RANGERS' pre-cup final build-up was tinged with sadness yesterday when their young defender, Alan McLaren, officially announced his retirement from football.

An emotional McLaren talked at Ibrox of the total devastation he felt in being forced to give up the game he loved.

Rangers manager Walter Smith said he was deeply disappointed for the player, someone he felt had still so much to offer, both as a Rangers captain and a future Scottish one as well.

McLaren, still only 26, said he had known before Ian Durrant's testimonial match, in which he played last month, that he had lost his battle against injury.

With tears in his eyes, McLaren looked back over his playing career from which he said he would take some wonderful memories. ''I don't feel bitter towards anybody because my playing career is over,'' he said. ''I have been in the game 11 years and that's longer than some people.

''I have captained both Hearts, Rangers, played for Scotland, won three league titles and one Scottish Cup medal. If you had told me when I was 16 I would achieve all that, I would have taken it straight away. I have a whole lot of good memories and have no regrets.''

McLaren said Rangers had spared no expense in trying to help him regain fitness and would be paying his way through a business studies and administration course at Edinburgh's Stevenson College, with the possibility of a job offer at the end of it.

''All the people about to play their last game for the club in the cup final adds to the emotion for me,'' he continued. ''I didn't want to scupper any plans here for the league run-in by announcing it any sooner, but the gaffer said let's just do it. I'm devastated but life goes on.''

He said he could have had yet another operation on his injured knee, but there was no guarantee it would have been successful. He paid tribute to the club, which he said had done everything they could.

Team-mate Gordon Durie last night paid tribute to McLaren. ''It is very sad for someone of that age to be in that predicament. He had the world at his feet and he will be very sadly missed.

''For Alan, the manager, and the boys who are leaving, it would be good to get a result on Saturday.''

Assistant manager Archie Knox was another who contemplated life without Rangers yesterday, but he insisted that the side's dominance in his seven years at Ibrox has not doused his passion for success.

''I do not have any plans yet as to where I'll be going,'' he said. ''I have no thoughts at present other than trying to win on Saturday. But I have no complaints about leaving - I have had seven great years here - although I was disappointed to lose out on the championship this season.''

Knox, who joined Walter Smith after helping Alex Ferguson to reconstruct his Manchester United side, admitted that leaving another British footballing institution will not properly sink in until after the cup final.

Reflecting on the golden years, Knox said: ''Every season had its big moments, but winning the treble was a really big one. I can say that the excitement of picking up trophies is always high - if you ever lose that feeling then it's time to say 'right, I'm not getting the same enjoyment out of it any more'.''

While he aims to depart in the manner in which he has carried out his duties as assistant - as an aggressive winner - he did confess that the sickening prospect of ending his final season bereft of silverware ''has flashed through my mind''.

Knox concluded that he has been asked by Craig Brown to fly to France with several other premier division coaches to observe the tactics and techniques of some of the teams on show. He is also on the verge of taking part in a European licensing course, which will be held in Largs.

qGLASGOW Lord Provost Pat Lally, a season ticket holder at Parkhead, said yesterday he wanted Rangers to win the Scottish Cup for the sake of manager Walter Smith.

Provost Lally, who was at Parkhead for the league championship celebrations on Saturday, said he had not shed any tears over the Ibrox club's lean season so far.

However, he added: ''I am a great admirer of Walter Smith, and want them to win the cup for Walter in his final year.''

His comments came at a knockabout verbal sparring session with his Edinburgh counterpart, Eric Milligan, at Parkhead yesterday. Both men had come to the ground to give their views on Saturday's final.

Provost Lally continued: ''The Lord Provost must reflect the views of the city and it would be a morale boost if Rangers do win for people in our city. In fact, if they do win it will prove that God is a Glaswegian.''

Provost Milligan said he felt Rangers had better quality players than Hearts, mostly because of the sheer size of the Glasgow club, but felt the time had come for his favourites to win a major trophy.

qHEARTS' Thomas Flogel is facing World Cup heartbreak.

The Austrian, currently preparing for the final, will be left out of his country's squad for France 98. National coach Herbert Prohaska names his final 22 in Vienna on Monday, but Austrian reports have confirmed that Flogel has no chance of being included.

Prohaska considered the attacking midfielder after his excellent early season form helped push Hearts to the top of the premier table. However, he was disappointed at Flogel's lack of regular first-team involvement towards the end of the campaign.