When it comes to football in times of abrupt adversity, it is simple, if not logical, to jump ship to a more propitious path, or so it is often perceived in the modern game. Alas, the once habitual nature of players to remain loyal to their beloved club is saluted and, at times, met with contentious surprise due to it’s current state of novelty.
Even in the more prevalent examples of loyalty within the last decade, be it Francesco Totti at Roma or Steven Gerrard at Liverpool, it is arguable that aspects of adversity even come into play throughout two somewhat unfulfilled, but largely successful careers at two great teams. There is one instance, however, that fits this criteria to a tee, only with an unfathomable tale of misfortune throughout it’s fascinating narrative.
Following six impressive years with Wigan Athletic which saw him earn two Premier League promotions alongside an appearance in the League Cup final, Lee McCulloch left Lancashire for Lanarkshire in 2007 with hopes of winning some more distinguished silverware on more familiar Scottish soil.
In spite of injury upon injury in his first two seasons, the multifaceted midfielder got exactly what he came for and more upon his arrival at Rangers. During this spell, McCulloch featured in four finals, losing out to Zenit St. Petersburg in the 2008 UEFA Cup, but winning successive Scottish Cups as part of two domestic doubles, the first of which came alongside a Scottish League Cup; the second, accompanied by the club’s first league title for five years.
Proceedings only progressed from then on, particularly from a participation standpoint. The Scotsman featured over 70 times in the two spectacular terms that followed. A further two Premier League and League Cup triumphs were collected with relative ease as the Gers cruised back to the top of Scottish football.
No disrespect to Wigan, who had sustained their top-flight place for a seventh straight season, but it’s fair to say McCulloch made a wise decision, having proudly held aloft eight trophies in four years at Ibrox along with respect and high regard in his home nation. All seemed to good to be true.
You’ve already read the intro though, haven’t you? For you, it had already become clear that things were, in fact, what that melancholic mantra suggests. As Celtic seared past their city rivals to a straightforward title in the 2011/12 season, the Gers veered significantly off track, so much so that they emerged from the dust dishevelled, disorientated and, wait for it, a fourth tier club.
After administration and liquidation saw the Glasgow giants fall three divisions, it was no surprise that many of the stars that set the SPL alight in years previous moved on swiftly. But somehow, this enormous test of steel that many sprinted frantically from did not seem to faze McCulloch. After five top-flight years filled with favourable outcomes, he started a season flipped completely on it’s head with astonishing ease.
Whether it was from centre back or centre forward, against East Stirling or Elgin City, Rangers’ Bellshill-born captain was unquestionably a cut above the league’s typical level. Alongside Barrie McKay, Andy Little and the like, however, he set an example and a standard that epitomised exactly what everyone involved with the club so desperately needed.
Seventeen goals and nine assists was impressive in itself, but McCulloch’s maintenance of motivation, of consistency, and of quality in such pressing circumstances over the course of the campaign single-handedly steered Rangers back on track.
After storming the fourth tier as many expected, the Scottish stalwart, now aged 35, showed no signs of letting up. A further seventeen league goals, all but three of which came from defence, including two hattricks from the back came the following season, and with that, a tenth trophy cemented McCulloch’s firmly in the club’s history books.
This was confirmed when he was inducted into the Rangers Hall of Fame in March 2014, about as deserved as they come.
Even after failure to return to the top flight at the first ask – this time as player-coach – brought a bitter end to his time in Glasgow, it made no mark on the legacy he left behind.
From the fineries of the UEFA Cup final to the terraces at Galabank, the trophies to the turmoil, through the thickest, the thinnest and all in between, the time McCulloch had at Rangers was worthy of a blockbuster movie. The protagonist: versatile, valiant and vigorous in his seemingly insurmountable, but ultimately successful quests. A club so esteemed by stature and success over many decades had never been personified so accurately by a single player.
To this day, Rangers are heavily indebted to his courage and his composure as all else crumbled around him as they battle it out with Celtic once more. Be it in his current assistant head coach role at Hearts, or wherever else it may be, when that next title arrives back at Ibrox, expect to see a smile stamped across Lee McCulloch’s face.
Article by Brad Jones via Football’s Finest