THE END was fitting. The Rangers fans warmly applauded Alex McLeish as he bowed out as manager on May 7, 2006 after four and a half remarkable years and brought the curtain down on his reign.
He left with dignity, with his head held high and he left a wealth of great memories which will be forever etched in the club’s history.
Alex McLeish was the right man at the right time to take the Rangers job in December 2001 and he defied the odds to bring seven major honours during his time as well as a journey into unchartered territory in the Champions League.
Of course, there were disappointing times. Much of the 03/04 season was hard to bear as a team which started so brightly fizzled out quickly and lost the title by the length of Copland Road.
Some of the domestic form in the 2005/06season was also poor. However, reaching the Round of 16 in the Champions League was something special and that was what drove McLeish on.
Of course, much of McLeish’s early success was built on the team that Dick Advocaat left behind – a team that was left standing by Martin O’Neill’s Celtic.
McLeish found ways to motivate them and he delivered the CIS Cup and the Tennent’s Scottish Cup in the first six months of his reign.
He recalled: “There was great quality in the Dick Advocaat side – fantastic quality. We all know how much it cost to assemble that squad.
“I think I used everybody – even guys who had been frozen out – and we got the early success that we needed.
“There is no doubt the CIS Cup semi-final win over Celtic when Bert Konterman scored that amazing goal was pivotal. It cemented my relationship with the Rangers fans and allowed us to go on and gain success early.
“I know that I had to make my mark in the early days because success is everything at Rangers.
“Of course, the Cup Final with Celtic was even better. It was fairytale stuff as we won 3-2 in the final seconds with Peter Lovenkrands heading the winner.
“That gave us a platform to work from, but we had to start the pruning then.
“It was clear that a few had to leave the club due to the finances.
“A few did go and the fact that we went on to lift all three trophies in 2002/03 was a terrific achievement.”
Andrei Kanchelskis was let go and Tore Andre Flo was moved on to Sunderland, but Rangers remarkably won all three trophies with O’Neill’s side as strong as it ever was.
The play of Barry Ferguson and Ronald de Boer was key while players like Arthur Numan, Lorenzo Amoruso, Neil McCann and Claudio Caniggia made huge contributions.
When the new campaign got going, only de Boer remained as McLeish was forced into a major re-organisation of the finances.
He had to gamble in the transfer market to sign people like Emerson, Capucho and Ostenstad. Unfortunately, the gamble did not pay off.
He said: “The following season was the real demise of the Dick Advocaat era as a number of the players he had worked with left the club.
“Only Ronald stayed and really he was shot to pieces with injuries in that season and hardly featured.
“Shota Arveladze was a mainstay but he suffered from niggling injuries in that campaign too.
“That was obviously a very tough season and people were maybe looking for me to go at that time but the chairman kept faith in me.
“He realised the deck of cards I had been dealt were not that tremendous. He understood that the situation was a difficult one and gave me the chance to continue.”
It was an astute move by David Murray for although Rangers suffered disappointment in Europe in 2004/05 by losing at home to Auxerre in the UEFA Cup, they only lost two league matches after that to take the title on the final day at Easter Road by virtue of Celtic’s defeat at Fir Park and their win over Hibs.
McLeish said: “It was an amazing finish to win the championship on the final day again – especially in the dramatic way that it happened.
“Of course, from a manager’s perspective I would have loved to have won it with 10 games to go.
“It was a nervous day but we showed our mettle and had the mental strength to go all the way.”
It is fair to say that McLeish could have walked away a hero at that point, but there was a burning sensation in his gut that he had to achieve on the European stage.
He said: “I could have left in the summer of 2005 having delivered the title but Europe was something that rankled with me.
“Over the years the critics had said that I couldn’t cut it in Europe and that I didn’t have the tactical nous to compete at that level.
“I had this desire to do something and that was one of the main reasons that drove me in 05/06.”
He got his wish by firstly taking Rangers into the group phase by negotiating the awkward Cypriots Anorthosis Famagusta and then guiding Rangers into the last 16.
Ranngers enjoyed some fantastic nights, most notably the 3-2 win over Porto at home and the gutsty draw in Portugal with the culmination being a 1-1 draw with Inter at Ibrox which took them through.
Indeed, McLeish came within a whisker of leading the Light Blues into the quarter-finals only losing out to Villarreal on away goals.
He said: “When you consider the players we were missing in a lot of the European games, I think we should get even more credit for what we did.
“We only lost one game in the group phase of the Champions League and overall it was the only defeat in 10 European matches so I think that shows that myself, Andy and Jan have some tactical awareness.
“Our points tally may have been less than some Rangers teams before and some other teams that season that did not get through.
“However, the objective was to qualify for the last 16 and that’s what we did.
“My coaching staff have been tremendously loyal. In football things can get a little bit bitchy and it is the same in any walk of life.
“However, I was lucky that I had two great men in Andy Watson and Jan Wouters who would have taken bullets for me. Their loyalty was a massively important thing.
“I also had a terrific rapport with the medical staff. I trusted their judgment and it was a good working relationship.”
Of course, all managers are heavily scrutinised in the transfer market and as already mentioned McLeish had the problem of losing expensive, high earners and replacing them with cheaper options.
Remarkably, McLeish MADE £13.6million in his transfer dealings.
He said: “It’s difficult to get every one right, especially when you are working in the Bosman market.
“You then take risks and you hope that you can get the best out of someone. You hope that you are able to find something better from a player than he has been showing.
“When it doesn’t materialise then you take the flak for that,
“However, when you consider we sold Boumsong for £8million and got him for nothing and the success of Prso in his first two seasons and Boyd in the second half of the 2005/06 season then we have had major successes too.
“It was a great privilege to have worked at this great football club and I wish Rangers every success in the future.
“I still get the tingle when I climb the marble staircase or drive past stadium and that will never change.”