Soccer

MARK WILSON: For the blue tide of Rangers fans there was disappointment but also unmistakable pride


No journey was too long. No price was too high. No effort was spared. Not when there was a chance that an almost impossible dream might be transformed into technicolour reality.

A light blue tide swept its way towards Seville, carrying with it the hopes of a whole generation of Rangers fans. The power of that emotion seemed immense. Stronger even than the sun baking Andalusia’s capital throughout this red-letter day.

Two feelings still lingered in the breathless air above the Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan after Rafa Borre swept home Eintracht Frankfurt’s winning penalty in an agonising shoot-out.

Rangers fell agonisingly short in the Europa League final in front of thousands of loyal fans

Rangers fell agonisingly short in the Europa League final in front of thousands of loyal fans 

Aaron Ramsey was the only player to miss in the shootout as his central effort was saved

Aaron Ramsey was the only player to miss in the shootout as his central effort was saved

Eintracht Frankfurt celebrate the Europa League triumph after Santos Borre's winning penalty

Eintracht Frankfurt celebrate the Europa League triumph after Santos Borre’s winning penalty

There was obviously disappointment. Acutely so, given the scale of the opportunity that had just slipped away. But there was also unmistakable and intense pride.

Nine years on from winning promotion out of the old Third Division on the first step back up the league ladder, Rangers had gone the distance in the Europa League final. The extraordinary scale of the feat cannot be masked by defeat.

Those present will tell the stories for years to come. Not just of the epic mobilisation to southern Spain, but of the unforgettable wins over Borussia Dortmund, Red Star Belgrade and RB Leipzig that took them here. Frankfurt ultimately proved an opponent too far, yet this run has defined a group of players and taken supporters to heights that had them rubbing their eyes in disbelief.

Their slogan in stands had been: ‘Make us dream’. No-one could claim those they watch had not delivered. A first European trophy in 50 years was brought to within touching distance before it was shifted, excruciatingly, just out of reach.

When Joe Aribo rolled a left foot shot under Kevin Trapp, the eruption of joy would have registered on the Richter scale. For 12 minutes, it seemed as through the Barcelona Bears were about to gain company within the club’s pantheon. And that a reward in excess of £50 million might be making its way towards Ibrox.

It wasn’t to be. Borre’s equaliser brought extra-time before the cruel torture of a shoot-out. Of course it went to penalties. That was all this campaign had been missing.

After nine months, 17 Europa League games, 24 goals and one valiant last push, the story did not end with the birth of a legend to stand beside 1972.

When Joe Aribo rolled the ball in, the eruption of joy would have registered on the Richter scale

When Joe Aribo rolled the ball in, the eruption of joy would have registered on the Richter scale

A first European trophy in 50 years was brought to within touching distance in Seville

A first European trophy in 50 years was brought to within touching distance in Seville 

But it has reframed what is considered possible. And given hope to prominent clubs from smaller leagues throughout Europe. Finance and UEFA policy may be stacked against them, but there can still be a way to reach the biggest stages. To dare to dream.

Of course, that wasn’t much consolation to those beginning the long journey home. Tens of thousands of Ibrox fans made the trip to Spain, with some of those in Seville given a chance to mix with Rangers royalty.

Injured striker Alfredo Morelos – such a vital Europa League contributor – caused delight when he donned a bucket hat to take to the streets for a spot of meeting-and-greeting earlier in the day.

All sorts of stories could be found in the cafes and bars of this beautiful city. Supporters had come from as far afield as Australia and California and just about every location in between. Bank balances were emptied. Trials of endurance were borne with smiles.

Consider the case of Chris Lewis, a 59-year-old taxi driver Sportsmail met outside the stadium on Tuesday. Talk about a busman’s holiday.

All sorts of stories could be found in the cafes and bars of this beautiful city on Wednesday

All sorts of stories could be found in the cafes and bars of this beautiful city on Wednesday

Filling up his 15-year-old car with petrol, he drove with partner Helena Turnbull from Glasgow to Portsmouth. That trek of 450-miles was just the warm-up. A 28-hour ferry to Santander on Spain’s northern coast was next. Then a further drive of 515 miles south to sleep in a tent at a campsite on the outskirts of Seville.

‘The showers at the site are not bad so we’re fine,’ laughed Chris. For Helena, this was about family as much as football. ‘My dad went to Barcelona in 1972, the year I was born,’ she said. ‘So I’m representing him over here as well. He’s not here because his passport’s run out.’ That story could be replicated many times over. This was for this those stuck at home. Or those no longer with us.

Walter Smith’s two sons, Neil and Steven, and his grandsons, Zac, Tom, Jack and Adam, were here in Seville. The passing of Rangers’ greatest manager of the modern era last November sent a jolt of profound grief through the club and all of its followers.

Winning it for Walter – and for veteran kitman Jimmy Bell – added another deep layer of motivation.

Striker Alfredo Morelos caused delight when he donned a bucket hat to take to the streets

Striker Alfredo Morelos caused delight when he donned a bucket hat to take to the streets

Eleven-year-old Zac smiled when asked how it felt for the family to know they had been in the thoughts of so many supporters throughout this European run.

‘It’s weird to think because he’s our papa and he’s done all this for Rangers,’ Zac told a BBC Scotland reporter.

‘Obviously my papa made it to the final and didn’t win it – we’re trying to make up for that today.’ Of course, he was referring to 2008 final in Manchester, which took place when he hadn’t yet been born. That 2-0 defeat to a wealthy Zenit St Petersburg bore out most of the neutral pre-match predictions. This was different.. This felt like a 50-50 shot at glory. A final on a knife-edge. And so it proved.

A rapturous roar greeted Van Bronckhorst’s squad when they appeared for their first walk on the pitch around 90 minutes before kick-off. The volume was further turned up by the time of the warm-up – if such a term actually applies in such sweltering conditions.

Calvin Bassey stood still for a moment, looking to the skies in silent prayer as his eardrums reverberated. The least experienced member of the Rangers side, Bassey’s exceptional improvement has been one of the defining elements of this adventure.

Ryan Kent had a brilliant chance in extra-time to win it but Kevin Trapp made a stunning stop

Ryan Kent had a brilliant chance in extra-time to win it but Kevin Trapp made a stunning stop 

Frankfurt in the end were the winners and lifted the Europa League trophy on Wednesday night

Frankfurt in the end were the winners and lifted the Europa League trophy on Wednesday night

He wasn’t the only one who looked nervous in the early stages. The Ibrox side were distinctly jittery but had grown into the final by the end of a tight, edgy opening period.

The second half began with smoke billowing from flares ignited in the equally noisy Frankfurt end, alongside the waving of white flags. Rangers hoped they could force something similar on the pitch.

Aribo thought he had. But Frankfurt weren’t willing to surrender. Come the shoot-out, none of their players missed. Aaron Ramsey did. And the dream was over.

Come the shoot-out, none of their players missed - Aaron Ramsey did, and the dream was over

Come the shoot-out, none of their players missed – Aaron Ramsey did, and the dream was over 



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