Heads or Tails? Part 1: Rangers in the Cup Winners’ Cup, 1966/67

Celtic and Rangers are often described, lazily, as two sides of the same coin. They do however have one thing in common: both relied on the toss of coin to reach a European final. In a two-part series, we look at both campaigns.

The 1966/67 season was perhaps Scottish football’s finest. Signature victories by Celtic, in Lisbon, and the national team, against the world champions at Wembley, were complemented by the commendable European performances of Kilmarnock, Dunfermline and Dundee United. Rangers’ contribution is often overlooked, a victim of the zero-sum game that is the Glasgow rivalry.

Their campaign got off to an unpromising start against Irish part-timers Glentoran. In the first leg in Belfast the home side, managed by ex-Celt John Colrain, scored with the last kick of the game to snatch a 1-1 draw. However Rangers rallied at home to secure a 5-1 aggregate win and set up a second round tie against the reigning champions, Borussia Dortmund.

Kai Johansen gave Rangers an early lead at Ibrox but Dortmund equalised with what Gair Henderson in the Evening Times called “a brazen bit of robbery”. A German effort from distance was blocked by John Greig and fell to the feet of Sigi Held, who was returning to the pitch from behind the goal line and clearly in an offside position.

As the Rangers defenders stopped, anticipating the linesman’s flag, Held squared for Horst Trimhold to score. Alex Smith later headed a winner and gave Rangers a 2-1 lead to take to Germany, although the recently-introduced away goals rule meant that Trimhold’s controversial goal could prove troublesome.

Rangers arrived at the Stadion Rote Erde on the feast day of St Nicholas to face not just Borussia Dortmund but old Saint Nick himself. According to the German press, the holders took an oath to “deliver Rangers in a sack” as a present to their supporters. The Dortmund supporters would need to wait until Christmas.

In an early example of the Wattenaccio – the defensive tactical style practiced by Walter Smith, of course – Scot Symon’s men held on for a 0-0 draw, despite playing the second half with ten men following an injury to Bobby Wilson. “Our tactics were to play for a draw and we achieved that aim,” said Symon, prosaically. His vice-chairman, Matthew Taylor, was more forthcoming, calling the aggregate victory “perhaps the greatest win in our history.”

The quarter-final draw paired Rangers with Real Zaragoza, who had become regulars in the latter stages of European competition. In the previous three seasons they reached the final of the Fairs Cup twice (winning the tournament in 1964 but losing to Barcelona in 1966) and the semi-final of the 1965 Cup Winners’ Cup, losing to eventual winners West Ham United. Rangers would need luck on their side.

In the first leg at Ibrox, conditions certainly favoured the Glasgow side. A muddy pitch, high winds and sleet helped Rangers record an impressive 2-0 win with goals from Dave Smith and Alex Willoughby. Proving that Glasgow did not have a monopoly on invoking centuries-old battles when describing football, Madrid-based newspaper Marca compared Zaragoza’s defeat to that of the Spanish Armada, which was also impacted by bad weather.

The return leg at La Romareda contained, according to the Evening Times, “so much drama, so many thrills and so many incidents…that the future Rangers historian will no doubt make a whole chapter of it.” Zaragoza pulled a goal back before half time and saw two further efforts disallowed as they pushed for the equaliser.

Rangers retreated into the defensive shape that saw them through against Dortmund and held on until the 86th minute, when a ball into the Rangers penalty area struck John Greig on the shoulder. The French referee awarded a penalty. Greig later assured the press of his innocence: “I give you my word of honour that I did not handle the ball.” Zaragoza equalised from the spot and took the game into extra-time.

Despite the blow, Rangers restarted on the front foot and were awarded a penalty of their own when Davie Wilson was brought down in the box. Dave Smith stepped up but saw his kick saved. With no further scoring, the game would be settled by the toss of a coin. The two captains, Greig and Severino Reija, were led into the centre circle by referee Michel Kitabdjian, who produced the two-franc coin that would decide their fates.

After consulting with his manager, Greig called tails. “I still break out in a cold sweat when I recall the moment the referee spun the coin in the air and it got carried away by the wind,” said Greig in his autobiography. “The referee reached the coin first and covered it. Then he showed it to me and my opposite number.” It was tails. Rangers were through to the semi-final.

“The Rangers players acted like men gone crazy in their joy,” reported the Herald. The Evening Times was forced to describe a disgraceful scene in which Scot Symon “lost all his usual calm and composure. He forgot himself long enough to dance a jig on the touch-line.” Dancing: behaviour entirely unbecoming of a Rangers manager.

“It was a truly joyous moment,” recalled Greig, “but the sight of Reija trudging away with tears streaming down his cheeks said everything that needed to be said about a ludicrous method of deciding the outcome of any football match.”

In the semi-final, Rangers defeated Slavia Sofia 1-0 home and away to set up a final against Bayern Munich in “neutral” Nuremberg. Bayern were an emerging force, featuring a young Sepp Maier in goal and the 21-year-old pair Gerd Müller and Franz Beckenbauer. In an even, open game, Rangers performed well but eventually succumbed to a Bayern goal in extra-time.

Two key factors help explain the defeat. Firstly, Rangers’ toothlessness in attack cost them. John Lawrence, the chairman, chose the eve of the match to launch a bizarre attack on his club’s recruitment and announce that Rangers’ chief scout of 13 years, Jimmy Scott, would be leaving at the end of the season. “It seems wrong to me that we should have three half-backs playing in the Rangers forward line,” said Lawrence. He was referring to the two Smiths, Alex and Dave (who together cost Rangers £100,000 in the summer) and Roger Hynd, a converted centre half.

The situation was entirely of the club’s own making and can be traced back to Rangers’ embarrassing 1-0 Scottish Cup defeat to their Berwick namesakes earlier in the year. Lawrence blamed the loss on the forwards that day, Jim Forrest and George McLean, who were effectively forced out of the club immediately. The pair scored more than 200 Rangers goals between them. Had they played in Nuremberg, Forrest and McLean may have made the difference.

The second factor was Rangers’ opposition, but not Bayern. In the aftermath of the final, German newspaper Bild felt that Rangers were only battling the Bavarians on the programme – “their real opponents were Celtic.” The spectre of Celtic was also raised by the Times before the game, the London newspaper having sent a special correspondent to Nuremberg in the hope of witnessing a Scottish European double. “Cruelly, the greatest pressure of all comes from their oldest enemy over the years. If Rangers lose, how does a Rangers supporter look a Celtic man in the eye again? To have to do so…is like taking a sidelong glance at Hell.”

Rangers returned to Glasgow the following day to a muted reception. The Evening Times reported that not one fan turned up at the airport to greet the team. “The Rangers team bus was given a police escort from the airport to Ibrox Park,” it added, “but the only people waiting outside the park to greet them were club officials. No fans turned up to offer condolences.” It was a sad end to a campaign full of drama, memorable moments and some significant victories, and one that was helped along by the fancy of a two-franc coin.

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