It was the greatest challenge of manager Willie Waddell’s life – how to lead Rangers out of the shadows cast by the Ibrox disaster in which 66 fans died?
The early signs were not good for Waddell and his coach Jock Wallace as they strove to overcome the Club’s tragic loss.
Rangers had won the League Cup and finished only fourth in Division One in that fateful 1970-71 season. Now the new season had begun disappointingly.
The side lost four of their five opening games, including a 3-2 home defeat by Celtic. They had also been beaten twice by Celtic in August in the section games of the League Cup.
In fact, the Championship was to offer no consolation to Rangers. They lost 11 of their 34 games, ending in third place.
It was in Europe, however, that Rangers would find the stage on which to rediscover themselves. Stade Rennes were their first round opponents in the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Rangers drew the first leg in France 1-1 and went through by winning 1-0 at Ibrox.
In the second round, Rangers took only a 3-2 advantage with them to the away leg at Sporting Lisbon. A dramatic match ended in stalemate. It was 4-3 to Lisbon on the night after extra-time and 6-6 on aggregate.
Lisbon won the penalty shoot-out. Rangers were crestfallen. But the referee had made a mistake. Manager Waddell grabbed the rule book and ran on to the pitch to point out the error. Rangers’ away goals should have counted double, making them the winners, and it should never have gone to penalties. Rangers emotions changed rapidly as they were awarded the tie.
Waddell had begun to experiment with the team, changing around players and positions in the search for a new style.
Sandy Jardine was switched from the front to become a world-class full back which he would demonstrate in the 1974 World Cup. Dave Smith was converted from midfield into a sweeper and became Scotland’s Player of the Year.
Waddell also put the emphasis on youth, building a team for the future. He believed it would take time to find the consistency to win the Championship, but he was sure he had a side good enough to do well in Cup competitions.
His strategy produced mixed results in League games, but it was proving successful against Continental sides.
In the Cup Winners’ quarter-final, Rangers were drawn to play the first leg at Torino. Derek Johnstone moved from centre forward to play in defence but still managed to score as Rangers stunned the Italians by taking the lead. Torino pulled one back in the second-half, to leave them visiting Ibrox all square.
Rangers took the home leg 1-0 through an Alex MacDonald goal to set up a semi-final clash against mighty Bayern Munich led by the great West German captain Franz Beckenbauer.
The first leg was in Munich and it brought out an impressive performance from Rangers. The first-half was all Bayern after Breitner scored for the home team. But Rangers withstood the pressure and got their reward when a Colin Stein cross was turned into the net by Bayern’s Zobel.
At Ibrox, Rangers were much more confident and the Germans were rocked by a first-minute goal from Jardine. Derek Parlane made it 2-0 by half-time and Rangers were through to the Cup Winners’ Cup Final for the third time where they would face Moscow Dynamo.
On both previous occasions, Rangers had come home empty handed, losing to Fiorentina in 1961 and going down by the only goal of the game scored in extra time in 1967 to Bayern. This time it would be different.
By half-time in the Final at Barcelona’s Nou Camp stadium, Rangers were cock-a-hoop. A shot from Colin Stein and a header from Willie Johnston had given Rangers a 2-0 lead over Dynamo.
Within minutes of the re-start, Johnston had added a third. It was turning into a stroll. Then Rangers’ concentration lapsed and sparked a Russian revival. Dynamo scored with 30 minutes to go. Suddenly, Rangers were on the defensive.
Three minutes left and Dynamo scored again. The tension was unbearable. But Rangers survived and a 3-2 victory had given them their long-desired European prize at last.
Understandably, the army of travelling Rangers fans were overcome with joy. But sadly, they invaded the pitch. Their exuberance met with over zealous policing and resulted in inevitable clashes.
The Cup was not presented in public and Rangers were prevented from defending their hard-won trophy by a one-year ban from Europe.
Within weeks, Waddell had moved on to become General Manager to be succeeded by his coach, Jock Wallace.
Wallace had been player-manager of part-time Berwick when they inflicted an embarrassing 1-0 defeat on Rangers in a Scottish Cup tie in 1967. Five years on, this fitness fanatic was in charge at Ibrox using punishing training methods learned from the great Australian athlete and world mile record holder Herb Elliot.