Scottish Daily Mail
The title decider that shaped the course of Scottish football
A final-day duel for the crown in an era of hope and dreams... but unforgiving Hateley was in no mood to let Aberdeen upset Old Firm order
I hit the goalkeeper with an elbow to his armpit... I wanted to see the reaction, to lay down a marker
IT was the point of no return. On the bright Saturday afternoon of May 11, 1991, an Aberdeen team travelled to Ibrox knowing that a draw would take the Scottish Premier League title back to Pittodrie.
It was the last time a team outside of the Old Firm came anywhere near winning the championship. Thirty years on, it is impossible to envisage a similar scenario occurring unless the financial map of football is redrawn dramatically.
This, then, was a moment that had an historic significance. Rangers won 2-0 and took a third consecutive title, laying the foundations for nine in a row.
Walter Smith, who had taken over from the departing Graeme Souness only the previous month, went on to become a legend at Ibrox. But how would a defeat in a league decider have impacted on his immediate future?
How, too, would an Aberdeen victory — even just a draw — have influenced Scottish football? Would it have been a last hurrah for the outsiders, given the financial muscle in Glasgow, or would it have led to a sustained period of success for an excellent team under the shrewd and quietly brilliant Alex Smith?
These questions were rendered irrelevant by two unanswered goals from Mark Hateley. Rangers, struggling with injuries and unsettled by a 3-0 loss to Motherwell the previous week, took the two points then awarded for a victory to clinch the title by one point.
Aberdeen, weakened by an injury to their wonderful goalkeeper, Theo Snelders, and wincing at two marvellous, missed chances in the first half, came up just short. Two of the most significant witnesses give the inside view of a game that set the template for the future.
ALEX SMITH: The coverage in the press in the week before the game was incredible, especially in the West of Scotland. Talk about fever pitch. We went to Ibrox in a good frame of mind.
We knew we had a good team. I had inherited excellent players when I got the job and we had added to that by capitalising on the Dutch market and getting such as Snelders, Hans Gillhaus, Willem van der Ark and Paul Mason, at Groningen, who, incidentally, Fergie (Sir Alex Ferguson) was looking at, too.
We had won the Scottish Cup and the League Cup the season before. We were also on a run of taking 23 points out of 24 when it was two points for a win. We had the momentum. We had beaten Rangers at Pittodrie. The week before we beat St Johnstone in a really tough game at Pittodrie, then we heard the Rangers score at Motherwell. The fans went wild.
Yes, the Ibrox game was a league decider but one we didn’t shrink from. I was of the opinion then that it was a cup final and I was fine with that. But I was wrong in one, important respect. The ticket allocation had been decided weeks before and the fans were then a bit lukewarm as we were so far behind — nine points at one stage. So we took only 1,500-2,000 tickets and we were vastly outnumbered when we could have had the whole of the Broomloan Stand.
The Rangers fans were in the ground from about 1pm. It was the most hostile atmosphere I have seen, even the Rangers players remarked on that afterwards.
MARK HATELEY: This was my first season at Rangers. I came to the club to win things. I wasn’t earning a fifth of what I was on at Monaco. My mindset? The bigger the game, the bigger the performance for me. Motherwell? We got pumped.
But that week, I thought: “We just have to go out and win now, that’s it”. There was no grey area. We needed a win. We were capable of doing it. It could have been worse. We could have been playing Aberdeen away. We were playing at home.
The promotion of Walter after Graeme left was not a problem. He was the one the senior pros put forward. We told David Murray: “You don’t need to look anywhere else. He has a good brain on him, he has been taking the training, he has the respect of the players”.’
HATELEY: At the kick-off, the ball goes back to Jim Bett and Maurice Johnston goes over the ball and stamps right on top of his foot. There were a couple incidents after that and then the big incident with me and the goalkeeper.
As Graeme Souness would say: “Nobody will beat you on ability, they can only beat you in a fight”. So... that mentality was in the team.
