The first great Rangers team whose 'perfect season' remains unique in British football 122 years on
NOBODY at Rangers, not any of the players and certainly not the manager Steven Gerrard, is giving any thought to the prospect of going the entire 2020/21 Premiership season undefeated at the present moment.
The Ibrox club’s form has nosedived after the winter break in the last two years and there are still no fewer than 16 league fixtures to be safely negotiated – starting with a treacherous away match against Aberdeen at Pittodrie on Sunday.
The mantra in Govan in the coming weeks and months will remain “we’re taking one game at a time” despite the comfortable 19 point lead they hold over their city rivals and nearest challengers Celtic.
Yet, the impressive displays by James Tavernier and his team mates in the top flight this term have certainly prompted many fans, former players and pundits to predict they can become “Invincibles”.
Asked by Sky Sports if he thought it was a possibility this week, former Rangers forward and coach Peter Lovenkrands said: "Of course there is an opportunity that they can do that, definitely.
"The way they are going defensively, just five goals conceded in the league, that's quite incredible. If they can keep going like that, and defending the way they are, maybe they can go and do it."
If Gerrard’s men, who have won 20 and drawn just two of their 22 games to date in the Premiership, successfully maintain their unbeaten run, they will become the first Rangers side to complete a top flight schedule without losing in 122 years.
However, they will still not eclipse the achievements of their predecessors if they do so – William Wilton’s legendary charges won all 18 of their First Division matches in the 1898/99 campaign.
That is a feat that remains, more than a century later, unique in the annals of British football history.
And the only other European club to enjoy a “perfect season” is Ferencvaros of Hungary who triumphed in all 22 of their fixtures in the Nemet Bajnoksag I in 1931/32.
The tone for Rangers’ memorable campaign in 1898/99 was set in August with a resounding 6-2 triumph over Partick Thistle in their opening game. Robert Hamilton, their centre forward, scored a hat-trick. He would go on to plunder 21 goals in the league and 25 goals in total in all competitions.
A 4-0 victory over Celtic, the defending Scottish champions who had themselves gone unbeaten the previous season, at Parkhead followed in September.
But when Wilton’s team fell two goals down to Hibernian at Easter Road early on in their 11th outing in November it looked as if their hot streak of form was set to come crashing to an ignominious end.
However, second-half goals from James Miller and Alec Smith levelled proceedings before a late Hamilton strike and an injury-time Bobby Neil penalty ensured they prevailed.
In his autobiography, Smith later recalled: “During most of our gruelling game against Hibs it looked certain that we would be beaten. It was a desperate encounter.”
The rematch at Ibrox the following month was far more one-sided. The hosts were 5-0 up after 20 minutes and ended up winning 10-0. That is still their record victory over the capital club to this day.
Routine triumphs over St Mirren, Celtic and Clyde completed the “perfect season” in January.
The Rangers side that won the second of their 54 national titles – a world record they share jointly with Linfield of Northern Ireland – in the 1898/99 season is considered by many knowledgeable judges to be one of their finest ever.
“You could argue it was the first great Rangers team,” said historian and author Robert McElroy. “The 1893/94 side, which won three cups including their first Scottish Cup, would be another one. But they had many of the same players. Nicol Smith, Jock Drummond and John McPherson were all still there.
“The 1890s was an outstanding era for Rangers. The introduction of league football in 1890 changed things for them. Before that, clubs played friendlies and in cup competitions, the Glasgow Cup and the Scottish Cup. But there was a growing need for regular fixtures and the league was formed.
“Queen’s Park, the major club in Scotland, decided not to join because they believed, rightly as it turned out, that it would lead to professionalism. They believed strongly in the amateur code. That paved the way for Celtic and Rangers to become the biggest two clubs in the country.
“Celtic were founded by Catholic immigrants and Brother Walfrid, who wanted to raise funds for the Catholic poor of the East End of Glasgow. They were adopted by those who had come to Scotland from Ireland during the potato famine and very quickly became a dominant force in the land. The enjoyed considerable early success.
“Queen’s Park were the establishment club in many respects. If they hadn’t insisted on remaining amateur then they, not Rangers, could have become the club that stood against Celtic.
“The 1898/99 success wasn’t their first league championship. They had won the league jointly with Dumbarton in 1890/91. But Rangers would go on to win four successive league championships. They had become the strongest team in the country.”
Football in Scotland turned professional a couple of months after the league had ended in 1899, Rangers Football Club changed their name to Rangers Football Club Ltd as a result and honorary match secretary Wilton was appointed their first manager. The rest is history.
Yet, the 1898/99 season is still the only one in which the Ibrox club have ever gone undefeated, never mind won all of their fixtures, in a top flight season.
“They have come very close to it a couple of times,” said McElroy. “They lost just one game in 1928/29. They lost 3-1 at Hamilton of all places in late March. But by then they had won the league.
“In 1967/68 they were unbeaten until the very last game of the season and lost 3-2 at home to Aberdeen – who scored in the last minute. But even if they had won Celtic would still have won the Scottish title on goal difference”
A triumph over Aberdeen at Pittodrie on Sunday afternoon will go a long way towards helping Rangers to win the Premiership for the first time since 2011 - and will take them a small step closer to their second unbeaten top flight campaign 122 years after their first.