It was whilst reliving the drama of season 2002-03’s final day on the recent BBC rerun that I began to think back to other occasions when the title race went to the wire. I recalled a game that has, at least to some extent, become lost in the annals of Rangers history.
The post-war era had seen the emergence of Hibs and their Famous Five front-line threatening Rangers’ supremacy in Scotland. They would be responsible for ending the Gers’ 9 in a row run in 1948, also winning the championship in 1951 and 1952. By the end of January in season 1952-53, once the pack had thinned, Rangers and Hibs were again all but inseparable at the top of the table. However, they were joined by East Fife, who were enjoying unprecedented levels of success under Scot Symon.
Scot Symon, Former Rangers Manager
It had been something of a stuttering season for Rangers. A difficult start had seen adverse results, but a good run of form in November had rectified that and brought the Ibrox charges back into the title race. However, the next time Rangers would win back-to-back League matches would be the first week of January, and that would be the last time until April. Doing it when it mattered most, the Light Blues strung together their most impressive run of the season, winning 4 games in a row, and, importantly, scoring 16 goals in the process. By the time all three sides had played 27 of their 30 League games, Rangers were top from East Fife, only on Goal Average, and Hibs were third by a mere point. Intriguingly, Hibs and East Fife were still to play at Easter Road.
Two days before that match could happen, the Fifers were to lose valuable ground by virtue of a 1-1 draw against Celtic. On the Monday, Hibs managed a 2-1 win against Scot Symon’s men, whilst Rangers stuck three past Motherwell.
The Ibrox men were to take a brief break from League action for the Scottish Cup Final that weekend. As the Ibrox men gained a creditable 1-1 draw and forcing a replay against Aberdeen, Hibs were heaping on the pressure by cruising to a 7-1 victory over Third Lanark.
East Fife bowed out of the title race on the Tuesday, completing their League fixtures with a 4-2 loss at Tynecastle. The following evening, Hibs were to finish off their programme at home to Raith, whilst Rangers defeated Aberdeen 1-0 in the replay of the Scottish Cup Final. The Kirkcaldy side were dismantled 4-1 as the men from the Capital put themselves three points ahead of Rangers. Whilst their outstanding goalscoring exploits had yielded 11 goals in their final 2 matches, boosting their Goal Average from 1.6735 to 1.8235, it still couldn’t beat Rangers’ 2.0541. In all likelihood, 3 points would be enough to crown Bill Struth’s team Kings of Scotland.
The unfulfilled fixtures were a home clash with Dundee, followed swiftly by a midweek jaunt to Queen of the South. Despite a disputed Billy Simpson goal, a double from Derek Grierson, taking his tally to 9 goals in his last 7 League matches, ensured Rangers closed the gap to a single point courtesy of a 3-1 victory at Ibrox over the Dees.
Unusually, the match at Palmerston Park would take place on a Thursday night due to Scotland’s match with Sweden at Hampden the previous evening. George Young would lead the national team out, sustaining a knock that was thankfully not enough to rule him out of the crunch match in Dumfries the following night.
QOTS were sitting in 11th place, avoiding relegation by two points but only 3 points off Hearts in 4th. Out to write their names in folklore as thwarting Rangers’ attempts to win a 7th League and Cup double, the team, managed by Jimmy McKinnell Jr, lined up as follows:
QOTS: Roy Henderson; Dougie Sharpe and Jimmy Binning; Sweeney, Alex Smith and Jimmy Greenock; Jackie Oakes, Bobby Black, Jim Patterson, Neilson and Baxter.
The Rangers XI read: George Niven; George Young and Johnny Little; Rex Dunlop, Willie Woodburn and Jim Pryde; Willie Waddell, Derek Grierson, Billy Simpson, John Prentice and Johnny Hubbard.
The match was officiated by F.S Cromley from Motherwell.
Perhaps they were beginning to feel the strains of a long hard season, but Rangers did not start at their best. Simpson spurned two good chances to put the visitors ahead in the first period.
Queens had a few half-chances come their way, but nothing clear-cut.
4 minutes before the break, they launched a rare attack. A centred ball was challenged for in the box by Woodburn and Neilson. It was the Doonhamers’ Inside-Left that won the aerial duel, managing to find Patterson with a knock-down. Patterson’s effort from an acute angle squirmed away from Niven, clipping the goalpost before finding the net.
Half-time came and went, but Rangers were struggling to find some much-needed inspiration. The task got tougher when Grierson picked up an injury, requiring Waddell to switch to Inside-Right, allowing Grierson to become a “passenger” on the wing.
With half an hour of the Second half played, Rangers still trailed by a goal. The Light Blues required an individual to step-up and provide that flash of brilliance required to crown them champions. Cometh the hour cometh the man, as they say, and perhaps the injury to Grierson was, in-fact, a blessing in disguise.
With just 15 minutes left on the clock, Willie Waddell picked up the ball and ran at the Queens defence. The pace and trickery of the Rangers no.7 was too much for his opposition. Twice he almost lost it, but twice he regained his balance and carried on, beating no fewer than 3 defenders on his way into the penalty area. As he advanced into the box, Henderson charged out to close him down. Waddell thundered a shot high over his head and crashing into the back of the net. At last, Rangers had their equaliser.
In a season packed with twists and turns, the job was not done yet. Only three minutes after the jubilant Rangers players had settled down for the restart, a clumsy headed clearance from Willie Woodburn presented the home side with a gilt-edged opportunity. The ball fell at the feet of Patterson, 5 yards from goal and with only Niven to beat. The chance to deny Rangers the League Championship was squandered when he struck over the crossbar.
Rangers successfully played out the last 10 or so minutes to earn a 1-1 draw and secure their 28th Scottish League title, even if it was a bit of a stumble over the line. Finishing level on points with Hibs, the triumph by virtue of a superior difference in Goal Average of 0.2278, represents one of the narrowest of the Light Blues’ League conquests.
The title was to be Bill Struth’s 18th and final as boss of Rangers, as well as being Willie Waddell’s last honour as a player. He regarded his goal that day as his very favourite of his career, saying “nothing is better than scoring the goal that makes Rangers champions.”