‘Complaining about boring football is a little like complaining about the sad ending of King Lear: it misses the point somehow.’ Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch  


‘They are going to watch the final on television, with their philosophy.’ José Mourinho on Ajax, 8 May 2019  


It had been the most enjoyable season for the neutral in five years but by the halfway stage of 1995/96, Celtic still found themselves that little bit behind their rivals. With two defeats and a draw in the three Old Firm matches that had already been played, they were four points behind the champions going into the busy festive period. "The team across the city can maybe get away with grinding out results," Celtic full-back Tosh McKinlay told the Daily Record in December. "But we’ve been brought up on pure football."

Rarely has there been such insight into the Celtic state of mind. In other words, ‘Sure, we could win titles by winning the big games by small margins but it simply wouldn’t be accepted. We either win beautifully or not at all.’ With only one trophy so far in the decade, the answer was more often not at all.

‘Cavalier football’ was a phrase that echoed through Scottish football radio phone-ins and newspaper columns in the 1990s. An emotional insurance policy and a psychological crutch of consolation, it reached its zenith during this particular season with many former teammates of Tommy Burns using their punditry pulpit to preach the true gospel.

Yes, yes, Rangers kept winning the key matches but that was all balanced out by the lives of the poor being enriched by watching their side spray 247 passes from one side of the pitch to the other in an entertaining score draw against Kilmarnock. Some things are more important than mere results, after all. When one future Celtic signing described his new manager as "the kind of man you read about in the Bible", it was perhaps a sign that the messianic narrative had reached its limit.

It all pre-dated Burns, of course. The mythology of the Lisbon Lions – Celtic’s European Cup-winning side of 1967 who were all born within the circumference of the centre circle at Parkhead – was built mainly around the fact that they overcame the great defensive wall of Inter and Helenio Herrera’s catenaccio. Given the overpowering monochromatic need inherent within so much football writing, defence was beaten by attack, pragmatism by flair, bad by good. The almost certain offside nature of the Celtic equaliser was blurred by the broadest of historical brush strokes. Even Liam Brady’s Celtic team – the one that famously went unbeaten for 14 games – was hastily given the tag of Scotland’s ‘best footballing side’ and imaginary points for style were awarded alongside the real thing. It all came to a shuddering halt on a night where style didn’t matter as Rangers – playing with ten men for 84 minutes in horrific conditions in the Scottish Cup semi-final – gritted their teeth, reorganised, took their one chance and with it, their place in the final.

If Celtic – and Aberdeen for a few years in the late 1980s and early 1990s – were the dashing Cavaliers then Rangers had to be painted as the Roundheads [1]. Dull, prosaic, Cromwellian protestants up to no good with their penchant for clean sheets and titles where even the reports of excellent performances were underlined by a suspicion that Walter Smith would cancel Christmas, given half a chance. Pat Nevin – the former Chelsea and Scotland winger and later BBC broadcaster who has cultivated a reputation as football’s leading intellectual and high priest of indie chic – was once reported as saying, "If there were only 99 Scottish clubs, Rangers wouldn’t make my top 100." The level of romantic narrative arc at Ibrox was insufficient.

It wasn’t wholly true throughout the match reporting of the time nor the transfer speculation – newspapers still had to sell to the dominant market of Rangers fans – but the commentariat too often indulged the caricature, the inflation of certain chosen characteristics and the minimising of others. The towering central defenders, tough-tackling midfielders and powerful strikers were front and centre when sketching Rangers, with the stylish and creative wingers – a lineage that runs through the history of the club from Alan Morton to Brian Laudrup – pushed to the margins.

Jim Baxter was immortalised at Wembley playing for Scotland rather than any trophy won for Rangers. He didn’t fit the script. In 1995/96, Graham Spiers lamented in The Herald that Laudrup and Gascoigne weren’t Celtic players and if they were, the league would have been won with weeks to spare. Spiers perhaps typified the entire mindset with two reports in the December of 1995. Both Celtic and Rangers handed out heavy thrashings of Hibs, just three weeks apart, and his accounts were somewhat different in tone. "Celtic simply played lavishly here … Theirs is an increasingly convincing cause. Someone whispered it last night: Celtic for the championship?" was his takeaway of a 4-0 win at Easter Road. When Rangers won 7-0 after Christmas, he wrote, "An inspired Rangers, yes of course, but what an embarrassment for the Scottish game to have this murderous scoreline adorning its season… some of us were cringing amid the ringing celebrations." 

READ MORE: Graeme Souness, bad history and the importance of Rangers vision

The brave spirit of the rebels and the crushing inevitability of the empire. Caricature lies at the very heart of rivalry, however. The extremes become part of the story and are often indulged in the same way by both sides. Even to this day there is a tendency for Rangers fans to romanticise spirit over technique and more creative players have to start their Ibrox careers like Laudrup did, lest they build up a bank of distrust whereas an early display of energy and endeavour can delay the final judgment on ability.

