Rangers' rise from the bottom to champions: the highs and lows of a nine-year journey

After dropping three divisions in 2012 off the back of financial difficulties and tax issues, Rangers have claimed their 55th top-flight title; their success has come with staunch defending and free-flowing football that has given fans something to be proud of again, writes Andrew Dickson

RANGERS HIGH LOW FEATURE - DONT USE FOR ANYTHING ELSE

When Rangers were demoted to the Third Division of the former Scottish Football League in 2012, I thought it could take them 10 years to become champions again. In the end, they have won their 55th title in nine - but few could say they saw that coming just three seasons ago.

I spent seven years working for the club's media department from 2007. My second week in the job took me to the Nou Camp for a Champions League tie with Barcelona, as a young lad called Lionel Messi scored in a 2-0 home win. Rangers dropped down a level that season too - into the UEFA Cup, where they went all the way to the final with wins over Panathinaikos, Werder Bremen, Sporting Lisbon, and Fiorentina.

Three consecutive league titles followed. Three goals in the first seven minutes on the final day of the season at Kilmarnock memorably sealed the last one. With five cup successes around the same period as well - and having grown up as a Rangers fan - things were going the way they were meant to. But then they weren't.

Rangers gave departing manager Walter Smith the perfect send-off as they wrapped up a third consecutive Scottish Premier League title in style. 4:34
Highlights from Rangers' 5-1 win at Kilmarnock in 2011 as the club won the Scottish top-flight for a third consecutive time

I was at the club's training ground on the afternoon of February 13, 2012, when news broke that Rangers had filed papers with the Court of Session signalling their intention to go into administration. It was certainly news to the manager Ally McCoist, with owner Craig Whyte arriving shortly after to explain.

One short meeting later, and the entire non-playing staff had been summoned to Ibrox for something similar, with Whyte playing down the gravity of the situation and claiming it could be a 10-day process. It began the following morning - and certainly wasn't going to take just a week and a half.

13/01/12.IBROX - GLASGOW.Rangers owner Craig Whyte makes a statement to the media on the day that Rangers serve notice of their intention to go into administration
Image: Craig Whyte made a statement to the media, on the steps of Ibrox, announcing Rangers would serve notice of their intention to go into administration

The next four months were a whirlwind of posturing and politics. Rangers' use of Employee Benefit Trusts to reduce the tax burden on some players and staff was taken by some as a form of financial doping and HMRC's case against them would swing back and forth for a further five years.

The prospect of a substantial tax bill had pushed the club over the edge and they were taken over by a new company - but 10 of their SPL opponents voted not to let them continue in the competition. The SFL did let them in, but 25 of the 30 teams there ruled that McCoist's side should start in the fourth tier.

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13/07/12  .HAMPDEN - GLASGOW.SFL Chief Executive David Longmuir announces that Rangers will be players in the third division next season
Image: SFL chief executive David Longmuir announced Rangers will play in the third division

Rangers progressed through the bottom two divisions easily enough, but they weren't without their mishaps. On day one, they relied on a last-minute goal from Andy Little - who had scored in an Old Firm win over Celtic less than five months earlier - to save a 2-2 draw at Peterhead. Back then, oddly, his leveller felt almost as important.

There was the time Rangers lost 1-0 at Stirling Albion, whose manager Greig McDonald wasn't even there because he was getting married instead. Kevin Kyle arrived on more money than he had wanted, Fran Sandaza was sacked for telling a Celtic fan he wanted to leave, thinking he was an agent, and Forfar knocked McCoist's team out of the League Cup.

By then, relations between the manager and the club's apparent saviour Charles Green had soured and highlighted how fragile things still were behind the scenes. Fans ironically referred to the period as 'The Banter Years' and if they didn't laugh, they would undoubtedly have cried.

26/08/12 IRN-BRU SFL DIV3.BERWICK RANGERS v RANGERS (1-1).SHIELFIELD PARK - BERWICK.Rangers owner Charles Green (left) chats with manager Ally McCoist
Image: The relationship between Rangers owner Charles Green (left) and manager Ally McCoist became strained during Green's tenure at the club

The closer Rangers got to a top-flight return, the further away they felt at times. After more ignominy, including when a two-goal lead was given up and Rangers lost 3-2 at Alloa in the Challenge Cup, McCoist was put on gardening leave in December 2014 with his side's hopes of victory in the Championship faltering too.

Kenny McDowall took over, then Stuart McCall, but Rangers fell short of promotion in the play-offs. Having lost 6-1 on aggregate to Motherwell, defender Bilel Mohsni's reaction to a shove from opponent Lee Erwin summed up how things were in a way - Rangers had plenty of punch, but weren't always great at landing knockout blows.

