RANGERS had been simply the best on their way to European glory. Ajax proved that they were better than all the rest.
It was a time of Dutch dominance, a period that may never be seen again. As domestic honours were won with regularity, Ajax established themselves as one of the finest sides ever assembled and their second European Cup came in the campaign that saw the Bears crowned in Barcelona.
Ajax were not content with their lot in terms of trophies or status. When the idea of a Super Cup was devised, it was almost written in the stars that the exponents of Total Football would be the first winners.
Rangers had earned the right to play in that innovative fixture and the moment, or so it seemed at the time, could not have been better. On January 16, 1973, Ajax arrived in Glasgow to mark what was thought to be Rangers’ centenary as the two champions of the continent met for the first time.
“It was really important at that time because it covered a whole range of aspects for Rangers,” David Mason, the Rangers club historian and author, told Herald and Times Sport. “We were still serving a ban after Barcelona so we needed European football and the opportunity came up because it was the centenary, or so it was believed that 1973 was the centenary, to play this match. The club went into that January with a calendar of events and this was the first big one.
“I gather the reason that it was unofficial was that Rangers were banned from Europe at the time so UEFA couldn’t sanction it as a Super Cup because Rangers weren’t allowed to play in Europe. It had to be a privately arranged event but UEFA then saw the success of the match and carried it forward from there.”
The idea has stood the test of time and the fixture between the winners of what is now the Champions League and the Europa League is the precursor to every campaign. Had fate dealt Rangers a kinder hand in Seville, they would have taken on another giant of the game and faced Real Madrid in Helsinki last summer.
The Super Cup is now very much a UEFA production but it was the brainchild of Dutch journalist Anton Witkamp as a reporter with lofty ambitions and a line to the corridors of power helped revolutionise European football. It was a time when the Fourth Estate held considerable sway and De Telegraph would lead the way.
Jaap de Groot worked with Witkamp, who passed away in 2011, at De Telegraph. He laments the direction of the newspaper, which he left four years ago, right now but speaks with pride at the halcyon days of Telesport that saw the title drive the formation of the Amsterdam Tournament and the Gouden Schoen, the Dutch Golden Boot award.
“We had to show our authority outside Holland so when Ajax won the European Cup for the second time the idea came up for him to do something special,” de Groot said of Witkamp, a man who changed the course of a conservative Dutch press with a pioneering outlook on sports coverage. “Anton was very close with the President of Ajax, Jaap van Praag.
“He put the idea to him and Jaap said they would give it a try and see and then Anton contacted a Scottish journalist and he made contact with Rangers. They put the chairmen together and then there was a game.
The great Johan Cruyff.
Rangers v Ajax 1973. pic.twitter.com/XL2YplrTEJ
— Joe (@JMorrison1987) September 6, 2022
“It was the right time, the right moment and the right idea. For De Telegraph, it was a signal for us to do more of these things. These things were in the DNA of De Telegraph.”
On a January evening at Ibrox, it was the genes and genius of Total Football that Rangers fans witnessed. Alex MacDonald equalised for Jock Wallace’s side after a Johnny Rep opener but goals from Johan Cruyff and Arie Haan secured a merited, mesmerising victory for the Dutch masters.
The memories of the night are still vivid for Mason. The sight of Ajax in full flow was one to behold, but there was an emotion and pride at what it meant for Rangers as their illustrious history was celebrated – with a chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’ pre-match – just months after their finest hour.
Children from Bellahouston Academy and Govan High, in the colours of 38 opposition sides, carried flags representing the nations of all the teams Rangers had played in European competition around the pitch after music from the City of Glasgow Police Pipe Band. The kick-off was taken by Andy Cunningham, a stalwart of the famous and successful side of the 1920s and a lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery during the First World War.
“Everyone knew how good Ajax were at that time having seen European Cup finals on the television,” Mason said. “They were twice winners by that time so they were already well renowned for the quality of the football they played.
