THE most dramatic season in living memory ended in a suitably thrilling climax as Rangers saw off Dunfermline at Ibrox to clinch the SPL title by a solitary goal.
It was a fitting end to Alex McLeish’s first full season in the manager’s chair and it is unlikely he will ever face such nail-biting tension again even if he were to remain at Ibrox for the next 30 years or beyond.
The Light Blues stuck six past Jimmy Calderwood’s side – including a calmly taken penalty by Mikel Arteta deep into injury time – but still had to await the result from Rugby Park before they could be crowned champions.
News gradually filtered through that Celtic had only managed four goals against Kilmarnock meaning the SPL trophy was coming home after an absence of three years – following a match at Ibrox that was astonishing but ultimately brilliant.
All the pre-match talk had been about goals – and plenty of them – and that was reflected in McLeish’s line-up that abandoned the traditional 4-3-3 formation for a more attack-minded 4-4-2.
It meant that Arteta and Barry Ferguson were at times over-stretched in the midfield but that was off-set by a plethora of forward options every time the Light Blues ran at the Dunfermline defence.
With the deafening roar of the crowd behind him, Rangers enjoyed a dream start when they went in front after only two minutes.
Ronald de Boer shoved a pass across to Caniggia who in turn found Mols lurking just inside the penalty box.
The Dutchman made space to slide in a low shot that smacked the post and trickled over the line as Ibrox erupted.
De Boer passed up a glaring chance to double the score a minute later – heading wide from right in front of goal – before the unthinkable happened; Dunfermline equalised.
It was a stunning strike – Lee Dair driving an unstoppable effort that gave Stefan Klos virtually no chance – that perhaps would have been better appreciated by the home support on another, less frantic day.
The fact that the goalscorer was the nephew of Gers legend, Jim Baxter, almost seemed like sacrilege on such a big occasion.
Momentarily stunned, Rangers took four minutes to compose themselves then regained their grip on the match when they raced back in front.
Fernando Ricksen powered his way towards the goal-line and when he was tackled the ball ricocheted to Caniggia who calmly converted from around 12 yards.
It would have been unrealistic to expect the Light Blues to exert the same level of relentless pressure throughout the 90 minutes and a lull in the game followed, punctured by news that Celtic had gone in front at Rugby Park.
Derek Stillie saved well from Michael Mols before Rangers extended their lead just short of the half-hour mark following good play from Lorenzo Amoruso.
The Italian did well to stop Ricksen’s long ball from running out of play before sending over a sweet cross that Arveladze expertly stooped to head past the goalkeeper.
No further goals followed before the break and – having scored his traditional goal against Dunfermline – Caniggia was replaced at the start of the second half by Neil McCann.
With Celtic now winning 2-0, Rangers knew they needed further strikes and Amoruso tested Stillie with a dangerous free kick early in the second period before de Boer dragged a shot wide.
The Light Blues then wasted a gilt-edge opportunity to extend their lead just short of the hour mark.
Gus Macpherson rolled the ball back to Stillie who inexplicably picked it up about 10 yards from his goal earning Rangers an indirect free kick.
With every Dunfermline player on the goal line, Ricksen rolled it to Amoruso who frustratingly blasted his shot high into the stand.
That disappointment evaporated just four minutes later when the Light Blues netted twice within a minute.
McCann was the provider of both, crossing for de Boer to head high past Stillie before centring for fellow sub Steven Thompson to bundle the ball home from close range.
With Rangers finding a second wind and looking menacing in every attack, Dunfermline were virtual spectators by now unable to escape their own half.
Thompson rattled the inside of the crossbar with a header before swerving his way through the Pars defence and unleashing a shot that Stillie spilled.
With McCann and Arveldaze awaiting the rebound, ref Stuart Dougal awarded a free kick to the goalkeeper.
The drama was not yet over. With Celtic now level on goal difference, McCann was hauled down in the box in the last minute and Rangers had a penalty.
Showing nerves of steel, Arteta confidently slotted home the spot kick to round off the scoring.
A minute later and news came through that Celtic had only won 4-0 – meaning Rangers were champions.
Now Dundee await in next week’s Scottish Cup final as the Light Blues dream of clinching a memorable treble.
RANGERS (4-2-4): 1 Klos; 2 Ricksen, 3 Moore, 4 Amoruso, 5 Numan; 23 Arteta, 6 Ferguson; 7 Caniggia (McCann 46), 14 de Boer, 10 Mols (Thompson 62), 24 Arveladze
Subs not used: McGregor, Malcolm, Maclean
Booked: Ferguson (83)
DUNFERMLINE (3-5-2): 20 Stillie; 2 Macpherson (Walker 70), 21 Bullen, 25 Wilson; 7 Nicholson, 26 Grondin, 8 Mason, 3 Dair, 16 McGroarty (McGarty 76); 9 Crawford, 10 Brewster
Subs not used: Ruitenbeek, Dempsey, McNicol
Booked: Macpherson (59), Wilson (84)
Man of the Match: Arthur Numan