A decade ago, Glasgow Rangers were still adjusting to a new life in the bottom tier of Scottish professional football as the club with 54 league titles played out a season-opening 2-2 draw with Peterhead.
Rangers’ rejuvenation from that low will be sealed on Wednesday when they take on Germany’s Eintracht Frankfurt in the final of the Europa League, the second of Uefa’s club tournaments that may be the most profitable match in their 150-year history.
“It’s an incredible journey,” former Rangers player Charlie Adam said of the long road from liquidation and banishment to Scottish football’s fourth rung to Wednesday’s match in Seville.
Rangers are the first Scottish club to reach a European final since they did so in 2008 and victory would make them the first to claim such a title since 1983.
“It will go down in football folklore,” agreed Mark Warburton, who managed the side to one of the three promotions back to the Scottish Premiership. “Can you imagine Real Madrid or Barcelona being voted down to Segunda B or C?” he said, referring to the lower rungs of Spanish football. “That’s what happened to Rangers.”
Having dominated Scottish football in the late 1980s and 1990s, Rangers ran into financial difficulties amid changes of ownership and disputes with HM Revenue & Customs over non-payment of taxes and the use of offshore trusts to pay executives and players.
Liquidation followed, leading to Rangers being voted out of the top league by the other clubs. A new company that bought the assets then applied for and was granted a place in the Scottish Third Division for the 2012-13 season.
“I think I’ve been to every ground in Scotland,” Jim Bowman, 61, who heads a supporters’ club, said of the period when Rangers and their fans would pitch up at the country’s lesser-known stadiums.
Rangers eventually made it back to the top tier, culminating in last season’s first Scottish Premiership title since liquidation under manager Steven Gerrard, which denied Glasgow rivals Celtic a record 10th consecutive win.
“Things really started to take shape when Steven Gerrard came into the football club, rebuilt it and put a standard back into Rangers and what it means to play for them,” said Adam, who played with the former Liverpool and England captain.
Rangers’ run to Seville has contrasted with a stuttering defence of their Scottish title, with Celtic this week winning the league to seal a place in the group stages of Uefa’s lucrative Champions League.
One reason Wednesday’s final is so critical to Rangers is that victory would mean they join their rival in Uefa’s flagship tournament, bringing some of the riches that flow from the continent’s elite club competition.
“Winning the final in Seville will be the single most lucrative match in the club’s history,” said Kieran Maguire, a Liverpool university academic and author of The Price of Football, noting that Celtic’s revenues topped £101mn in 2018 when they last made it to the group stage.
Rangers’ success in Europe comes at a positive period for Scottish football, with the men’s national team ending a 23-year absence from tournaments to play in last summer’s Uefa European Championships. The team are also in a play-off for a place at this year’s Fifa World Cup in Qatar.
Scottish football is often weighed down by disparaging comparisons with the much richer game south of the border. Warburton, who managed west London side Queen’s Park Rangers in the English Championship this season, noted that the team that finishes bottom of the English Premier League still receives almost £100mn for coming last.
“Finance is what’s needed,” said Warburton, a City trader before going into management. Scottish football has to find a “long-term credible solution to add more money into the grassroots to allow the game to prosper”.
For Rangers, a vital step towards that will be victory on Wednesday. Now led by former player Giovanni van Bronckhorst, who replaced Gerrard midseason, the team have saved their best performances for Europe, including memorable wins over Germany’s Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig.
Both are well ahead of mid-table Eintracht Frankfurt in the Bundesliga, giving Rangers confidence.
Adam, who was in the squad for that 2008 loss to Zenit Saint Petersburg, was optimistic, saying Rangers were “back where they should be, competing in Europe and competing for titles. There’s a big expectation they can go and win it.
“For a Scottish club to get to a final, it’s a huge achievement. This could be one of the biggest results in British football.”