IT has been portrayed as a matter of belief.
But Alex Rae knows the journey to the summit of a title demands more than a simple leap of faith.
“Alex McLeish got a psychologist into the dressing-room 10 games before the end of the season,” said Rae, recalling the climax to the 2004-2005 campaign
“But we had great belief and strong wills in that dressing-room -- a real strong bunch -- but there has to be moments when you believe it is a bridge too far,” said the former Rangers midfielder. The title was won, of course, on Helicopter Sunday when Rangers defeated Hibernian at Easter Road and Celtic lost to Motherwell at Fir Park.
“I was a strong-minded player so I was always determined to win, always had my eyes on the positive,” he said. “But after the defeat in the Old Firm game that season there was a situation where Celtic were five points ahead with four games to play. And it was a more than decent Celtic team. You can do all the believing you like but in those situations you need help from others.”
Rae said he woke up on the morning of May 22, 2005, with hope rather than expectation. “I have said many times that my wife was away in New York. I was maybe preparing for the worst. I did not really believe that Motherwell could turn that Celtic team over.”
Rae does not stint in his praise of some of the figures that led Rangers to the championship. “The manager was brilliant and there were substantial characters in the team. [Dado] Prso was a real team leader on the pitch which is unusual from a striker. He bought into the club and was a true driving force. Marvin Andrews was magnificent. He was always cheery and positive, always wearing T-shirts with the words: ‘Keep believing.’”
Rae also points out the strength and quality of others in the team. “Fernando Ricksen and [Sotirios] Kyrgiakos were important players for us and Shota Arveladze was an important character,” he said.
However, Rae knows that titles have to be chiselled out of tough games and he believed the momentum turned in 2005 when Rangers travelled to Aberdeen a full three weeks before Helicopter Sunday.
“We had been beaten in the Old Firm match, there was no doubt we knew that the title was far away, and we were travelling to a tough place. Prso played great and we won and that put us back in the race,” he said.
He believes that both sides of the Old Firm have difficult games before the end of the season. “There appears to be a feeling that both teams can win all their games but when you are playing after the split you are facing good teams who love to defeat the Old Firm on their grounds.”
He knows that the pressures on both camps will be intense. “Basically, you can not explain it to anybody who does has not experienced it,” he said. Rae, who was released by Rangers as a youngster, added: “I had played senior football for 17 years before I came back. I had been with Millwall, Sunderland and Wolves - all big clubs with demanding supporters. But the Old Firm is different.
“You are just under scrutiny all the time. The media pressure is amazing. Every game is dissected, every day carries another story. When you go to the nursery to pick up the kids, then you receive the benefit of the wisdom of both sides of the divide. If you draw a game, it is a disaster.”
Rae, who was at the Old Firm match on Sunday, is confident both sides have “the bottle” to keep their respective challenges going. “I was very impressed by the way that Celtic stood up to the physical side of the game. They may have been a wee bit disappointed in that regard in the [Co-operative Insurance] cup final but they withstood everything on Sunday,” he said.
“Both sides seemed full of players who were determined to win the title for their managers. Both sides seem strong mentally. You need that when playing for the Old Firm.”
Rae states quite bluntly that the Old Firm experience can “consume” players. “You watch guys arrive on the scene, look promising and then disappear. It is an unforgiving environment,” said Rae who experienced the Rangers drama in his mid-thirties.
The Glaswegian is the epitome of the “football man” and is now suffering as he is deprived of day-to-day involvement after he left Notts County in the wake of the sacking of Paul Ince. The parting of ways has offered Rae the chance to spend more time with his family but he is desperate to become involved again in the game he loves.
“Things might open up in the close season and I would love to coach or manage again as soon as possible,” he said.
His take on the climax to the season is that it will be settled by a decision or a stroke of good fortune. “This season has been heavily marked by refereeing controversies and it may just be one of them that provides the drama and puts the title in one camp,” he said.