Being something other than mere results – be it style or political identity – can sustain a support through leaner and more comedic times. In the early part of the decade, when Celtic were borrowing floodlight bulbs from Queen’s Park, attempting to convince fans that upgrading the toilets amounted to significant investment and, with signings such as Carl Muggleton, sounded as if they were competing more with Sesame Street than Serie A, the focus has to shift elsewhere. As David Brent – the comic creation of the next decade but one based on observations of the 1990s – would later say, that was ‘the real quiz’. It didn’t halt the comedy, however. When Celtic lost to Raith Rovers on penalties in the 1994 League Cup Final, one fan called BBC 5 Live’s famous phone-in 606 to complain that it was unfair. Instead, it should be the team that breaks the deadlock in extra time – the brave and fearless poets – that wins [2]. John Paul Leach, one of the new voices on the emerging Scot FM, suggested that Celtic’s purchase of the German midfielder Andreas Thom – in the same summer as the arrival of Paul Gascoigne – was ‘the most significant signing in the history of Scottish football’. Also a stand-up comedian, it is doubtful if his Edinburgh Festival set had any lines as funny as that. Poetry without substance quickly leads to parody.

There were Rangers fans, both at the time and now, who believed that the binds of this rivalry were counterproductive. Not that success was anything to be dismissed, but that by being effectively defined by Celtic and what they once achieved in a league that contained part-time opposition – which the quest for nine and ten championships in succession clearly did – was something of a trap that kept the club locked in the small time, just when the game was growing exponentially towards another stratosphere. There is a great deal of truth in this but it ignores the reality of the situation that Rangers found themselves in – fans overwhelmingly demanded it – and the nature of rivalry itself. It is always a duality to some degree. ‘Celtic really are in an awful state and it’s bad for the whole Scottish game. Nobody finds it even remotely funny,’ wrote Alex Cameron in the Daily Record in September 1993. Thousands would have strongly disagreed with his assessment but the argument that Celtic needed to be saved because Scottish football needed both clubs to be healthy was another consistent trope used throughout the decade.

READ MORE: Celtic 0 Rangers 1: The night a band of brothers was born

A year later, Ally McCoist spoke similarly in the Sunday Post when he said that Rangers "needed a strong Celtic". As the following season and beyond would demonstrate, he was absolutely correct but Rangers fans with longer memories bristled that they didn’t recall too many pundits and players pleading the Gers’ case in the dark years of the early 1980s. It wasn’t true – many editorials lamented the inertia in both the Rangers boardroom and dugout – but that it wasn’t at the same volume and regularity could be explained by the number of scribes and pundits by the mid-1990s who had Celtic leanings and the fact that, with both Aberdeen and Dundee United posing a genuine challenge back then, there simply wasn’t the need. A more relevant comparison was the lack of demand for healthy competition in Scotland post-2012.

In that same season of 1995/96, Celtic had a contemporary bedfellow in Newcastle United. Kevin Keegan’s ‘Entertainers’ were the darlings of the casual viewer up and down the country, with such an array of attacking talent and overload in approach. It was this ethos that led fans in vox pops outside of St James’ Park to say that they would rather see their team lose 5-4 in an entertaining game than win 1-0 in a duller affair. In the March of that season, after a 12-point lead had been eroded to just four, Newcastle welcomed the other United, of Manchester, enjoyed most of the ball, huffed and puffed a great deal, but lost 1-0. Newcastle United won the hearts and minds. Manchester United went on to win the championship. That Keegan’s side scored seven goals fewer than the champions was ignored just as the romanticisation of this Celtic team chose not to dwell on the fact that they scored nine fewer than Rangers, played in 11 draws – nine of which were either 1-1 or 0-0 – and when nine of their 24 wins were settled by the margin of one goal.

There is plenty of precedent for this kind of story in football. Individual careers fêted without a great deal of major honours with which to support them and endless paeans to those who nearly made it but were beautiful in failing. Think of 1970s football and almost certainly the Dutch national side comes readily to mind. Much loved and respected, they won nothing despite coming close in two consecutive World Cup finals. In their defence, they can point to the gift of ‘Total Football’ – a fluid and technically superior way of building a team – that influenced the world and the success in the European Cup of Feyenoord and Ajax from 1970 to 1973. It is still a little harsh on the West German side who were in 1976, somewhat ironically, a penalty away from three consecutive international successes after winning the European Championship in 1972 and the World Cup two years later. They could also point to club triumph with Bayern Munich’s hat-trick of European Cups coming directly after the same Ajax feat. And yet, most respect is grudging if it exists at all [3]. They spoiled the fun and stopped what could and, more importantly to those writing the folk songs, should have happened.

