For weeks now I have been saying, over and over again, that the Ibrox European run is not what it’s cracked up to be.
They won last night, and the achievement of knocking out two Bundesliga teams gives it a sheen of impressiveness, but I remain resolutely of a mind that the final will be contested by two very ordinary sides.
There are those who think that my purpose in talking down the Ibrox run all this time was that I just don’t want to give them credit for anything.
The real purpose behind it was very different; I am wary of giving it too much respect because if it’s hyped up enough people will look at it and surmise that getting to European finals on a regular basis is something we should be capable of.
Ibrox clubs have managed two in fourteen years.
Is there something we can take from that? Are they doing something right that we’re not?
I take from it only this; the current Ibrox narrative is of a club that climbed, in 12 years, from the bottom tier in the game to a European final … what’s missing from the story is that the last Ibrox club fell from the 2008 final into oblivion a Hell of a lot quicker than that.
Whatever “ambition” they showed to get there last time was a contributing factor in their eventual collapse.
They have spent £100 million above and beyond earnings to get to this one.
That too could be labelled “ambitious” if we didn’t already know it was insane.
Their club is built on levels of spending which cannot be sustained even with Champions League income once in a blue moon.
Some will say flirting with liquidation is a small price to pay for progressing in Europe.
I would respectfully disagree.
The Europa League is a weird competition at times.
Since our final in 2012, won by Porto, the teams who have made it all the way to the final in the competition include; Fulham, Middlesbrough, Braga, CSKA Moscow, Donetsk, Dnipro Werder Bremen, Eintracht Frankfurt, Zenit and two Ibrox clubs.
The specialists are Sevilla.
They have won the trophy six times in the last 16 years.
That is a phenomenal achievement by any metric. But what does it hide?
Well Fulham only just got promoted back to the EPL.
Middlesbrough have spent the better part of a decade stranded in the English Championship.
Braga, we know all about, a dreadful side who Ibrox has had the good fortune to be drawn against twice.
Are either of the German clubs named big hitters on the continent, or at home?
Will Dnipro or Donetsk make European finals again any time soon?
Would Zenit or Moscow even if they weren’t banned?
I’ll say again what I said at the start; four years after making it to Manchester, Rangers was in liquidation and part of the reason they got there is that Maribor and Malmo beat them and took European football off the table for a year.
I remember, when they got to Manchester, people around me saying what a great achievement it was for them and that they would do what we failed to after Seville and crack on … four years later they were gone entirely.
So what lesson was there? What did we learn?
Well look at Sevilla, six times winners … they haven’t won their domestic title since 1945.
They’ve won two Copa Del Ray’s in the same 16-year period and one UEFA Super Cup.
They are incredibly successful within this competition … but nowhere else.
Since 2007-08, when the first Ibrox club reached the final, clubs from that ground have won four titles and three domestic cup competitions … in more than 15 years.
Three of those titles were won in quick succession following that campaign.
For the whole of that time they’ve had the second biggest wage bill in the country.
You can either say that their run proves that they’ve gone from being a bit-part player to being a European giant in a short span of time or you can maybe look at the big picture and ask yourself; were Fulham a European giant just by virtue of getting to a final?
Whilst you’re at it, ask yourself this; are Eintracht Frankfurt?
Let’s go further.
Would West Ham going through have made you think you were watching elite clubs? Would RB Leipzig be considered a European giant had they? Go further back, the quarter finals. Would Lyon? Would Braga? Or Atalanta? Only Barcelona stands out … and the Germans who play Ibrox in the final took care of them.
Those are the teams who made it to the latter stages this year.
What have we learned? What should we be aiming to learn from those clubs?
What is there to learn? What lessons can we draw?
Only that sometimes unfancied sides make it in that tournament, which has a habit of producing at least one club that seems to have stumbled upon a magic formula.
In the Conference League this time around that club was Bodo.
Clearly Ibrox has figured out how to negate European teams – that’s something we’ll acknowledge and that I’ll write about in the next piece; it’s a huge and complicated subject.
All I’ll say here is that they don’t change their style from that which they play in Scotland, and over the course of this season that style hasn’t been good enough to keep up with us.
So what did we learn? What lessons can we draw?
What’s the Champions League equivalent of this collection of misfit teams in the final?
Well the answer is, there isn’t one.
Because no team outside the Big Five leagues has made the final since 2003, and that was Mourinho’s Porto. Before that, no non Big Five club had made the final since 1994, and that was Ajax.
In a 30-year spell there has been near total dominance in that competition by the leagues of Italy, France, Germany, Spain and England. Of the sixty available cup final places a mere two clubs have managed to buck that trend.
Of the clubs which have competed for, and won, the Europa League in the last 20 years, only two of them – Chelsea and Porto – has gone on to better that achievement by winning the big competition, and we know that what Porto did was essentially down to one guy.
What do some people think we have learned?
That a club our size should be trying to reach European finals?
It’s a moon-shot, and this is where I keep banging on about the statistics and what they portend; in what is now eighteen Europa League games on the way to the final, the Ibrox club has won just seven of them.
A success rate of less than half.
If they had been unstoppable, if they had blazed a trail, if they had won ten games out of eighteen or twelve games, I would have had no choice to but to say that they performed outstandingly.
As it is, I am entitled to look at the Group Stage performance which was dire, and at the quality of two out of the four teams they beat in the qualifiers, Braga and Red Star.
Look at the number of vastly better clubs who fell by the wayside in this tournament, without ever getting near to playing the club from Ibrox. Sevilla; Barcelona; Napoli; Lazio; Atalanta to give you the highlights.
Knockout football produces this sometimes … like Watford getting to the FA Cup Final in 2018.
Beating both the German clubs is excellent and vastly more than I expected them to do.
But it’s us beating Lazio home and away, not that long ago.
Why is it important to keep on pointing out that they’ve won just seven games in this tournament?
It’s important because the confluence of events that gets a team to a European final in the modern age on the back of just seven wins is as much down to luck as it is anything else.
What can we learn from that? Except “hope that you are lucky.”
And we can’t control that particular variable.
It is wholly unrealistic to put pressure on this team and on this manager by making demands that because Ibrox has reached the final that we should be capable of doing the same. In the right year, with favourable draws, and the right confluence of events, maybe … as Fulham did, as Middlesbrough did, as the other clubs mentioned above did.
Perhaps even as we did … you have to consider that, but it’s easier to dismiss because of the calibre of player we had, the teams we beat along the way and ultimately the trajectoy of the team we took to extra-time.
For all that, we never came close to turning the same trick again … although we did have some good runs, which is something I’m going to talk about later on. Because getting to finals isn’t the full story, of course, and our European record is absolutely dire.
So there is one thing that we could do differently … and that’s the subject of the piece later on.