Question most football fans on the identity of the most successful European club in history, and few would likely provide the correct answer. In terms of trophies won, one must look past Madrid, Milan and Manchester, as the crown is in fact held by Glasgow Rangers. It seems somewhat ironic, then, that sitting alongside 54 league titles and 33 Scottish cups in the Ibrox trophy cabinet is but one solitary piece of European silverware. But in many ways, this fact only serves to make the night Rangers won the 1972 Cup Winners’ Cup, one of the many games featured in our newspaper-based Rangers book, even more special.
As our collection of personalised football books highlights, the Nou Camp has been the stage for many an historic European occasion, and 24th May 1972 was certainly no different. But that particular night is noteworthy for the circumstances that surrounded it just as much as for its result. At the time, Rangers were experiencing the most barren spell in their entire history, without a league title in eight years, left in the shadow of a Celtic side that had achieved British football’s first ever Continental Treble by winning the European Cup in 1967. Indeed, Rangers had qualified for the 1971-2 Cup Winners’ Cup not on merit, but by something of a bittersweet technicality; they had actually lost the previous year’s cup final to Celtic, but as league champions, the Hoops were preoccupied with the European Cup, and so relinquished their place in the competition to their rivals.
Rangers’ route to the final was predictably incredible. After knocking out Stade Rennes in the opening round, they were drawn against Sporting CP of Portugal. After narrowly edging the first leg 3-2 at Ibrox, the scoreline was perfectly reversed in Lisbon, leading to extra time. Each team scored once more in this period, making the final aggregate score 6-6, but in the end, Rangers lost the resulting penalty shootout, and were eliminated. Or so they thought. As it transpired, the officials on the night had made a monumental blunder, one unthinkable in today’s game; due to the goals in extra time, Rangers had in fact won the tie at its conclusion by the away goals rule, rendering the penalty shootout null and void. In the semi-final, the Gers faced the mighty Bayern Munich, the same side that had defeated them the last time they reached the competition’s finale in 1967. This time, the Scots came out on top.
“Third time lucky” would be an appropriate mantra for the Gers heading into the final; in 1961, in the inaugural Cup Winners’ Cup, they had become the first British club to ever reach a European final, ultimately losing to Fiorentina. This time, it was Dynamo Moscow in their way. And this time, the trophy would be coming home with them.
“The Bloody Battle of Barcelona”
When Colin Stein rifled in their first in the 23rd minute, the Rangers fans evacuated the stands, storming the pitch. It was a scene sure to evoke memories of the Ibrox disaster, in which 66 people had been killed during a stampede in the terraces only a year earlier. The behaviour of Rangers’ fans in the aftermath of the game would remain a talking point for weeks to come. They clashed with Spanish police in their celebrations, and the Moscow manager Constantin Beskov also argued the fans intimidated his own team. However, the protests amounted to nothing and Rangers maintained their hold on the trophy as well as their place in Europe the following season.
As for the match itself, Willie Johnston headed home another shortly after, and by the time he slotted home his second, Rangers’ third, right at the start of the second half, the victory was all but sealed. Goals from Eshtrekov and Makhovikov may have jangled Glaswegian nerves, but ultimately, they were little more than consolations. A second, more enduring pitch invasion ensued, celebrating what may still be the club’s greatest ever night, as well as the team that would become immortalised as the “Barcelona Bears”.