Ryan Kent slipping the ball past Kevin Trapp, Connor Goldson not breaking the habit of the competition and making a defensive error, a smidge higher from Aaron Ramsey on his penalty, those were the margins that might have stood between Rangers and glory. It is frankly hard to believe that they ever got so close.
The age in which provincial superpowers were serious contenders for Europe’s biggest honors was supposed to have passed us by. Even the second tier Europa League is a prize to be fought over by big names. Of its last 13 winners, 12 have come from the Premier League, La Liga and now, with Eintracht Frankfurt’s name etched on the trophy, the Bundesliga. Since Rangers were last in the final back in 2008 only two teams from outside Europe’s top six leagues have been beaten in the final, Ukrainian side Dnipro and Ajax.
UEFA tacitly acknowledged as much this season. If clubs such as Rangers were going to be lifting continental trophies in May they would have to do it in the newly created Europa Conference League. Not quite. On another night this Rangers team would have been worthy winners, a team who had got to Seville the hard way, two of the competition’s biggest powers sent home from Ibrox baffled as to how they had been outclassed by Scotland’s second best team.
Football is won on the balance sheets in 2022 and frankly Rangers, a great white shark in a garden pond, should not be able to compete. Even Eintracht Frankfurt, a midtable Bundesliga club, earn twice as much in revenue as their Glasgow opponents. In 2019-20 the Slipper Kickers — nicknamed for the shoe manufacturer that bankrolled them in the 1920s — had commercial and advertising revenue 10 times greater than the $3.7million Rangers earned. Oliver Glasner’s side may hardly have the financial muscle of the Premier League but they did at least merit a place in the 2019-20 Deloitte Football Money League. Rangers were not worthy of even a mention.
And yet for all the inequality of the pitch these were two evenly matched teams on it, separated only by Trapp’s trailing boot that blocked Ramsey’s penalty after 120 minutes played out to a 1-1 draw.
This was hardly fare of the highest imaginable quality. Two teams that had reached the final sitting deep, picking their moments and rifling through opponents on the counter seemed ill equipped to break down disciplined defensive lines. Even the quicksilver Ryan Kent, as full of impudence and incision as ever, found there was always one more defender to charm his way past.
The stalemate was only going to be torn apart by a mistake. For a split second one might have imagined that it would be John Lundstram’s high boot on Sebastian Rode, a diabolical challenge unworthy of any player whose name is chanted to Belinda Carlisle’s power pop classic Heaven is a Place on Earth. That he escaped without so much as a yellow card was baffling.
Lundstram made the most of his reprieve and in the first half Rangers were able to drain Frankfurt’s energy reserves with extended spells of possession. They weren’t cutting through the defense but then you wondered if that might have been Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s plan all along; wear them down and trust that Frankfurt bodies and minds would tire in the pressure cooker heat.
It actually paid off. Goldson was yet again first to an aerial duel, Rode misjudged the flight of a looping ball and could only manage to flick it on towards Joe Aribo. Tuta went sliding to the floor. So did the Rangers forward, who had run himself to the ground chasing long balls into the channel or dropping into midfield. It was just that he did so as he rolled the ball beyond Kevin Trapp. A hundred thousand or more cries of delight flew into the Sevilla air. Fifty years on from Barcelona and the Cup Winners’ Cup it was happening again.
What followed, however, was perhaps the spell of European final worthy quality that one team in its entirety produced. Filip Kostic, always a menace but somewhat quelled after Frankfurt’s bright start, finally began to exert pressure, culminating in a fizzing cross to the near post.
For once Goldson was not in position to thump the ball to safety, the one flaw in this masterpiece of a defensive performance punished as Rafael Borre ghosted in at the near post. The former Shrewsbury Town center back had been very good. His partner Calvin Bassey was something else indeed. Across Europe clubs must have been salivating at this 22 year old who dominates his forwards like a veteran.
Even his fleeting mistake felt more like a chance for Bassey to prove his excellence. Yes he might have slipped at the start of extra time but he was back up in an instant, aiding Allan McGregor’s efforts to deny Borre from what had seemed to be a prime position. He will not be the only star of this side who will be catching the eye of wealthier rivals; smart recruiters will see the likes of Kent, Glen Kamara and Aribo as prime talents who can be secured at a relatively knockdown price.
That is perhaps what makes this defeat even harder to bear. There may not be another chance to go again. Teams this good tend to get stripped for parts. As well as Rangers (and their Scottish rivals Celtic) have recruited in recent years there is no guarantee at all that they can build back better.
Tired legs could scarcely muster up much until the dog days of extra time. Kemar Roofe, thrown on with penalties in mind, chased a long ball to the byline and crossed low. If anyone deserved to win the game it was Kent but Trapp would not be beaten, a trailing left leg blocking from close range before Steven Davis drove over. Five more minutes of extra time and Rangers might have won it, Tavernier drawing another late save with a free kick slowly bending into the top corner.
Perhaps they feared what a shootout against the inimitable Trapp might bring for them. Four excellent penalties were dispatched beyond the German but on every occasion Frankfurt answered back with authority. Ramsey struck his effort firmly enough down the middle, slightly higher and there would have been no chance for the German international. But as it was, Eintracht’s keeper’s trailing leg was equal tothe chance. Borre fired high into the net, McGregor as without hope for this effort as the other four that had already flown beyond him, and that was that.
Tears tumbled onto the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan. Fifty years after Rangers’ first and last European trophy, these players had really started to believe that they might be able to achieve something that is supposed to be beyond them. It was. But only just.