The same was true for Paolo Rossi and Italy in 1982; his three goals being lost under a stampede to eulogise the Brazilian side that lost. The need to venerate style over substance wasn’t contained within football either. The 1990s produced one of the greatest snooker players to have ever picked up a cue as Stephen Henry won all of his seven World Championships in the decade. The overwhelming contemporary hero of the time, however? Jimmy White, who lost in the final five times in a row. The Whirlwind caught the imagination, the winner took the rest.

Fast forward to the middle of the 2010s and you can find evidence of where this argument ultimately led. On 22 April 2014 José Mourinho, in the first season of his second spell in charge of Chelsea, took his side to Madrid for the first leg of a Champions League semi-final against Atlético. Neither he nor his counterpart that evening, Diego Simeone, were known for valuing the aesthetic over the outcome, therefore a cagey first match was always likely. The goalless draw that ensued was not a spectacle but the reaction on Twitter told an interesting story. More than the predictable criticism of the game as a form of entertainment was a sense of neutral entitlement.

"You owe me and everyone who watched that an apology," wrote @Eoin_98, an Arsenal fan, on Twitter, while the Canadian journalist Campbell Clark posted, "Chelsea set out to remove all fun from football. zzzzzzzzz." All of this missed the point that if you were a Chelsea or Atlético fan, you were most likely sat on a knife edge all evening, such was the importance of just one moment of skill or error. The game is for the two clubs involved and their fans first, and detached viewers a distant second. This isn’t like buying tickets to watch Hamilton and discovering on the night that one of the performers has suddenly forgotten how to rap. And yet the viewer at home was more likely to point to their bill and ask more for their money.

Sport – especially the version that was honed and shaped into a television show in the 1990s more than by any other decade – was now theatre and those paying the subscriptions were demanding more bells and whistles, ignoring the fact that sporting tension, that perilous state which actual theatre can only dream of producing, is the greatest drama of all. It wasn’t long until their wishes were granted as the Champions League in particular started to produce knockout ties with the most remarkable swings in momentum from 2016 onwards. In the spring of 2017, Barcelona came back from a 4-0 defeat at Paris Saint-Germain to win 6-1 in the Camp Nou before the following year letting a 4-1 home-leg lead slip when they faced Roma in the Stadio Olimpico. In the semi-final stage in 2019, both ties were wild. Liverpool overturned a 3-0 deficit when they defeated Barcelona at Anfield by four goals in the second leg and Tottenham were dead and buried in Amsterdam – 3-0 on aggregate with just over half an hour of the tie remaining – and managed a last-gasp equaliser on the night to go through on away goals.

Sitting in the television studio was a dismissive José Mourinho who, it appeared with a degree of pleasure, eviscerated the ultimate philosopher club for not shutting the game down when they were in full control. The Champions League era of Mourinho, Simeone and Rafa Benítez had been supplanted by the adventure of Jürgen Klopp and the atheistic beauty of Pep Guardiola hence it should be no surprise that the average number of goals in a Champions League game rose by nearly half a goal in the eight years after that stalemate in Madrid compared the eight seasons which preceded it. Was this a victory then for the Cavaliers? Was this a restoration of flair?

Like the original story of Roundheads and Cavaliers, appearances would suggest so but it may be misleading. The monarchy may have been restored in 1660 but eventually under far greater and increasing control by parliament. More and more elite-level games appeared to be more expansive and free but there was method in the mayhem. As the bigger clubs hoovered up the best attacking players then it made practical sense to deploy them with full support. This has arguably been a pragmatic positivity – much like English cricket under the leadership of Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes, despite marketing phrases such as ‘brand of cricket’ – it simply has made sense for some teams to take the game to the opposition with more aggression than before. It has not been beauty for the sake of it.

And so too with Rangers, as the next chapter and beyond will show. The general narrative died down after season 1995/96. For a start, it was clear for those with Celtic at heart that this ethereal fig leaf couldn’t cover reality for much longer. They had to get tougher, smarter and more physical. And it became too ridiculous for most writers to label a Rangers team who would play the way they did that season – and would later do so at times under Dick Advocaat and Alex McLeish – as brutish and functional. Smith’s answer in that all-so-crucial summer of 1995 was to find a blend that provided that most desirable state of all: balance. He added one more Cavalier to join Brian Laudrup and surrounded them with a stable framework of Roundheads. There was pragmatism underlining the poetry. As there always should be.

  [1] Cavaliers and Roundheads were the names given to both sides of the English Civil War (1642–1652), where the parliamentarian forces (Roundheads) defeated those loyal to King Charles I (Cavaliers). The monarchy was restored in 1660 under Charles II.

[2] It is important to note that when FIFA and UEFA adopted this point of view with the ‘Golden Goal’ from 1996 it too often led to sides barely crossing the halfway line such was the paralysis that making one vital error gripped them.

[3] There was perhaps, admittedly, another reason why an outpouring of love and admiration for Germany in the 1970s wasn’t forthcoming.

'Pursuit of History - Rangers 1992-98' is on general sale next week. Click here to purchase.