|Venue: Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan Stadium, Seville Date: Wednesday, 18 May Kick-off: 20:00 BST|
|Coverage: Listen to live commentary on Sportsound and follow live text updates on the BBC Sport website & app|
On Friday evening, the redoubtable BBC pundit Charles Young was driving to Greenock Town Hall for a speaking gig when he caught sight of a Volvo in his rear-view mirror, so close that ‘Chico’ could spot the determined and slightly desperate look on the driver’s face.
The great man was unnerved, utterly convinced that he was being followed. He sped up and slowed down, turned on to one quiet road after another but still the guy stayed in his slipstream. By the time he arrived at his destination, he was in an agitated state, especially so when the Volvo swerved through the entrance and pulled up beside him.
“A chap got out of the car and I do not mind admitting that my backside was tightening at this point,” he said. “He comes over to me and says, ‘Hey Chick, I saw you on the road there and I thought I’d follow you to ask you something: Any tickets for Seville?'”
We’ve no idea if Volvo Man is here in Spain or not, no idea if he is among the exodus, the mass movement of Rangers people. If he is, it would be kind of difficult to pick him out in the crowd. Latest estimates put the number of traveling Bears at 100,000.
They’ve come in from every conceivable direction. The multiple charters out of Glasgow are the least of it. Some have scrambled to Seville via Marrakesh in Morocco, others have gone Glasgow-Gatwick-Bilbao-Seville, Glasgow-Luton-Lisbon-Seville, Edinburgh-Bergamo-Milan-Madrid-Seville. There are tales of expats coming up from the Southern Hemisphere. The Rainbow Hot Air Balloon company took calls from people wondering if they could book something to get them to Spain. The owners thought it was a wind-up at first. It was not.
There are hundreds if not thousands of stories knocking about and they will become legend if Rangers beat Eintracht Frankfurt on Wednesday night. They’ll be passed down the generations, some real, some exaggerated or invented, but magnificent nonetheless. ‘My granda cycled to Seville with his big mate Archie on the handlebars.’
There’s a fantastic madness to it all, a uniqueness. This is Rangers’ second European final in half a century. Who knows when they are going to be in another one and how many of their fans who have made this trip will be alive to see it.
Only three Scottish clubs have won a trophy of this magnitude. Billy McNeill, John Greig and Willie Miller are the only captains who’ve led a Scottish side to this kind of glory. James Tavernier could be the fourth.
History surrounds not just this final, but the entire Rangers story. They have come through the hideous Craig Whyte era and the bombastic Charles Green years, they’ve counted the unpopular Easdale brothers in and they’ve counted them out again.
All sorts of unwanted characters drifted across their landscape over the past decade – Brian Stockbridge and David Somers, Imran Ahmad and Rafat Rizvi, Mike Ashley and Derek Llambias. There was the pornography baron and Mr Custard and Nanny McPhee – those references will mean nothing to some but will send a shiver up the spine of Rangers fans who remember those slapstick days only too well.
Nine seasons ago they lost to Stirling Albion, Annan Athletic and Peterhead in the bottom tier of Scottish football. Two of those defeats were at Ibrox. Seven seasons ago they lost games against Alloa Athletic, Raith Rovers and Queen of the South before getting done in cold blood by Motherwell in a bid to reach the Premiership through the play-offs. Motherwell beat them 6-1 over two legs. On full-time Bilel Mohsni, the Rangers player, punched Lee Erwin in the face. Police Scotland got involved. Embarrassing.
It’s only five years since Pedro Caixinha was in the bushes after getting knocked out of Europe by Progres Niederkorn. Losing to the fourth-best team in Luxembourg was the most humiliating defeat in Rangers’ history and, probably, the most mortifying loss ever suffered by a Scottish side on European terrain.
And now this. This is a different planet entirely. We all know Scottish football is a majestically unpredictable place but even allowing for the surreal, this takes the biscuit. Rangers won only one of their first six games in Europe this season. They lost their manager and five key members of staff in the autumn.
