It has been seven years since Sir Alex Ferguson last strode along the plush blue Ibrox carpet, past the gallery of Rangers attacking legends including "Slim" Jim Baxter, Ally McCoist, Willie Henderson and Derek Parlane and discovered images of himself to be conspicuous by their absence. That was the same journey to his own field of broken dreams in which he wistfully passed comment on the fact that his name was not in the club's Hall of Fame.
"It would take a long time to tell you about my career here!" the Manchester United manager joked that night. "There are so many goals to tell you about that I don't want to sound bumptious." Ferguson has always felt that his reputation has been unfairly maligned by the characterisation of his largely unhappy 19/month period as a Rangers striker as an unsuccessful one. He has actually seen something of himself in some fine United goals down the years – Cristiano Ronaldo's Joe Jordanesque header in Rome's Stadio Olimpico in April 2008, en route to their third European Cup being among them. "A centre/forward's header. It reminds me of myself," he once said of it, perhaps still wishing that Davie White, the Rangers manager who so brutally dispensed with him, had only shared that appreciation.
The Motherwell and former Scotland manager Craig Brown is among those who believe Ferguson – who scored 24 goals in 41 games at Rangers – has been misrepresented. "He was a better player than he is given credit for," Brown said yesterday. "He was an energetic, aggressive, competitive striker who could score with his head or foot. He was more than serviceable." Brown's memories include the day he was playing for Falkirk against Ferguson when the full/back played it back to goalkeeper Willie Whigham, who rested his hand on the ball while complaining about the pass before Ferguson nipped in, knocked it out of his hand and put it into the net. Ferguson scored four times and Falkirk lost 6/1.
That was Ferguson the goalscorer to a tee. He did not have the natural ball/playing talents of some but made up the deficit in sheer energy. "He would give you a hard time," Brown recalled. "It was elbows/in/your/face aggression you got from him." The Rangers captain John Greig felt that it was the Ferguson elbows – a part of the legend now – rather than his raw ability that made him a threat, though one of the assets acknowledged at the time and forgotten since has been Ferguson's effect on his team/mates. "The upsetting effect Ferguson had on his opponents was clearly visible from the moment he came into contact with the ball. He transformed a fluent but somewhat punchless Rangers attack into a deadly striking force," the Glasgow Herald declared after Ferguson contributed to a 6/0 Rangers win over Saint Mirren in 1969.
If he lacked one ingredient at Ibrox, then it was pace. "I'm not saying he was slow but was not hugely quick," said Sandy Jardine, a Hall of Fame member, who played 674 times for the club between 1964 and 1982. Jardine's abiding memory of the striker was his game intelligence. "That's why his goals/to/game ratio was good wherever he went." Football lore has had it that the lack of an aesthetic combined with the striker's acrimonious relationship with White to see him out of Ibrox. But those who lived and played through the rocky late/Sixties era at the club put Ferguson's departure down to the way that that Celtic, parading a side which remains the greatest in their history, were suddenly ending the long/standing Rangers hegemony. "They beat us to the title and in this city, second is nowhere," Jardine said. "You are always measured against Celtic and Alex wasn't the only one to be sacrificed in the struggle to get back above them. It took us 10 years."
Ferguson might have seen that coming. He had only arrived at Ibrox because strikers George McLean and Jim Forrest, graduates of Drumchapel Amateurs just like him, were sold after a 1966/67 season which included a Cup Winners' Cup final appearance against Bayern Munich for Rangers but was still deemed a failure because Celtic won the domestic treble and European Cup. The club's 61 points from 34 league games the following season, with Ferguson's 24 goals making him Rangers' top scorer, was a fine one: only three times in the last century did any Scottish team take a greater percentage of the points. But again, Celtic took the title, and that was all that mattered.
The final ignominy came at Hampden Park, when Ferguson allowed the man he should have been marking, Billy McNeill, to open the scoring two minutes into the 1969 Scottish Cup final Celtic won 4/0. He was admonished at half time by White and never played for Rangers again. Ferguson "might have stayed on" and his story might taken a different course had Rangers won, Jardine agreed. But he didn't, which is why, 41 years on, another victory walk on the blue carpet tonight would mean so much.
Sir Alex Ferguson averaged more than a goal every other game in his 17 years as a player, and his time at Ibrox was among the most prolific of his career.
Games/Goals/Goals per game
1957/60 Queen's Park 31-15/0.48
1960/64 St Johnstone 37-19/0.51
1964/67 Dunfermline 89-66/0.74
1967/69 Rangers 41-24/0.59
1969/73 Falkirk 95-36/0.38
1973/74 Ayr United 24-9/0.38