards from goal. Durie sprayed the ball first time with the outside of his right boot for Laudrup to chase in plenty of space. He returned it across the box at pace for Durie to run on and take instantly in his instep, ten yards from goal. Another beautiful example of blistering and devastating football, Durie’s endless endeavour had finally been rewarded.

Rangers Review: Laudrup and Gazza celebrateLaudrup and Gazza celebrate (Image: SNS)

It was now exhibition stuff, especially from the two chief architects, shirts untucked, as they indulged in ball juggling and back heels in the brightening sunshine. One move ended with John Brown just taking too heavy a touch in the box, where the Brown of yesteryear would have taken it first time and perhaps finished one of the greatest team goals in the history of the club. The showboating was also maybe indicative of a creeping complacency and it was punished when Colquhoun pounced on a loose ball at the edge of the Rangers box before Alan McLaren could, and rifled a low consolation past Goram. It failed to change much as Rangers continued to attack in droves. Stuart McCall went very close whilst Laudrup drifted past defenders as if they were ghosts, before forcing two more good saves from Rousset. McManus looked as if he was playing on sand trying to catch Laudrup, after being fooled by a cute David Robertson flicked pass, but the Dane broke away and gifted Durie his second of the afternoon, although he nearly fell over the ball, before finally dispatching it past the now-tormented Rousset.

Durie got his Mortensen moment with five minutes remaining, rightly taking his acclaim as part of a star-studded cast. Yet again it came from a triangle with Laudrup, this time originating from a long ball that Durie managed to flick on to the Rangers number 11. Such were the weights draining the Hearts legs, Laudrup had time to ponder life’s greatest questions before sending the ball right back onto the head of his partner. An extra-special roar greeted a brilliant cup final hat-trick that sealed a relentless display.

It was a hugely enjoyable day at Hampden, somehow free of the tension and pressure of the other Scottish Cup finals of that decade. The same freedom appeared to elude Walter Smith as he watched his boys go up to collect their medals, barely cracking a smile. Soon after, in his on-field post-match interview with the BBC’s Hazel Irvine, once the standard platitudes and clichés were over, he was asked about the pressure now to deliver nine-in-a-row and what new faces would be arriving at Ibrox. Barely ten minutes had passed since he had delivered his third double in four years, the 13th in the club’s history, and the focus was already on the forthcoming season of destiny. Few moments summed up the pressure on Walter Smith’s shoulders at that time more than this exchange with Irvine, but she was only tapping into the reality. He had delivered 11 trophies in five years as Rangers manager but, such was this growing obsession with matching this sequence, it would have been rendered meaningless if he didn’t bring home one more. For Smith, there was no real mental space in which to properly enjoy such a fantastic performance.

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His two maestros had plenty of space, however. The last enduring image of the post-match celebrations is of Gascoigne and Laudrup sharing a genuinely emotional embrace on the Hampden turf. Perhaps he had cup-final ghosts to exorcise from 1991 but Gascoigne, who had been in the wars all afternoon, effectively refused to come off for Ian Durrant as an 88th-minute substitute. He was soaking it all up on that stage even if he was playing a more supportive role on this occasion. Two more different personalities you would struggle to find, but the blend was alchemic. Because of the impending suffocating circus with Celtic or the never-ending promise of even more glamorous new signings to come, those of us there that day may have taken for granted what we had just witnessed. From 1994 to 1998 we had watched two of the greatest, if not the greatest, Rangers players of all time carve open Scottish football with ease. Plenty of Rangers greats have shone in big games but only the best have owned them. Within the final three weeks of a tense season, these two delivered the double seemingly of their own free will.

As time has passed and our ability to compete in the transfer market has diminished, these performances have grown in our love and esteem. We really weren’t worthy.