On 31 August 2000, John Hartson learned that he had failed his Rangers medical. It was the second medical he’d failed in a row, after Spurs had pulled out of a deal to sign him on similar grounds. He would have been devastated. Coventry, worried about his fitness, put him on a “pay as you play” deal, but sweetened it with an offer of the captaincy.
David Murray didn’t care about any of that.
Celtic had signed Chris Sutton for £6 million in the summer of that season, and he was determined to find a deal which trumped us. That was, as Ibrox fans remember it, the summer of the striker hunt.
Hartson was only one name amongst nearly a dozen they went for; Rebrov, Shevchenko, Mpenza, Raul Tamudo and Benni McCarthy were amongst the others.
Four days before the Hartson deal collapsed, Murray’s team had left Celtic Park on the back of a 6-2 hammering in which Sutton and Larsson both scored twice.
Desperate to get something over the line, he widened the search and decided to throw money at the problem.
At the back of his mind were his own stupid boasts, his own bombast, his own hubris; “For every fiver Celtic spend,” he had said, “we will spend £10.”
Less than a month after the Hartson deal collapsed, he was to prove it in the most ridiculous fashion imaginable; a deal which is still a Scottish record to this day and which might never be broken.
On this day, 21 years ago, they bought Tore Andre Flo.
The stupidity of that decision is no longer even up for debate.
No Scottish club had even contemplated an eight figure transfer fee, especially not then, when you could – as we had done and as we went on to prove – get a Premiership class striker for half that.
It was ego that pushed that deal, nothing else. Pure ego.
It was Murray wanting to show Scottish football that he was still the top man, that although his team were floundering and had been beaten comprehensively by us that he still had the power.
Initially, it didn’t seem like too much of a stretch. Flo made his debut days after signing, against Celtic at Ibrox, and we duly lost 5-1 with him getting their second goal.
That pummelling turned out to be an aberration.
We left Ibrox that day still 12 points clear in the league. When we returned later in the season we had won the title already, the League Cup was in the bag and we were motoring towards Hampden and a treble. We won that afternoon, of course, by 3-0 with Larsson getting his 50th of that amazing campaign and Lubo scoring both of the others.
Flo never looked remotely like a player worth all that money, not even that afternoon.
There were occasional high points when he seemed like he knew what he was doing, and his scoring record actually looks pretty decent when you examine without the context; he scored 43 in 87 appearances for them.
But for all that money he should have been tearing it up in Scotland, every single week.
Sutton’s record for us was 86 goals in 199 … he played some of them in central midfield and others at centre back.
He cost us half the money and gave us so much more.
The really hilarious development, of course, turned out to be Celtic’s signing, on 31 August 2001, John Hartson himself; for half of what Flo cost them, (they could have had him and Sutton for that £12 million fee, which has always cracked me up) he delivered for us big time; 109 goals in 201 games, and a place as one of the deadliest finishers in our history.
This article has come about because there’s a commemoration thread on one of the Sevco forums over the “historic” signing of Flo, and it is filled with them decrying Hartson as a player who they can’t stand and wouldn’t have wanted at their first club.
It is rank nonsense for them to be pretending that he wouldn’t have been a sensational signing for them and done real damage in their team. Hartson was capable of playing and scoring against anybody, as he went on to prove.
That failed medical is one of the most fortuitous events in our club’s history for what came to pass later on. Amidst all the deflection there is an obvious, burning anger that they understand this all too well.
On top of that, Hartson didn’t just do the business for Celtic as a player, he fell in love with the club and has become one of our most famous ambassadors.
But the real damage is in what the signing of Flo ultimately meant in the wider sphere. It is considered the landmark moment when hubris overtook the last vestiges of common sense at Rangers, when any remaining fraction of sanity departed that ground forever. John Hartson was a signing that would have made sense.
The splurge on Flo was both an attempt to rub Celtic’s faces in their alleged spending power and a salve on the beating they’d taken at Parkhead.
It was Murray trying to prop up the crumbling edifice of his own ego.
It was the high water mark of the lunatic way he was running his businesses, and Rangers in particular.
We now know that the EBT scheme had already been instigated and that the path to the liquidation event ten years later was already being walked upon.
That was the true legacy of the signing of Tore Andre Flo, and I am bewildered how any of them can commemorate it with anything but dismay, because in a very real sense it was the starting gun being fired on the last decade, where our dominance was almost total, and the effects of that signing and what it meant are still being felt, to one degree or another, at Ibrox today.
Celtic fans are the ones who should be grateful for this anniversary; it ultimately changed the game. 21 years ago today, Murray definitively set Rangers on the path of destruction.
Ten years later they were gone.
Ten years after that, a single major honour is the NewCo’s return for another splurge of insane spending, and so the path to the next gravesite is already being walked down.
Those who will not learn from history are destined to repeat it.