HE may be the greatest modern-day manager of Rangers Football Club with experiences most in the game could only dream of – but not even Walter Smith saw Gers’ 3-0 away win over Lyon coming.
Smith had returned to the club in the January of that year, and after steadying the ship and ensuring his side had made it to the Champions League qualifiers; he set about revamping and rejuvenating a squad who had been underachieving.
He signed no-less than 13 first-team players that summer, and while there was a noted improvement in the team, domestic results were still rather sticky, with a 4-2 defeat at Hearts and a 1-1 draw at Motherwell included in the club’s first eight SPL matches.
In Europe, things were going well with FK Zeta and Red Star Belgrade defeated in Champions League qualifying to put them in a daunting group with German champions VfB Stuttgart, French champions Lyon and Barcelona, champions of Europe just 16 months before.
Matchday one saw Stuttgart beaten 2-1 at Ibrox, but this was a completely different test, and one which Rangers passed with flying colours. From here, let’s allow the man himself, Walter Smith, to pick up the story.
“When you go there,” began Smith, “and we were going in with what was very much a new team, the expectation from my own point of view was to get as good a result as we possibly could.
“We showed in the first game [against Stuttgart] that we had the capability of playing at that level, so it was just a case of trying to take that on.
“Lyon had been the predominant team in France for a number of years and had extremely good players, so we knew this was going to be a big test for the defensive aspect of our game, so it was quite a surprise, I must say, that evening!
“The circumstances of the game fell for us – the first one, a corner-kick Lee McCulloch heads in, so we had a set play we had taken advantage of to give us a start.
“That meant Lyon, who, with Barcelona, were the favourites to get through the group, had a bit of pressure come onto them as soon as we got the first goal, and it meant they had to push forward a little bit more than they might have expected to have to do.
“We held on defensively when we were under a fair bit of pressure, but we handled it very well and they didn’t have too many opportunities to score. So we were delighted with that and it was a case of continuing to play.
“The next two goals came at the right time for us – Lyon were having to push forward which opened up the game a little more for us. A 3-0 win against the French champions, for me, I don’t think we could have expected to be honest – but to have six points after the two games was terrific for us.
“It was one of the most surprising results I’ve had, that’s for sure. Lyon were well set having won the French league six times on the bounce – so they had a good pedigree, exceptionally good players, and here was our team – new and going into it with, I’ll not say naivety, but it was certainly a test.
“We were waiting to see how we handled the test, and to come away from there with a 3-0 win was something I don’t think we could have envisaged at the start to be perfectly honest.
“I think too it gave the other teams a warning. They would have been looking at Rangers at that time and thinking they would have had an opportunity to beat them home and away as the ‘lesser’ team in the section.
“But after two games, the other teams would be looking at us and knowing they would be fighting us to get qualification through to the final stages.
“For me, the main thing was the confidence we were gaining from our performances and the wins – it was the third away game we had to play in the Champions League – two in qualification and one in the section – and we hadn’t lost a goal, so for us, that was something that we set out to be – defensively tight – and we did show that was the case.”
You can read more from Smith as well as heroes from the night Kevin Thomson, Lee McCulloch and DaMarcus Beasley in the most recent edition of the Official Rangers Programme. Click here to download now: