29 September ~ The abuse that rained down after Rangers' recent 0-0 Champions League draw at Old Trafford was peppered with one particular phrase: "anti-football". This was Lionel Messi's post-match jibe about Rangers' defensive style after a goalless draw with Barcelona at Ibrox in 2007. Considering we'd concede 13 goals in our next four Champions League home games, and that Puyol, Xavi and Iniesta – part of that tamed visiting side – would soon form the fulcrum of Spain's World Cup-winning team, it's a night which should glow even warmer in retrospect than it did when 50,000 wildly celebrated keeping Barça at bay. Yet Messi's frustrated outburst has been afforded far more credence than that result ever has.
Not objective, educated credence but the kind which counts – punter credence. In a country where every Rangers success inspires fear and hysteria among many rival supporters Messi's misinformed words were a godsend. It's inverted flattery, of course, but the disappointment is that no one could come up with anything more imaginative or even accurate. For me, defence is one third of football's key disciplines. A failure to appreciate it done well – particularly by fans of clubs who concede five to Sigma Olomuc or Artmedia Bratislava (erm, Aberdeen and Celtic!) – is to have no understanding of the game. Defence is football as much as midfield or attack.
"Anti-football" should surely be anything which involves sustained, nefarious acts of cheating or disrespect for your opponent. The kind perpetrated, say, by Estudiantes de La Plata in the 1960s and 70s which stopped European teams wanting to play in the World Club Championship. Or by the Argentine national team when they've just lost a World Cup quarter-final in Berlin and decide, instead of shaking their hands, to kick, punch and butt the shit out the German players. You'd think Messi would be familiar with this stuff.
Rangers had three players booked the night Lionel spat the dummy – just one more than Barcelona. Even in defence we never get too "anti". We conceded three goals in each of our last two games to drop into third in the group. Suddenly defending seemed like our weak point. Yet no one ever mocked us at this stage with cries of "pro-football". We just looked incompetent and that sufficed. But as we parachuted into the UEFA Cup and proceeded to get to the final by keeping it tight and scoring on the break or waiting for penalties, "anti-football" was used and abused until it corroded the façade of Rangers' best European run in 36 years. No matter that an SPL side was ousting Serie A and Bundesliga clubs. No matter that we had just one player sent off en route to the final. If the riot in Manchester couldn't be used to recast a Rangers achievement as humiliating for Scottish football then a wanton misrepresentation of our heroically pragmatic style was ready to wear.
It was brought out to air again on "Match Day 1" this season. Reducing Manchester United to hopeful shots by Darron Gibson and leaving with our goal intact and an unexpected point on the board would seem like the kind of result no one could argue with. And for those who don't think the result is the only true arbiter of quality, we had just two players booked, committed six fewer fouls than United and enjoyed 46 per cent possession. Obviously, plenty of non-Rangers fans are going to begrudge us this or any result but that's their job. That's the price of success all Bluenoses are only too happy to pay. It's half the fun. And, yes, we'd all prefer to see our team constantly swarm forward with menace and guile and slap in four or five goals for a seismic result. However, Rangers have made just one big-money signing in the last two years – and he's cup-tied for Europe. Wayne Rooney's transfer would fetch the kind of money which could buy everyone at Rangers, including the cleaners and burger bar staff, and Ibrox stadium itself. For us to hold the third-biggest club on the planet, on their own patch, is a freakin' miracle.
When Rangers had real money, we beat the Champions of England home and away to qualify for the Champions League group stages then went through that group unbeaten, scoring in every game except the last when a desperate CSKA Moscow put ten men behind the ball. We blamed ourselves for poor finishing. Walter Smith was the manager then and although Rangers won the Cup-Winners Cup in 1972 he's masterminded the club's best-ever runs in the other two, more important, European competitions. He did it however he could, but he never did anything against the game itself. He wouldn't know how. It's interesting how "anti-Football" scans almost perfectly with "I hate Rangers". It's more obvious why I've started to think of the outgoing Rangers manager as "Uncle Football". And Lionel Messi remains a poor wee boy who couldn't score at Ibrox. Alex Anderson