31/05/15 SCOTTISH PREMIERSHIP PLAY-OFF FINAL 2ND LEG.MOTHERWELL v RANGERS.FIR PARK - MOTHERWELL.Rangers' Bilel Mohsni (centre) clashes with Motherwell players
Image: Bilel Mohsni (centre) kicked and punched Motherwell's Lee Erwin during their play-off defeat in 2015

The arrival of Mark Warburton as manager was a step forward as he took Rangers back into what is now the Premiership. He also oversaw a Scottish Cup semi-final win against Celtic on penalties but, after losing the final to Hibernian, the derby result galvanised the club's oldest rivals and that summer, they appointed Brendan Rodgers as manager, with Celtic going on to dominate domestically for the next four seasons.

Warburton's assertion that Plan B for Rangers was doing Plan A better was noble but had its limitations and, after Joey Barton lasted just eight games at Ibrox before leaving, the current QPR manager wasn't far behind.

10/09/16 LADBROKES PREMIERSHIP .CELTIC v RANGERS .CELTIC PARK - GLASGOW .Rangers manager Mark Warburton (left) with Joey Barton
Image: Joey Barton (right) struggled during his brief spell at Ibrox

Graeme Murty was named caretaker and earned a draw at Celtic but is better remembered for performing a bizarre headstand in a show of frustration during a defeat at Dundee. His replacement Pedro Caixinha perhaps outdid that by taking the club back into the Europa League, then losing to Progres Niederkorn of Luxembourg and arguing with fans while standing in a bush afterwards.

Caixinha's sacking three-and-a-half months later saw Murty take charge again but a longer second reign brought the ultimate humiliation in May 2018 - a 5-0 defeat at Celtic gave Rodgers' side their seventh successive title in a row and kept their bid for a record-breaking 10 firmly on track. At that point, many Rangers fans would have agreed it looked likely and something had to change.

Five days later, Steven Gerrard was appointed as manager by the Dave King-led board which had assumed control in 2015. One commentator claimed he seemed "quietly terrified" by the challenge of taking Rangers back to the top of Scottish football. Instead, Gerrard's evolution into a title-winning manager has been quite terrific.

Gerrard says the day he was unveiled as the new Rangers manager will always stick out as a highlight
Image: Gerrard says the day he was unveiled as the new Rangers manager will always be a career highlight

There have been mistakes, of course. His first two seasons in charge ended without trophies and, in particular, post-winter break collapses, as Celtic moved their run of title wins to eight and nine. These were difficult for supporters to stomach. They had trouble accepting the manner of League Cup losses to Aberdeen and Celtic at Hampden Park, and last year's Scottish Cup exit at Hearts too.

On the whole, however, Gerrard's time at Ibrox has largely been a tale of progression. With the support of his assistant Gary McAllister and coaches Michael Beale and Tom Culshaw, he has learned who to rotate and when, and now uses his substitutes far better than before. His team plays a slick, finely-tuned passing game which has resulted in several beautiful goals over the last few months.

Gerrard has praised his coaching staff line up (L-R) Jordan Milsom, Tom Culshaw, Michael Beale, Steven Gerrard, Gary McAllister, Colin Stewart
Image: Gerrard has often praised his coaching staff at Ibrox

Rangers arguably made more of a mark in Europe under the former Liverpool captain than at home. Ahead of this month's ties against Slavia Prague, Gerrard has been in charge 43 times in continental competition and has suffered just five defeats - none of them coming this season. Porto, Galatasaray, Braga, and Feyenoord are all among the teams they have beaten, while Benfica relied on late fortune to claim two draws before Christmas.

Gerrard's team's 11 matches to date in the 2020/21 tournament have brought an average of three goals scored per game. Into the round of 16 for the second year in succession and with the league title now secured, they are favourites to qualify for the quarter-finals and can realistically be seen as a good outside bet overall.

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - FEBRUARY 25: Alfredo Morelos scores to make it 1-0 Rangers during a UEFA Europa League match between Rangers and Royal Antwerp at Ibrox Stadium, on February 25, 2021, in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)
Image: Alfredo Morelos has been a key figure for Rangers, both in Europe and domestically

Over time, the impressive European statistics have been repeated domestically - and this season's are among the best ever seen in the Scottish game. So far, Rangers have yet to lose after winning all bar four of their 32 Premiership fixtures. They currently have 24 clean sheets and look set to pass the mark of 25 achieved by Celtic in 2012.

Rangers have also beaten their Old Firm rivals five times in just over two years - including in each of their last three meetings - and will look to do so again on March 21 when they travel to Glasgow's east end. They are a ruthless, relentless unit at both ends of the park and no longer have anything to fear in those fixtures.

Rangers goals of the season 2020/21 6:24
Take a look at some of Rangers' best goals during the 2020/21 SPFL season

Indeed, in more than 150 games since Gerrard's appointment, Rangers have lost by more than one goal just three times. While they usually find a way to win, they're a hard team to beat if they can't. In turn, that and the connection between the players and supporters - even in these times of closed-doors football - has given the fanbase something it can finally relate to again.

Most of all, Rangers followers identify with winning. They are fiercely proud of the club's world record for league title wins - and extending the figure to 55 in the way Gerrard's side have has given them one of their sweetest victories.

The 'Banter Years' are over - and the next challenge for Gerrard and his squad is how they build on bringing major silverware back to Ibrox.

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