“Rangers were a great team at that time as well. We were top of the league, after a terrible start, and had just beaten Celtic a couple of weeks earlier.
“It was a Rangers team that were in transition but we were playing a team that were exceptional and they showed it that night. We actually played well in the return match and were in the lead twice against them but they managed to recover and win the second leg as well.
“I think Rangers emerged with a lot of respect from it. But what stood in the minds of a lot of the fans that I have spoken to since then was the opinion that I had and that Cruyff was just exceptional, a different class.”
Mason collected a memento from the evening on his way out of Ibrox. A post-match pyrotechnic display had filled the night sky and a spent rocket that landed in his path was gathered and taken home as a keepsake by the man who now oversees the wonderful array of trophies, tokens and trinkets in the treasure trove that is the Ibrox Trophy Room.
The Cup Winners’ Cup still takes pride of place there. MacDonald had played his part in the semi-final win over the great Bayern Munich and final triumph against Dynamo Moscow but the challenge of overcoming a side that beat Panathinaikos, Inter Milan and Juventus in three successive European Cups proved too great for even the most famous of Rangers teams.
“Big Jock had told us to go out and enjoy ourselves,” MacDonald said. “But he wasn’t too happy when we came back in after losing three goals!
“I was lucky enough to score that night but we were playing against a team full of players where every one of them was of the highest calibre. Cruyff was obviously the star but Rep and Haan scored as well and they had an exceptionally good team.”
MacDonald scored within two minutes in the return fixture the following week to reduce Rangers’ arrears and they led again through Quinton Young. Haan, Gerrie Muhren and Cruyff struck in a 3-2 victory, however, and Ajax would retain their crown the following season as the first UEFA backed Super Cup saw them defeat AC Milan 6-1 on aggregate.
“We knew they were good and we had seen them on television, especially Cruyff,” MacDonald said. “But when you are playing against them it is completely different. Watching them is fine because you can turn the telly off! I think the nearest I got to Cruyff was going down the tunnel.
“We played it a bit tighter in the second game than we did the first and we gave a good account of ourselves over both ties.
“It was a great fixture to be part of and to have the two European winners play each other. It was something we looked forward to and something we enjoyed and the idea is still going on now.”
That first Super Cup tie further enshrined the majesty and mastery of Ajax and the relationship between the pre-eminent clubs in their respective nations was rekindled during the Champions League fixtures this term. A Dutch clock that was presented to Rangers, who handed over an amethyst gift in return, remains on display at Ibrox alongside the pennants from the historic matches.
Hugh Nelson, then President of the Scottish FA, handed over a silver salver to commemorate the triumph in Barcelona and every Ajax player received an inscribed trophy, presentation box of Scotch whisky and a pennant as speeches were made in the Social Club.
The Super Cup, like Witkamp himself, still endures to this day. De Groot jokes that his former mentor had the height of Jimmy Johnstone but a way with words that earned him respect and influence in equal measure.
De Telegraph were ahead of their time in their in-depth coverage of The Majors in tennis and golf and Witkamp even covered the World Chess Championship match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in Reyjavik. Time will tell if the Press assemble in Kazan, Russia, next summer when the next two European title holders meet for the ultimate accolade.
On display in the .@AFCAjax_EN Museum, a gold medal & match programs from the first ever European Super Cup match in 1973 between Rangers and Ajax. pic.twitter.com/0nvf0l9xuK
— Rangers History (@RangersFACTS) November 28, 2019
“I think it was a complete surprise for him,” De Groot said. “They thought it was a good idea and it was worth a try but would never have thought that 50 years later it would still have such an enormous impact on football.
“Now UEFA use it as a game in countries that can’t organise one of the big European finals. It is a good way to have other countries have international players in their environment and it is nice to have it at the beginning of the season. It is a useful fixture for the promotion of European football for UEFA.
“It is a real pride for us but Anton would never have thought it would have turned out this way. With nice ideas, they come spontaneously.”