For Rangers Wednesday 4 November 1992 was as good as it got in movies such as this. As Mark Hateley smashed the Scottish champions in front inside five minutes at Elland Road, cross‑border needle which had extended to the press box morphed into outright celebration. Rangers and their fans felt they were not sufficiently praised for a first‑leg victory in this Champions League clash with Leeds United. Hateley’s goal, later backed up by an Ally McCoist strike before Eric Cantona claimed a Leeds consolation, secured the tie for Walter Smith’s side – a side, that is, which was dominated by Scottish players.
Almost 30 years to the day, the notion of a Battle of Britain in football context has never felt so misplaced. A clever marketing slogan but, in football terms, nonsensical. Yes, Rangers fans descended on Liverpool in their thousands and yes, the element of crackle in the atmosphere before kick-off at Anfield inferred something different from the norm, but brutal reality soon took hold. The top clubs in England and Scotland are operating in different stratospheres.
Sir Alex Ferguson, always a staunch advocate for Scottish football, was here. One wonders whether he pondered epic clashes of old. Dundee United’s battle with Manchester United in the knockout stages of the 1984‑85 Uefa Cup, for example. Or Nottingham Forest’s 1983 joust with Celtic. Dundee made Leeds fight for every inch of a Fairs Cup success in 1967‑68. The last time Liverpool faced the champions of Scotland was in 1980; they ran out comfortable aggregate winners against Aberdeen but there was the live sense of competition. Celtic swatted aside Liverpool and Blackburn when en route to the 2003 Uefa Cup final. Ferguson’s United were seen off by a wonderful Shunsuke Nakamura free-kick at Celtic Park three years later. Not so long ago but such a different football age.
It is a period which feels destined never to return. Uefa’s focus on major leagues in respect of European football’s premier club competition clearly discriminates against countries such as Scotland. On nights such as this, Rangers go from being the biggest fish in the tiniest of ponds to chasing shadows. This season’s Champions League has thus far proved a harrowing experience.
“Where’s your famous atmosphere?” the Rangers contingent chanted in the Anfield Road end as half-time approached. This was bravado which resonated in a feeling of good fortune. But for the heroics of Allan McGregor, Rangers’ veteran goalkeeper, Liverpool would have already been out of sight. Instead they led by a single goal. McGregor’s later save from Diogo Jota was sensational.
In his programme notes Jürgen Klopp pointed towards “a game that a lot of people are excited about and for good reason”. Jordan Henderson echoed his manager’s sentiment. “Every now and again, a fixture comes along that doesn’t need any hype or big build-up,” the Liverpool captain said. Mo Salah’s penalty, Liverpool’s second goal, was greeted with little more than polite applause. “Hype” had disintegrated within 54 minutes.
An interesting dichotomy on the pitch was matched in the stands. In the blue corner typical and time-honoured verse in support of the UK and Northern Ireland’s role within it. “Fuck the Tories” chanted the home support on more than one occasion. Anti‑establishment versus the establishment, perhaps.
Rangers, on rare occasion, attacked far more in hope than expectation. Giovanni van Bronckhorst is due credit for fielding his 18-year-old centre‑back Leon King from the start but those around him played the role of boys against men. Rangers were facing a Liverpool team with a point to prove, which always threatened to trigger a grisly outcome. A combination of McGregor and Liverpool wastefulness kept the scoreline respectable.
It is poetic, of course, that economic distortion explains much of this. In Scotland little is said when Rangers – or Celtic – run over the top of clubs who spend a tiny fraction of their budget. It would seem amusing if either of Scotland’s big two cried foul at the kind of fiscal gulfs which suit them perfectly well on any given Saturday. Liverpool are, at least, one of the finest club sides in world football; money has been appropriately spent.
When these sides meet again, next week in Glasgow, the backdrop promises to be different. Rangers’ wait of more than a decade for Champions League group‑stage football provides excitement and a different form of entertainment for a fanatical supporter base. Yet Ajax, Napoli and now Liverpool have merely taken it in turns to demonstrate how short Rangers are at this level. One team pitched up at this “battle” of Britain carrying water pistols.
“I can’t imagine there will be too many group games that will cause as much interest as the one at Anfield tonight,” Henderson said. To an extent he was correct. But not for the right reasons.