31 Jul 2005
- Written by Moira Gordon (Scotland on Sunday)
- Hits: 795
Two years ago, as Celtic enjoyed a UEFA Cup run that would see them all the way to the final, rivals Rangers took advantage of their early curtain call on the European stage, their fresher legs carrying them over the domestic finishing line first.
Celtic were left with memories of losing in Seville, leaving Rangers - who now have aspirations of a lengthy stay in European competition, which Celtic fans eye enviously from home - to walk away with the treble.
"It can affect your confidence, certainly, but on the other hand it may leave them fresh. I think when we won that Championship after going out to [Viktoria] Zizkov, I don't think we could have done it if we'd had a European run. But what would have been better on my CV: winning the championship or a good European run?" asks McLeish.
The priorities have not altered for the Rangers boss, who still insists that retaining the domestic flag, which will be unfurled at Ibrox in their season opener against Livingston today, is the primary objective. But everyone at Ibrox knows that a more sustained run in Europe is now demanded as standard by a support hungry to remind a wider audience of their worth.
Having brought in new faces in January, and topped up the squad with a handful of summer signings, the argument is that in the current crop of players, while not individually as skilled as some of the past masters, they have a team spirit and a better work ethic. They also have relative youth on their side. All of this, when combined, could render them better equipped.
"The squad I had two years ago was arguably [the best]. What we spent on that squad - the De Boers, Arveladze, Caniggia, Ferguson, Numan etc - quality-wise, you could see where all the money was spent. We have a different kind of squad now hard-working types, and one or two players can make a difference for us compared to that team where we had five or six superstars. This squad is less likely to get injuries as the squad of two years ago, which was at the veteran stage. That is why I don't think we could have sustained a European run and the league [that year]."
And it helps that they have a man who continues to ride his luck in every tackle. A close season which was dominated by international matches, Marvin Andrews has been unable to rest up and still refuses to heed medical advice and have his cruciate ligament damage repaired.
He maintains he is feeling as good as ever and by the sound of his summer tales, he could buckle from sheer exhaustion before his left knee does from a shortage of ligament stability. Having played five games - two in World Cup qualifying and three in Gold Cup action for Trinidad and Tobago - he concedes his time off can be counted in terms of days rather than weeks, but while he could be forgiven for wearying, instead he is the usual bundle of chuckles, optimism and ambition.
"That's why I tell you that my strength comes from God. It's not anything to do with just being human. I'm not a superhuman, not a magician or whatever, it's just the strength comes from God."
The Almighty will need to give him a quick top-up soon if Andrews gets his wish and is able to play in the up-coming international against the USA. Sandwiched between a Sunday match against Aberdeen and a Saturday Old Firm encounter, it would take his tally of games over the next month to a stamina-sapping seven. But both Andrews and McLeish believe he can manage it.
"It will be a problem, but knowing Marvin he will cope," says McLeish, who is hoping that the Trinidad and Tobago FA will allow him to play at Pittodrie and join up with his international team-mates late. After that he will simply cross his fingers and hope he comes through the match unscathed and returns in time for the Glasgow derby, where his presence will be needed, especially if a replacement for Sotiros Kyrgiakos has not been found.
"It is sad to see what has happened but I don't know the inside of what is actually happening," said Andrews of his departed Greek defensive partner. "I am just reading what the papers say so I can't really comment deeply on that. I would really like to see [Soti] back here from my point of view."
According to the club, the door on that deal is now closed, and while the search is still on for a centre-back, the clock is ticking and the most likely pairing is Andrews and summer buy Jose-Karl Pierre-Fanfan.
"All the players who have come into the team have come in with their own different strengths and have added to the team we already had. Fanfan is a good player and Ian Murray too, and there's the Argentine striker and other guys. It's just a matter of time before they really settle in and show what they are really here for."
Andrews just hopes their ambitions tally with his own and those of his boss. "We do have to succeed [in Europe]," says McLeish, "but there are no guarantees. Rangers are still a big name in Europe so it would be nice for us to get a run - the financial benefits are incredible, but I would also like a run for prestige terms."
Friday's draw for the Champions League third qualifying round saw the Ibrox side paired with whoever triumphs in the Anorthosis Famagusta v Trabzonspor tie. The ambiguity left some players stating preferences, but Andrews believes one person will decide who Rangers face and is happy to go with the flow: "Only God knows what is going to happen and only God knows who we are going to get. For me it doesn't matter who we get because in Europe every game is going to be hard."
While Rangers fans will be hoping for quite a few of those hard European games as the season unfolds, McLeish is just anxious for the talking to stop and the action to begin.
"Pre-season you are always a little bit apprehensive," he says. "As a player I was always looking forward to it but as a manager there are always one or two wee niggles - 'Did that one get enough match practice? Is that one going to be ok? Is the team gelling properly?' - but when the whistle goes, you get an answer."
When the referee blew for the start of Celtic's season it prompted more questions than answers, but Rangers will be hoping to heed such lessons.