Rangers v Ajax – January 1973

First European Super Cup Final


by Russell McFadyen

As the leading light of Scottish football, Rangers have tended to be at the vanguard of continental football. They were one of the first British clubs to tour Europe in the early part of the 20th century, the second Scottish side to compete in the European Cup, reached the final of the first European Cup-Winners’ Cup and the role of the club’s administrators in devising the UEFA Champions League in 1992 is well-known.

Following victory in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup Final of 1972 in Barcelona, Rangers had been banned, somewhat harshly, by UEFA for a celebratory pitch invasion by supporters which preceded clashes with the notoriously brutal and thuggish Guardia Civil, still under the command of General Franco. The ban, initially two years but reduced to one on appeal, meant that for only the 3rd season since Rangers first competed in Europe in 1956, they would not take to the European stage. Or so they thought.

The week after Rangers’ finest hour on the continent came one of the most famous Finals of the European Cup. The “Total Football” philosophy of Rinus Michels had introduced Ajax to the British footballing public when they shocked Bill Shankly’s Liverpool by beating them 5-1 in Amsterdam in 1966 and had eventually become champions of Europe at Wembley in 1971. They were back again for the defence of their title in the final of 1972, up against Internazionale – pioneers of the cantenaccio philosophy that brought them so much success in the 1960’s. The Amsterdammers dominated in their 2-0 victory.

Anton Witkamp, a journalist for De Telegraaf, the largest daily Dutch newspaper, posed the question of who the best team in Europe were, seemingly believing the title to have been clouded with as many as three UEFA trophies now up for grabs. He proposed a two legged tie between the holders of the European Cup and the European Cup-Winners’ Cup to settle any ambiguity. With the seal of approval from Ajax and Rangers, the idea was put to UEFA but an endorsement was not forthcoming, possibly due to Rangers’ ban. There was still interest in the tie being played, even without the backing of UEFA and De Telegraaf even procured a trophy for the winners, grandly titled “The Super Cup of Europe.” The match was on.

Unlike Rangers’ participation in the first European Cup-Winners’ Cup, which was originally organised outwith the auspices of UEFA but was recognised retrospectively, this match has never been afforded official UEFA status despite being a fixture of Europe’s football calendar ever since.

Rangers Ticket

Despite both legs of the tie being played in 1973, the match remains known as the 1972 Super Cup.

Any occasion when Johann Cruyff visits is a memorable one, but he brought with him to Glasgow very much able company, many of whom would write themselves into footballing folklore the following summer as part of Holland’s 1974 World Cup squad. The match may not have borne the significance of a crunch European tie but also not merely an exhibition match, attracting 60,000 spectators to Ibrox.

Rangers, managed by Jock Wallace, lined-up:

Peter McCloy, Sandy Jardine, Willie Mathieson, John Greig, Derek Johnstone, Dave Smith, Alfie Conn, Tom Forsyth, Derek Parlane, Alex MacDonald and Quinton Young.

Substitutes: Tommy McLean and Graham Fyfe.

Ajax, under Stefan Kovacs, had one notable absentee in Johan Neeskens, and named a team of:

Heinz Stuy, Wim Suurbier, Horst Blankenburg, Barry Hulshoff, Ruud Krol, Arie Haan, Gerrie Muhren, Arnold Muhren, Johnny Rep, Johan Cruyff and Piet Kiezer.

Substitutes: Sjaak Swart and Heinz Schilcher.

The early stages of the game were a tad tepid. Perhaps the pre-match activities celebrating Rangers’ history detracted a little from the serious business of the Super Cup. However, beyond the half-hour mark the match was as keen as any.

It must be said that the Dutch visitors appeared to be playing at different level to Rangers. That was no disgrace, given such distinguished clubs as Internazionale, Benfica and Arsenal had all found similar.

Cruyff in particular looked menacing. The first effort on goal of note came from the maestro, and he was also creator-in-chief for the opening goal. The no.14 collected the ball in midfield, striding across the park with the ball seemingly velcroed to his feet. At precisely the right moment, he played the forward pass, inch perfect, into Johnny Rep. The right-winger composed himself in the Rangers penalty area, awaiting McCloy to come off his line and coolly slid the ball past him into the corner of the net.

Undoubtedly Ajax had been on top for the first 34 minutes, but Rangers were certainly not going to sit back and take a beating. 6 minutes after going behind, the Light Blues instigated their own attacking move. Greig played a direct pass in to Conn, who helped the ball on to MacDonald. Doddie, on the turn in a wide area at the edge of the penalty area, took on the shot. Stuy in the Ajax goal dived across and managed to get both hands to the ball. Unable to divert it wide, the ball rested in the goal and Rangers had swiftly drawn level.

If the first half-hour had been a somewhat lukewarm affair, the match was by now roaring. The goal certainly galvanised the home side, looking likely to earn them a level game at the turnaround, but it also had a similar effect on the visitors. Cruyff, it seemed, had made it a personal mission to ensure an Ajax victory that night. He turned Forsyth, leaving him for dead, and unleashed a powerful high drive that found its past McCloy, re-establishing the Ajax advantage before the referee could blow for half-time.

4 minutes into the second period and Rangers’ task appeared to become all that more difficult. Conn was unable to shake-off an injury and had to be replaced by Tommy McLean. The fresh legs, more so than the half-time break, appeared to inject some vitality to the Rangers side who were about to enjoy their best spell of the game.

The deft passing game which had seen the Dutchmen dictate play for almost the entirety of the first half had made way for the more energised philosophy, predicated on hard-work and physical fitness that was to symbolise the coming years of Wallace’s tenure.

Rangers’ best opportunity of the match arrived when Derek Johnstone sprung the Ajax offside trap and found himself alone in-front of goal. Taking a little too long to compose himself for the finish, he allowed the Ajax backs to make up the ground and ended up rushing his shot by the post.

Wallace’s men would be left to rue the missed opportunity. With less than quarter of an hour remaining on the clock, Hulshoff caught out the Rangers backline and slipped through Arie Haan. His task was a far sight simpler than the goal he would score against Italy at the 1978 World Cup, finishing calmly for 3-1.

Greig and Parlane would have efforts on goal in the closing-stages, but it wasn’t to be. Ajax ran out deserved winners.

8 days later Rangers would travel to the Olympic Stadium for the second leg in Amsterdam. Twice Rangers went ahead in the first half, firstly through MacDonald and then Cutty Young, but were ultimately beaten 3-2 on the night and 6-3 on aggregate. Indeed, Ajax would possess a 100% winning record at home in 46 games across seasons 1971-72 and 1972-73, earning a third consecutive European crown and ensuring their place as on the finest teams to have played the game.  

As Ian Archer wrote in The Herald of the night Cruyff and co visited Ibrox: “I must borrow my analogies from the arts. Ajax played as Picasso drew or Yeats wrote. Every line is full of thought, full of stark economy. Where other sides might embroider, they lance. They are truly the surgeons of the modern game.”

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