“It was more a disbelief of ‘what’s just happened?’, because it shouldn’t have happened.”
Former Rangers striker Kenny Miller – now with Partick Thistle – remembers the shock that engulfed him on 4 July 2017 as the Ibrox club suffered the worst European result in their history.
A game which started with a 1-0 aggregate lead against Luxembourg minnows Progres Niederkorn, ended in elimination from the Europa League and manager Pedro Caixinha remonstrating with fans in a hedge.
As the sides prepare to meet in the second round of Europa League qualifying on Thursday, Miller recounts one of the lows in his career as Rangers fell at the first hurdle in their first European campaign for five years.
Miller’s calm finish won the first leg at Ibrox 1-0, a deserved but slightly frustrating victory which set up an unnecessarily testing return in Luxembourg. That being so, were there any problems in the build-up to the second leg?
“No, not at all, you’re going into the game not only knowing that you’re taking a lead into it, but confident that you can go on and win the game,” Miller says.
“So there was nothing, no negative feelings. It was just like any game at that stage of the season, where if you don’t get up to the required levels quickly, it’s hard to then raise them within the game, particularly when a team’s got a lead now to hold on to.”
66 mins: Progres 1-0 Rangers
A goalless first half meant Rangers were still ahead in the tie, even if their performance on the night had been uninspiring. A goal by Emmanuel Francoise levelled things on aggregate – but panic was not about to set in yet for Caixinha’s players.
“You lose goals in games and have setbacks but it’s about bouncing back,” Miller says. “I remember still thinking ‘we’re in the game, all we need to do is get a goal’. If we’d scored, they’d need another two.”
75 mins: 2-0 Progres
But it was the hosts who struck the crucial next blow. Sebastien Thill curled in a free-kick from the right which evaded everyone and crept into the net to send the Progres players wild, and their opponents staring in disbelief.
“There’s no doubt that there was an element of shock within the team and on the bench as well,” Miller says. “But again, my sole focus as one of the more experienced players was to try to re-focus the team. We did not go into it complacent because they came and made life tough at Ibrox. We knew what we were going to be facing, so there were no excuses.”
Full time and the aftermath
Miller hit the bar with a clever lob in the dying moments as Rangers desperately chased the goal that would have put them through on away goals, but soon after came the final whistle and the embarrassment of being Progres’ first victims in European football. They had only ever scored once in European competition before that evening.
The Rangers players trudged back to the dressing room as their opposition celebrated on the pitch to Queen’s ‘We Are The Champions’. So was the away dressing room a cauldron of rage, or a place of stunned silence?
“From what I can remember it was more the latter,” Miller says. “For all the build-up and the dream to achieve European football again and talk of reaching the group stages, it was more of a disbelief of what had happened, because it shouldn’t have.”
For all the drama on the pitch, the game is perhaps best remembered for an infamous post-match picture of Caixinha. The passionate Portuguese was faced with vocal fans calling for his dismissal as he exited the stadium. But, rather than put his head down and walk on, he attempted to talk with them while standing in the middle of a hedge.
“It probably wasn’t advised,” says Miller. “But, knowing the man, I could see where he was coming from – he was probably trying to calm them down and ease their minds and say ‘listen it’s a poor result, but moving forward we’ll be fine, the team will get better and get stronger’.
“But the fans don’t want to hear that at that time. They had paid a lot of money and they’ve travelled, and it’s probably one of the worst results in the club’s history – if not the worst result. It wasn’t the right time to try to ease fans’ minds because it was raw – really, really raw.”