‘God made the world, but the Dutch made Holland.’ (Anon)

Of all the Rangers sides that took part in the Champions League era, none were better placed to make a big impact than Dick Advocaat’s squad that started the 1999/00 season.

Treble winners in his first year, even with such a high player turnover throughout the campaign, Advocaat’s only major addition in the summer of 1999 was Michael Mols, a £4m signing from FC Utrecht. It was a talented, expressive and, for one more season at least, well-drilled football team, still very much wedded to the philosophy of attacking football. As would be demonstrated by the colour and style of that season’s Scottish Cup Final evisceration of Aberdeen in 2000, the Dutch influence had well and truly taken a hold of Ibrox.

They started the new season in very much the same way that they left Hampden Park, having completed that domestic clean sweep in the previous May. The first eight league games had been won and the first points were only dropped the weekend before the visit of PSV, as a one-goal lead was surrendered at Rugby Park when Rangers had to settle for a draw. It was perhaps a result that was in the post as Rangers faded out of the game late on, trying to see out the lead they had built up, such was the pattern of the last couple of away fixtures. It kick-started a more ruthless approach as the following two league clashes were a 5-1 victory at Pittodrie and a 4-2 home win over Celtic. October was merely the set up in the farce that was ‘John Barnes: Celtic Manager’. The punchline was to come in February, but at this stage they were only four points behind Rangers with a game in hand. On paper anyway, everything was still up for grabs.

Europe was where the growing interest was, however. Handed arguably the toughest qualifying tie against the Serie A giants Parma, Rangers had delivered one of the greatest European performances in the club’s history to book a place in that season’s Champions League. If the luck of the draw had deserted Advocaat in the qualifying draw, it was still nowhere to be seen when the first group stage was laid out in late August. Group B admittedly had the glamour as Barcelona and Gabriel Batistuta’s Fiorentina joined Arsenal, playing their home fixtures in the competition at Wembley, although they did have a whipping boy in AIK Solna. There was no whipping boy in Group G, despite the Scottish media’s best efforts to provide one. In an attempt to create false expectations, Héctor Cúper’s Valencia were dubbed the ‘Aberdeen of Spain’ by Hugh Keevins of Radio Clyde before the opening group match, due to their slow start to that La Liga season. They would, however, reach that season’s Champions League Final, despatching of both Lazio and Barcelona en route, before being humbled by Real Madrid in Paris.

Joining them were Bayern Munich, beaten finalists in dramatic fashion against Manchester United three months earlier. Bayern would reach the semi-finals of this edition before eventually winning the trophy in the 2000/01 final by beating, of course, Valencia in Milan. PSV Eindhoven completed the quartet and, although lacking the quality of Valencia and Bayern, they were still a very strong side. By the time they visited Ibrox on Matchday four, they had already drawn with Valencia, would beat Bayern in the next fixture and their Dutch title would be secured that season by 16 points, at a time when the national game was strong, sandwiched in between two semi-final appearances at the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championships. PSV had some emerging young defensive talent in André Ooijer and Mark van Bommel in addition to the hottest prospect in European football up front. Ruud van Nistlerooy had scored 15 league goals by this point, including two hat-tricks. To put it into context, his fellow Dutchman at Ibrox, Michael Mols, was considered a sensation in Scotland and he had scored eight. Even the great Romário hadn’t started that well in Eindhoven. This was a team to be respected and there was surely no tougher group into which Rangers could have been placed.

It had started badly. Despite holding their own in the first half, including a great chance for Gabriel Amato, Rangers were blown away in the end by Valencia in the Mestalla Stadium. Keeping in line with those fine Rangers traditions abroad, there was a considerable degree of contributory negligence as Lionel Charbonnier gifted the Spaniards their opening goal; however, the trio of Gaizka Mendieta, Claudio López and Kily González pulled the Rangers defence out of position at will to create the second. There was a huge response at Ibrox two weeks later for the visit of Bayern, but a mixture of hideous luck and careless passing cancelled out a first-half Jörg Albertz goal and Rangers had to settle for a point. There would be no cancellation in Eindhoven, however, as Albertz struck late on to grab a famous win in Holland. Rangers were starting to look more comfortable on their travels under Advocaat. Following on from the win against Bayer Leverkusen in the previous season’s UEFA Cup, it was no longer mandatory to watch away legs in Europe from behind the sofa.

The talk before kick-off was all about the Rangers team selection. Claudio Reyna and Arthur Numan were injured, but it was a tactical switch that had caused all of the shockwaves. A story would do the rounds in Glasgow later that week, almost certainly apocryphal, that supposedly originated from someone working in the hotel being used by the PSV squad. In the corner of their team meeting room, it was told, stood an A3 flip chart with just one word written on it, circled heavily in marker pen: Albertz.