They lost their principal striker, Alfredo Morelos, and then his deputy, Kemar Roofe, for major knockout games against stellar opposition. Their marquee signing, Aaron Ramsey, has barely kicked a ball. And yet they prevailed. They drove on. They made the final and in the eyes of many they are favorites to win it. In a word, brilliance. In another word, miraculous.
Getting here is not enough. It can not be. You only have to listen to Martin O’Neill and his Celtic players from 2003 talking about their inability to watch a replay of that Uefa Cup final defeat by Porto to understand what agony in football is all about. The Rangers players of 2008 will be the same. The tag of gallant runners-up is worthless to these guys.
They have come so far but the toughest bit is upon them now. This will be the greatest game of their lives if they win and almost certainly the most wounding game of their lives if they lose. Immortality or purgatory.
In recent days, Rangers have been pumping out videos of great clubmen of the past talking about the importance of good fan behavior in Seville. They’ve been mocked in places, but there’s an obvious logic to them. The messages have been pleading in tone because everybody remembers 2008 in Manchester and some remember 1972 in Barcelona and nobody wants to go back to those dark places.
That’s the backdrop, the mortal dread of trouble with almost 150,000 fans from both clubs gathering in the city. The great hope is the football is the talking point come Thursday morning, the action on the pitch at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan stadium is all that matters. Under the baking sun in Seville, the wish is that everybody, from Scotland and Germany, stays cool.
What a European adventure this has been for Rangers this season, beginning in Sweden, then moving on to Armenia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Serbia, Portugal, back to Germany and now Spain. Nine different countries and 19 matches including the final. This is Steven Gerrard’s team in the sense he signed most of the players who will feature, but Giovanni van Bronckhorst has taken them to a different level these past months.
He’s got the best out of John Lundstram, who has become a colossus, he has twisted and tweaked his formation to suit, he’s come across as astute and clear-headed despite operating in the maelstrom of knockout European football.
Ibrox has been a massive part of what this team has become but, of course, they will not have the 50,000 screaming them on this time, they will not be able to tap into the raw emotion that their stadium can provide. Their official allocation was 9,500 but there will be close to 20,000 Rangers fans inside the stadium. The 20,000 need to make the noise of twice and three times that number. Their counterparts from Eintracht will be trying to do the exact same thing. An incredible thing could unfold here.
Rangers are going up against a side who have had a miserable Bundesliga season but a glorious Europa League run, a side that went to Olympiakos, Real Betis, Barcelona and West Ham and won, a group of players who keep it compact and then strike out like adders when there’s space to exploit.
Eintracht do not mind losing the possession battle. They lost it in five of their six knockout games so far and yet they still managed to record more shots on target than the opposition in those five contests. Rangers would be well advised not to fall into their trap by being too gung-ho.
They have pace and devil through Filip Kostic, the Serb left wing-back, Daichi Kamada, the Japanese attacking midfielder and Rafael Borre, the Colombian striker. Not household names, but names to respect. Kostic has the most assists in the Europa League this season and the second most attempts on goal. They’re dangerous.
But Rangers have Allan McGregor, who has made more saves than any other goalkeeper in the tournament. They have Connor Goldson and Calvin Bassey and Tavernier, a goalscoring phenomenon, the competition’s leading marksman from right-back, a man who has opened the scoring in five knockout games for Rangers in the Europa League this season.
They have Lundstram who in the relative blink of an eye has become beloved among the Rangers support. This is a night for Ryan Kent to bring his best stuff. If ever his club needs his undoubted, but inconsistent, talent, it is now. And what of Ramsey? A cameo off the bench? Could the bit-part superstar save his best for the biggest day?
Rangers are well-drilled, completely focused and one game from footballing heaven. This is the stuff of fantasy, but it could not be more real. They’ve almost climbed Everest. One last push and they’ll be there.