The Three Nines – Souness & Smith’s Rangers

Posted on by K Kujawa

Nine in a row. Throughout my entire life, and long before, it’s been something of note. At first it was talk of the past when a Celtic team managed by Jock Stein outstripped the six in a row achievements of one of his predecessors, Willie Maley. When I was moving through school it was the turn of Rangers to achieve the long run of consecutive league victories under the guidance of first Graeme Souness but mostly Walter Smith. Most recently, Neil Lennon has bookended Celtic doing it for a second time, with a couple of titles from both Ronny Deila and Brendan Rodgers in there as well of course.

Fans, as fans will always do, love to debate what was and wasn’t a true achievement. Celtic fans point to the financial backing of the Bank of Scotland that Rangers got through their nine, which ultimately cost them dearly. That of course meant that Celtic’s current run was done without a Rangers in the top flight for four of the nine seasons. Throw in the awarding of the Scottish Premiership title to Celtic for season 2019/20 via the SPFL board room rather than finishing the job on the park and the cries of asterisks and tainted titles is louder than ever.

Regardless of what you may think of the merits, the record books show nine consecutive titles for Celtic in the 1960s and 1970s, nine consecutive titles for Rangers in the 1980s and 1990s, and nine consecutive titles for Celtic in the 2010s up to the present day.

But are they comparable? Here I take a look at the record books to try and put these triumphs into a wider context of both overall domestic success and European campaigns.

Rangers 1988/89-1996/97

By the time Rangers embarked on their nine in a row, money was more and more important than it had been in Stein’s era. The rebranding of the European Cup to the Champions League in the 1992/93 season happened during Rangers best campaign in Europe during their nine in a row period, and as many will no doubt remember they beat Leeds United to be part of the group stages – a setup introduced the previous season just prior to the rebranding and one that Rangers missed out on after an early defeat to Sparta Prague in Walter Smith’s first full season. While there, Rangers finished just a point behind eventual winners Marseille, narrowly missing out on the final themselves.

Sadly, that season was as good as it got for Rangers during their run. Other Champions League campaigns ended in qualifying defeats to Levski Sofia in 1993/94 and AEK Athens in 1994/95. In 1995/96 they reached the, now much earlier, group stages but failed to win any matches and lost heavily to eventual winners Juventus home and away. The following season was a similar story against Ajax, although they did win a first group match against Grasshoppers Zurich. The season the run of titles came to an end, 1997/98, saw another qualifying defeat to Gothenburg.

Before group stages came into being, Rangers didn’t fare much better under Graeme Souness. In 1990/91 they bumped into eventual winners Red Star Belgrade in the second round, while in 1989/90 it was a first round defeat to Bayern Munich. Clearly then the 1992/93 campaign was the shining light of an otherwise series of disappointments – albeit with little luck of the draw against some bumper opposition at times.

In the other tournaments, Scottish teams did little of note as no team got beyond the second round of the Cup Winners Cup. In the UEFA Cup, Hearts reached the quarter finals in 1988/89, but again after that it was no further than the second round for any team. Indeed the highlight for any other team in Europe during Rangers nine in a row was most likely Danny Lennon’s goal that gave Raith Rovers the lead in the Olympiastadion against Bayern Munich in the 1995/96 season.

That Raith Rovers run in Europe obviously came thanks to their victory over Celtic in the 1994/95 League Cup final. Celtic picked up the Scottish Cup that season with victory of Airdrie, but it was a rare event that Rangers weren’t even in either final that season.

Of the nine League Cups during Rangers run, they won it in 1988/89 with victory over Aberdeen, 1990/91 with victory over Celtic, 1992/93 with victory over Aberdeen, 1993/94 with victory over Hibernian, and 1996/97 with victory over Hearts. They also lost the final in 1989/90 to Aberdeen. The remaining League Cup victories went to Hibernian with a win over Dunfermline in 1991/92, and Aberdeen with victory over Dundee in 1995/96.

In the Scottish Cup, Rangers won it in both 1991/92 and 1992/93 with victories over Airdrie and Aberdeen respectively. Defeat to Dundee United in the final in 1993/94 ended a then record run of seven consecutive domestic trophies under Walter Smith and the chance to win an unprecedented back to back treble. Rangers only other Scottish Cup victory during their nine in a row came in 1995/96 with a hammering of Hearts.

Celtic beat Rangers in the final in 1988/89, while Aberdeen beat Celtic in 1989/90. Motherwell won the epic final against Dundee United in 1990/91, while Kilmarnock picked up the trophy against Falkirk in 1996/97.

Overall then, Rangers won five out of nine League Cups and three out of nine Scottish Cups during their nine in a row, with Aberdeen winning three, Celtic winning two and Hibernian, Raith Rovers, Motherwell, Dundee United and Kilmarnock each picking up one.

In the league, Rangers first title of the nine in 1988/89 came in a ten team league with a six point lead over Aberdeen, with reigning champions Celtic finishing third a further four points back. Rangers then won in 1989/90 by seven points over Aberdeen, in 1990/91 by two points over Aberdeen – noteworthy as Aberdeen were top going into that final day decider at Ibrox and Souness had only just left the previous month. For 1991/92 the league increased to twelve teams and saw Rangers win with a nine point gap over Hearts. It was a similar nine point gap over Aberdeen in 1992/93, but just a three point gap over Aberdeen in 1993/94. The league then dropped back to ten teams and introduced three points for a win in 1994/95, which Rangers won with a fifteen point gap over second placed Motherwell. In 1995/96, the gap was just four points over a Celtic team who only lost once all campaign but who drew too many matches – had it still been two points for a win then Rangers would still have won the league but only by a point. The final title in 1996/97 saw Rangers win by five points over Celtic, with Celtic finally overcoming Rangers in 1997/98 and pipping them to the title by two points on the final day of the season.

In summary, a majority of both League Cup wins but only a third of Scottish Cup wins. A stunning period of domestic dominance spanning three seasons and including one shining beacon of a season in Europe. A few serious disappointments in Europe otherwise, and nothing of note from any other team during this period.