I thought the young goalkeeper (19-year-old Michael Watt) was a ball boy. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t ever look at a team sheet, so I didn’t know who I was facing. It didn’t bother me.
They came out of a Portakabin (Ibrox was under reconstruction) and I looked over and thought he was a ball boy, a tall ball boy, but he looked as if he shaved three times a year.
As we were walking out, I said to Gary Stevens: “Hang one up and give me a chance to get it”.
He hung one up after about ten minutes. I hit the goalkeeper with an elbow to his armpit. I wasn’t booked for that. You always get the first one free. But I would have taken a booking, though. It would have been worth it.
I wanted to see what the reaction would be from their back four. I was gobsmacked. There was no response whatsoever. I expected them all to have a go, have a push.
This is for the championship. They need to draw for the championship. They need to stick together. They need to have that strength. They just left the young boy on the deck. We were laying down a marker. Were they up for it?
It impacted on my second goal. As the ball comes bobbling back off the goalkeeper after a weak shot from Maurice, all the keeper is seeing in the corner of his eye is me and all he is remembering is that he can get smashed again. I sidefoot it in. We give it laldy in front of the Aberdeen fans.
The first goal was crucial, though. Aberdeen had missed a couple of
good chances. The goal came from nothing, really. Mark Walters is actually falling over as he hoiks it in and I get a good run across the defenders. I timed it, I headed it, back of the net, The goalkeeper is probably still recovering, a bit sore.
SMITH: We were going into the lion’s den but we were in control. We had no psychological misgivings. We knew how to go to Glasgow and come back with a result, and we had beaten Rangers at Pittodrie. We were the better side, certainly in the first half.
Rangers had a few injuries and were unsettled in that they had lost a couple of big games. We missed two early chances. Great opportunities. I thought if we could go a goal ahead, then we would get at least the point we needed.
Chris Woods made a fine save when Peter van de Ven was through and then Hans (Gillhaus) missed a wonderful chance. It was a cross ball and he made his run perfectly but he missed the header. I don’t know why. A lapse of concentration, a gust of wind? Who knows? But it wasn’t typical of him.
The incident between Mark Hateley and Michael Watt was a big moment, a turning point. Mark clattered Michael and after he recovered the referee awarded a corner. No foul, no booking.
But that’s football. There is no moaning from me. Mark was that type of player who was aggressive and who could use his experience. I know his idea would have been to challenge our goalkeeper early. We lost two bad goals from our point of view.
The Hateley header in the first half could have been avoided by better defending in stopping the cross. The second was a direct result of a mistake by one of our younger players.
But I always thought we were in it. We needed to score. Ibrox was being reconstructed, so we were in a Portakabin down the tunnel. I was upbeat in the half-time talk. I told our players we were the better team and one goal would change everything. I even felt that when we lost the second, that one goal could induce nerves and the crowd could become apprehensive. It was not to be. It was a titanic game, though.
SMITH: We were all disappointed, obviously. But I have always been philosophical in defeat. You have to look at it clearly. That team didn’t let anyone down. There were genuine legends in that side. Just look at the names.
They had come from a long way back to force a league decider in the most hostile of atmospheres. It was a fantastic effort and they did not buckle. Things went against us and, again, that is football but there was and is a pride in the performance.
We had come after Rangers and just failed. It was a big moment in Scottish football but I look back on it with a sense of pride. I was disappointed, naturally, but I have great respect for those players and what they did that season.
HATELEY: It was a good season. We also won the League Cup. But it was a hard season for me, coming into the side and trying to win people over. In terms of goals, it was my worst season but the two on that day were important.
We got drunk for many days after that game. It was the most important game of my Rangers career. It was a long, hard season and we came away with two trophies. That was what I was there for, to win things. I wanted that feeling of being able to do something that could get more than 50,000 out of their seats. It meant so much, that title.
I could not wait for the next season to start.