He didn’t start. Rangers only goalscorer in the Champions League so far, the man directly responsible for the four points we had gathered, would be sitting on the bench. His replacement was Derek McInnes, a bit-part player by that time who was reportedly going to be sold to Sheffield United for £450,000 before the game. Albertz had in fact not started the previous game in Holland but had famously come on and scored the winner. Surely Advocaat, despite the fractured nature of their relationship, would not risk going without the German again? There were more than murmurs rippling around the pre-match Ibrox crowd, but it was a selection that worked a treat. McInnes played at the base of a three-man midfield, allowing Barry Ferguson and Giovanni van Bronkhorst the freedom to pull the creative strings for a mobile front three of Neil McCann, Rod Wallace and Michael Mols. As usual, Numan’s deputy was Tony Vidmar, who joined the familiar defensive unit of Moore, Amoruso and Porrini, playing in front of Stefan Klos, who returned that night from a near-ten-week injury lay-off.

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It was an open game of football from the off, with Van Bronkhorst stamping his authority all over the pitch. He had gone wide from distance after setting up Vidmar, the hero against Parma, from a dangerous free kick. There was a scare too as Sergio Porrini failed to control a ball in his own box, which gave Johann Vogel an opportunity, but he was fortunately smothered out by Moore. It was Rangers who made the first clear-cut chance, however. A patient move involving van Bronkhorst, McInnes and Ferguson, so patient that you can clearly hear one punter shout, ‘Move yer arse Gio!’ (total football hadn’t taken a hold of everyone then), and one which finally released Porrini down the right flank. The Italian cut a simple ball for McCann in the box, but he meekly hit it straight at the goalkeeper Kralj. The tension around the ground was palpable. Rangers had played well thus far in the campaign but hadn’t been ruthless. These chances couldn’t continue to be passed up.

No sooner had fans slumped to their seats in frustration, they were up on their feet in jubilation. The resulting corner was swung in by Van Bronkhorst and met powerfully by Amoruso from four yards out. It was a super delivery and a commanding header, but the Dutch defending was very lax. Soon after the opener it seemed as if PSV resembled the boy with his finger in the dike as Rangers swept forward again and again. Wallace had a good effort charged down by Stanga after an intelligent McInnes pass found Mols, whose ability to turn defenders to his will was now becoming something of a trademark, before cutting it back for the English forward. Mols missed a chance of his own, as did Porrini, before Wallace spurned perhaps the best one of them all when he dragged wide after a brilliant pass by Ferguson. Advocaat was struggling to keep whatever was remaining of his surgically enhanced coiffure.

With six minutes left before the interval, Mols saved his side a dressing-room tirade when he doubled the lead. He started the move himself when he won the ball just inside the PSV half before switching play out to McCann on the left-hand side. McCann paused intelligently before sending over a pinpoint cross for the Dutchman coming in at the back post. Mols had been a sensation domestically but had missed some big chances at home to Bayern Munich and in Eindhoven. This was a big moment, especially as he had been on the receiving end of a lot of Dutch abuse from the away end. ‘I don’t think we were quite at the Kris Boyd stage where you couldn’t play him in Europe!’ said David Edgar. ‘The thing I remember about that goal going in was the delight on his face because there are some guys that you love to see score a goal because you can tell just how much it means to them.’ If the Rangers players felt that they had received their just reward with that bigger cushion, they were reminded right on the stroke of half-time that it takes a lot of work to maintain it. Porrini, under pressure out on the touchline, could and should have blasted it up to me in the rear of the Govan Stand. Instead, he tried to retain possession with a ball back to Klos but it was woefully short. Suddenly van Nistelrooy, hitherto anonymous, skipped ahead of Moore before being bundled down in the box. A soft penalty according to Archie McPherson in the commentary box. The penaltiest of all penalties according to legendary official Pierluigi Collina, who wasted little time in pointing to the spot. Klos guessed correctly but van Nistelrooy left him with absolutely no chance as he rifled the ball high into the net. With a gut punch that somehow felt unjust, the collective enjoyment of 44 minutes of blistering technical football had been replaced at the interval by that familiar feeling of tense dread.

