A very Scottish revolution
Edwin Van Der Sar's recent run of clean sheets has seen him crack record after record. After polishing off marks made by Petr Cech and Steve Death, the wonderfully-named Reading custodian of the seventies, the Dutchman could this weekend surpass British football's record number of 1196 minutes without a goal conceded.
The accomplishment to be surpassed is that of a goalkeeper playing for a club hugely proud of being British and its current holder was an England goalkeeper playing in the Scottish league. Chris Woods, then of Rangers, kept clean sheets from November 26 1986, when he conceded a goal in a UEFA Cup 1-1 draw with Borussia Moenchengladbach, until 14 games later on January 30 1987 when Adrian Sprott of Hamilton Academicals knocked the Gers out of the Scottish Cup via a single goal.
Woods, who understudied the legendary Peter Shilton at both the 1986 and 1990 World Cups, continues to jealously guard his record as the Manchester United keeper approaches his unblemished number of minutes. The former Nottingham Forest, QPR, Norwich and Sheffield Wednesday has pointed out that Van Der Sar missed United's cup games against both Derby and Tottenham and that his record cannot compare with his run of consecutive games played, also keenly reminding the Daily Record last week that his run "included European and Old Firm matches".
Whatever your feelings on Scottish football, Woods' achievement is one to be lauded and happened at a time when football north of the border was far more competitive than its current two-horse race. Just a couple of weeks before Woods began that unbeaten run, Alex Ferguson had departed Aberdeen to take over from Ron Atkinson at Old Trafford. The previous season had seen Hearts head the Scottish Premier Division until a late catastrophe had let in Celtic on the last day of the season.
And for a brief period in the late eighties, Scottish football could guarantee players something its English equivalent could not: European football. By 1986 a post-Heysel ban had tempted a number of the old First Division's stars to foreign shores. While the likes of Lineker, Francis, Wilkins and eventually Rush would be tempted on to the continent, the arrival on the scene of a big-spending Scottish club opened a new avenue to English players.
The catalyst for this reversal of the status quo was the arrival of Graeme Souness as player-manager at Ibrox Park in the summer of 1986. Succeeding the old-school drill-sergeant that was Jock Wallace, Souness arrived in Glasgow fresh from his own playing spell on the continent with Sampdoria.
One of Souness' caveats was the ability to spend like no Scottish club had ever done previously and arrest nearly a decade of under-achievement. Owner Lawrence Marlborough and chairman David Holmes provided the finance for the former Liverpool captain to reverse over a century of a tradition of the best Scottish players heading to play in England.
In signing Woods from Norwich and, from Ipswich, central defender Terry Butcher, Souness signed two players coveted by their home country's biggest clubs. Ron Atkinson has long said he felt the writing was on the wall for him at United when chairman Martin Edwards refused to bankroll a deal for Butcher, then England vice-captain. In truth, none of the English clubs could compete with Rangers on transfer fees and wages.
The balance of British power, for once, lay in Scotland though it was Rangers alone of the Scottish clubs who had such clout. Across town Celtic were beginning to enter a downturn in fortunes, both financial and footballing, which would take them over a decade to recover from. The "New Firm" of Aberdeen, Dundee United and Hearts that had superceded Rangers for much of the decade would soon fade in the wake of Ibrox domination.
Souness' first English signing had been Watford striker Colin West, whose failure and limited appearances were a portent of some later reckless Souness spending. Woods and Butcher however were just the ticket required to steady a ship that had been lurching for years. The Gers were on the way to their first title in nine years.
As ever with Souness, there were flashpoints. His very first game in charge saw the player-manager forget his responsibilities with a positively x-rated assault on Hibernian's George McCluskey. He was dismissed after an on-pitch melee which saw just about every player involved. The loss of Souness after just 30 minutes gave his new team little chance and they lost 2-1 at Easter Road. The manager himself later spoke of his shame at being sent off in his home city of Edinburgh with his father watching from the stands.
The new regime began shakily with two defeats in three games before an August 31 win over Celtic set the stage for a shift in Auld Firm power. When Woods began his sequence of impregnability, Rangers were nine points behind their rivals with a game in hand. By the time he was finally breached, Rangers were just two points behind the Bhoys and had a game in hand (though it was still two points for a win). On March 7, Souness' team went top on goal difference and stayed there the rest of the season, even off-setting a defeat at Parkhead in early April. A 3-0 home thumping of Hearts on April 25, courtesy of an Ally McCoist hat-trick, all but confirmed that first league title of the decade. A 1-1 draw with Aberdeen a week later was the rubberstamping.
That success, matched by a lifting of the Skol Cup in October, was built on foundations laid by the defence in front of Woods. The goalkeeper himself has paid tribute to the defenders in front of him, saying: "It was a terrific achievement, not only for myself but for defenders such as Terry Butcher, Stuart Munro, Graham Roberts, Dave McPherson and Jimmy Nicholl." Roberts was another English signing, the hard man who had captained Spurs to the UEFA Cup in 1984. Ulsterman Nicholl was in his second spell at Ibrox, having been re-signed from West Brom. Munro and McPherson were the only non-Souness signings.
That season's success gave Souness carte blanche to do things his way. And that way was revolutionary in the face of the traditions of Scottish football. New Year's Eve 1987 saw him purchase Rangers' first black player of the modern era in Mark Walters. July 1989 saw Souness take another giant step with the signing of Mo Johnston, a Roman Catholic who had formerly played for Celtic. Neither were firsts for the club but both signings opened doors long closed at Ibrox that remain open now.
Should Van Der Sar emulate and overtake Woods' 1196 minutes of security at West Ham on Sunday, then he will be masking a reminder of an era that was truly extraordinary in British football history.