THE statement that follows will probably require a second reading, but stick with it because it presages an extraordinary story: Rangers won the Bank of Scotland Premier League last season because God was on their side.
They won it with two minutes of the campaign to go, with their fate in other hands. They needed Celtic to fail to beat Motherwell at Fir Park and, in the 88th minute, Celtic conceded an equaliser. While some may argue that Rangers’ title was handed to them by Scott McDonald, who went on to win the match for Motherwell with his second goal in stoppage time, Marvin Andrews, the Rangers centre back, believes that it was handed down by God.
Thus, when his team-mates were doing their head-spinning laps of honour that day at Easter Road, where they had just beaten Hibernian, Andrews went to the centre spot and knelt down to pray. If his message needed translating, it was there on the T-shirt that was revealed underneath his discarded Rangers shirt, from St Luke’s gospel: “The things that are impossible with men are possible with God.”
Four months later, Andrews, 29, is as convinced as ever of divine intervention in Scottish football. “If it wasn’t for God, we wouldn’t have won the league,” he said. “Because I am a servant, He will never leave me nor forsake me. He did it for me and the team to show the team that He is God, to show that team that what is impossible with men is possible with God.” Which poses the question: if Andrews had not been a Rangers player, would God have been wearing his Rangers scarf that day? “No, because apart from me, who proclaims the Lord at Rangers?” he said with a smile. “Where I go, God goes.”
It is tempting, at this stage, to write Andrews off as a wacko, but two undeniable planks of evidence give him credence. The first is his personality. He is no madman; he has a warmth, an intelligence and an approachability that have won him great popularity with Rangers fans. Second, and of far more significance, he is the beneficiary of what some refer to as a miracle.
This is the miracle of his left knee. In a match against Dundee at Dens Park last March, he ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament, the kind of injury that used to end a career. The Rangers medical staff were convinced that, if he was to play again, he would require surgery, followed by months of rehabilitation.
This was where it got interesting, because Andrews refused to have an operation. “I prayed to God,” he said, “and He spoke. God is not deaf, God speaks. Some people cannot believe it, they think He doesn’t reply. But my God is not like that. When I speak to Him, He replies. God told me not to have the operation.
“It was a difficult decision because I knew many people would be offended and I respected all the views of the Rangers medical staff. They were all giving me advice. They told me my career was probably going to be over without surgery and they told me of all the top players who had had this injury and for whom the only answer was surgery. Everyone was just watching me in amazement. What made it even better is we are talking about the best medical staff possible: top surgeons, top doctors. That’s what made it even greater, that I had to have faith.
“Doubts came, fear came, the devil tried to bring fear into me, just as the Bible said. There were all different kinds of people speaking negatively, speaking fear into me, but I kept holding on to God. This is what faith is about. It was a very hard time for me, that was why I had to keep on constantly reading the Bible, constantly praying. God kept telling me, ‘Keep believing, keep trusting.’ And that gave me strength.”
For Rangers, of course, this was an uneasy situation. Although they could hardly pin him to the operating table, the club made noises about respecting his religion and, although he shunned their advice, they still gave him physiotherapy. His recovery programme thus consisted of physio, gym work and prayer. And after three weeks, he declared himself fit.
This, again, was not easy for Rangers. It made no sense. They were also terrified that he would collapse after his first tackle and exacerbate the injury. At the very least, they wanted him to delay a return until the next season. It did not help that Pastor Joe Nwokoye, the minister of Andrews’s church, the Zion Praise Centre in Kirkcaldy, had told the media that Andrews would be back for that campaign.
Alex McLeish, the astonished Rangers manager, told him to rest a while longer, but eventually he was given a run-out with the reserves. Andrews’s knee survived intact. The next week he returned to first-team football against Celtic and he played all the final four games of the season. “Marvin is defying logic,” McLeish said at the time.
But the miracle man plays on, even though the Rangers medics still believe that he should have the operation. He has fought his way back into the first team and is likely to play in the Champions League tie away to Inter Milan today.
He is at Rangers, too, he said, because of God. When he was with Livingston he was offered a transfer plus a big salary hike by Dundee United. Again, he knelt down to pray. He was informed from on high that the move was a bad idea. Three weeks later Rangers came in for him.
Likewise, he got to Livingston only because of God, he said. He is Trinidadian and in 1998 was spotted and enticed to Scotland by Raith Rovers. He was out for six months with a degenerative groin injury and surgery was recommended. However, Tony Rougier, a team-mate, took him to see Pastor Joe at the Zion Praise Centre. They prayed together, he was healed and had his career back on track.
That introduction to Pastor Joe was the turning point of Andrews’s life. He is now a church deacon, preaches occasionally and has been a magnet for a growing congregation. His team-mates have proved resistant to the walking advertisement in their dressing-room, although Fernando Ricksen, their Holland defender, and Dado Prso, the Croatia forward, have promised the church a visit.
Andrews sees his path from the Caribbean via Raith and Livingston to Glasgow and the title as one long, predestined journey. “I think I’m in Scotland for a purpose and a reason,” he said. “I think God brought me over from Trinidad for a reason.
“I’m a servant of the Lord. I’m here to tell people that he is still alive, that we still have the same God that opened the blind eyes and that allowed the crippled man to walk. I’m here to continue proclaiming the gospel, to tell people the good news.”
THE anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is a 35mm link at the knee between the femur and tibia. Its function is to provide stability and balance, to stop the knee giving way when bent or changing direction — which makes it important for a footballer.
Studies show that every 1,000 hours of football played causes four to seven ACL injuries. Robert Pires, Alan Shearer, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Paul Gascoigne have suffered the injury.
Partial ACL tears can be treated without surgery; amateur footballers have been known to continue playing even with a rupture, although the natural rehabilitation period would then be six months. But professional football clubs invariably recommend surgery, a near fail-safe guarantee of recovery.
The question for Rangers was the extent of Marvin Andrews’s ACL damage and an MRI scan led to their unequivocal decision to recommend surgery. Andrews’s recovery was extraordinary partly because he did it without surgery, but because he was nevertheless back, ready for training, after three weeks.