‘Ibrox was so loud that night,’ recalls David. ‘It was just one of those nights, there’s a secret to it but it can’t be found in design, where you knew before kick-off that the fans were on it. Maybe it was because of a renewed confidence from the way we had been playing, but it was visceral. And it was like the oxygen had been sucked out at that moment. We should have legitimately been three of four goals up in a game that we had dominated and now they go off down the tunnel believing they’re still in it.’ After the re-start, it should have been Rangers on the spot, but incredibly the Italian referee waved away the appeals when McCann was assaulted by Kralj in the box. It merely delayed the restoration. A van Bronkhorst free kick on 56 minutes moved wickedly and could only be parried straight back out by the Yugoslav goalkeeper and into the path of Wallace. His reactions were fast but his toe-poke had no pace and, in what can only be described as a ‘stramash’, Wallace literally attempted to header the ball on the ground from one yard out. Neil McCann showed no such gentility as he nearly took his team-mate into the net with the ball. The juxtaposition was described perfectly by Edgar. ‘This was such a great goal because it showed the contrast you sometimes get in football. Here is a glamorous European competition, these two huge names, millions of pounds spent on the players on show and, in the case of van Nistelrooy, would be spent and there’s a goal that comes from a Primary five lunchtime kickabout.’ There was no complacent let up this time as Rangers piled on the pressure. Vidmar, who had been letting off some steam in the press that week about being considered only as an understudy, should have done better when sent through brilliantly by Ferguson, but he instead hit the side-netting with the outside of his right foot where he could have drilled it low across goal or crossed for the waiting McCann.

The fourth goal finally came with just ten minutes left, although it didn’t have the type of build-up befitting the performance in general. With tired legs all around him, Sergio Porrini just simply punted the ball long for Mols. After that, the play was far more refined. The familiar twists and turns were on display before he first settled himself and then settled the match. Due to be substituted with cramp for Jonatan Johansson before the goal, he had given himself the perfect setting in which to take his standing ovation. An instant hero of the Ibrox faithful, now showing a ruthlessness at the very top level as well as domestically, the fans and the manager had found the final piece in their puzzle. Rangers were now shooting for the stars! What could possibly go wrong? The problem, when your hopes and dreams are embodied by one man, almost always rests in the body of that one man. The careers of both Dutch goalscorers that night were shaped by exactly the same injury. Daryl King, writing in The Evening Times the following day, said that Rangers had saved themselves £11m by signing the better Dutch forward. Sporting injury, and more importantly the physical and mental recovery associated with it, is a capricious business indeed.

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There were many Rangers players that night, other than Mols, who could lay claim to having put in an outstanding shift. Amoruso had kept the best striker in Europe very quiet and had firmly re-established himself with the support as the Rangers captain, van Bronkhorst, was sensational in pulling the strings, and Neil McCann, who had scored twice in a title-winning victory at Parkhead, described the performance as ‘as sweet a moment as you can get in football,’ as he relentlessly attacked the Dutch defence. The role of Derek McInnes can’t be understated either. Sitting on the intelligent Belgian veteran Luc Nilis, he allowed Ferguson, van Bronkhorst et al the space in which to shine. For all the threats the PSV coaching staff may have seen in Jörg Albertz, he couldn’t have done that crucial job.

Rangers finished that evening one point clear at the top of group G. One more win in the remaining two fixtures would have ensured progression to the next group stage and Champions League football into the spring. Barry Ferguson, subject of a £10m interest from Parma, committed himself to a new contract the following day. Plans were also in place for an academy to be built on a site at Auchenhowie. Everything felt on the up as the fans left Ibrox on that October night. PSV manager Eric Gerets said afterwards that, ‘Rangers could have scored many more goals than they did. I thought they played marvellous football at times. We had a lesson in how the modern game should be played. This defeat will be in my mind and the mind of the players for a while.’ Such platitudes from PSV coaches about Rangers are nothing new, but this wasn’t 1978. Rangers had won a European trophy six years before that particular victory. With the exception of one season in the 1990s we, and the rest of Scottish football, were a laughing stock. We had pride back, with interest, and we could dream again.

Dreams rarely come true, of course. This team would ultimately fail to make it through. Another masterclass by Valencia, this time at Ibrox, and the heartbreak in Munich, left Rangers with the consolation of the UEFA Cup, an opportunity they treated like an uncool birthday present from an out-of-touch aunt. History has perhaps placed this disappointment into a fairer context. Rangers were drawn with two of the best three sides in European football at the time (Real Madrid being the other) and not only was it the toughest draw in that season’s competition, it was the hardest Champions League draw Rangers have ever faced. Borussia Dortmund in 1994 and Lyon in 2007 were tough second-place sides but both exited the competition immediately once the knock-outs started and PSV Eindhoven were a far harder proposition than either Steaua Bucharest or Stuttgart.

Parma was the greatest knock-out achievement of the era, and, with a super performance to match, but for sheer dominance of a respected opponent, this may well be the peak of Advocaat’s Rangers reign. The regression down towards the national mean may have picked up pace in the years that followed, but rarely has a Rangers side inhaled that kind of rarefied air at the summit of European football. An ironic metaphor, perhaps, for a side shaped by the continent’s lowlands. That old Dutch phrase came from the fact that it was a nation literally dragged out of the sea and dried by drainage and building dikes. By October 1999 it felt very much like Rangers had been dragged out of European football’s depths. Now glory awaited, unless, of course, arrogance got in the way.

Those bloody, but brilliant, Dutch eh?