David Murray’s era as Glasgow Rangers chairman was an exciting one. It was a period of opulence and decadence that saw some of Europe’s best players step out in blue at Ibrox. “For every £5 Celtic spend, we’ll spend £10,” the steelworks magnate was quoted as saying during his time in charge and it seems he kept his promise. Of course, following Murray’s resignation in 2011 it came to light that some aspects of that particular philosophy may have contributed to the club’s liquidation one year later, but the success he brought thrilled Rangers fans nonetheless.
The club built a number of victorious teams during Murray’s 23-year reign and, particularly under the management of Graeme Souness, Walter Smith and Dick Advocaat, were able to compete with the biggest clubs in Europe to sign players. Seemingly bottomless pockets were delved into to find funds that would ensure players of the calibre of Brian Laudrup, Paul Gascoigne, Jonas Thern and Arthur Numan called the Govan area of Glasgow home for a period in their careers. It’s no exaggeration to say that, at various times from the late 1980s through to the early noughties, Rangers boasted one of the strongest squads in Europe.
In the summer of 1997, however, it wasn’t Europe or the cup competitions that interested Rangers. The minds of everyone at Ibrox were focused firmly on the domestic game. Having dominated Scotland’s top tier for over a decade, the Gers had managed to secure nine consecutive league titles and were looking for their tenth in the 1997-98 season. The tenth title was of much greater significance than the nine that had preceded it — the great Celtic side of the 1960s and 70s' won an unequalled nine consecutive titles under Jock Stein, and the blue half of Glasgow were keen to shatter the record which had stood ever since. The 1997-98 season was a must-win for Rangers and they knew exactly what was needed: a goal scorer.
The man they chose to pin their hopes on was 27-year-old Italian striker Marco Negri. Though his £3.5 million price tag is unremarkable by contemporary standards, it was a significant investment at the time. Only a few weeks earlier, Rangers had smashed the Scottish transfer record, paying £5 million for Negri’s compatriot Lorenzo Amoruso. The signing of the pair was only 50 per cent of an Italian influx at Ibrox that summer, which also included Sergio Porrini arriving from Juventus along with Negri’s Perugia teammate, a young up-and-comer named Gennaro Gattuso. With Rangers’ spending exceeding £10 million that year, few expected anything other than another league title for the Glasgow club.
Negri was an unknown to the average football fan when he arrived in Scotland. He was somewhat of a late bloomer, having only broken through at the now-defunct Cosenza in 1994. Scoring an impressive 19 goals in 34 appearances in his first season, he was then snapped up by Perugia. He would return similarly impressive stats for his new club, scoring 33 goals in 60 appearances for the Grifoni. Given that the club were a mainstay in Serie A around that time, Negri’s record was all the more impressive.
It was that knack for finding the net that caught the attention of Walter Smith and Negri's goal-scoring habit would transfer seamlessly into Scottish football. As part of a side that enjoyed ample amounts of possession and the ability to create numerous chances, the striker made the phrase ‘scoring for fun’ more apt than it had ever been before. Despite a demeanour that suggested, at times, that he would rather be elsewhere, Negri continued racking up the goals against opposition that simply couldn’t cope with the quality of that Rangers side.
Negri’s arrival was a record breaking one. Scoring two goals on his debut against Hearts, he went on to score in ten consecutive league matches, breaking a record held by former Hibernian player Ally McLeod since the 1970s. Perhaps the most memorable of those matches came in August 1997. Having scored five goals for Rangers, Negri and his teammates faced Dundee United at Ibrox. The Italian would, remarkably, double his goal tally in that one afternoon, scoring five times against a side who were simply bamboozled by a fast-paced and attacking Rangers team.
By the end of that ten-game scoring run, Negri had netted an astonishing 23 goals. In February of 1998, however, events would transpire that, as the striker admitted himself, changed the course of both his time at Rangers and his career overall.
In a calamitous turn of events, Negri was nearly blinded while playing squash with teammate Porrini. He admitted that, with hindsight, he should have known choosing to play the sport was a bad idea. “Bloody squash. Bloody Porrini,” he would later reflect in his autobiography, Moody Blue.
Not only had I chosen to play a game I barely knew, but my partner just happened to be the fiercest competitor I’d ever met in any walk of life. I should have realised with Sergio, squash was always going to be more than just a bit of light-hearted fun. My teammate did not reach two Champions League finals with Juventus without having a tremendous will-to-win. He always had to win. That’s great for football, but it causes too much pressure in other areas of life.
Suffering a detached retina which required laser eye surgery to resolve, Negri was out of action for a month. Unfortunately, upon his return, he found that the damage had had a lasting effect on his vision. This, he believes, contributed to him scoring only three more goals before the end of the 1997-98 campaign. “It left a legacy no football player, certainly not a penalty box poacher like me, would ever have wanted,” he later recalled.
I’d been left with difficulties with my peripheral vision, a terrible shortcoming for someone like me, who really only came alive in the 18-yard box and relied on razor sharp reflexes to steal crucial half-metres on central defenders. It was especially problematic with crosses and passes delivered from the right wing—yes, even with Brian Laudrup on the ball.
Negri never rediscovered the form that caused his explosive start in Scotland. By the end of his first season in Glasgow, Rangers and the player were at odds, with Walter Smith requesting that the Italian prove his fitness in the reserves. Things would not improve over the next three years either. Negri would go on to make only 30 appearances by the time he left Rangers in the summer of 2001, having scored 36 goals. It was impressive on paper, but when you consider that the majority of these were scored in the first six months of a three-year spell, it sheds somewhat of a different light on the record.
Negri’s exit from Rangers was no less complicated than his time there had become. The player would play his last match for the club in November 2000, during which he suffered a deep open wound on his shin that exposed the bone. This was just the latest cruel blow for a player who had already battled pneumonia and endured a detached retina during his time in Scotland.
For most Rangers fans it was this injury, as well as a perceived attitude problem, that led to Negri’s exit. This isn’t quite the full story however, as the Italian says in his autobiography. Shockingly, it was complications from his shin injury and an investigation into the potential contraction of the HIV virus that led to his leaving Glasgow.
Blood tests revealed Negri to be suffering from a lymphogranuloma, a severe type of blood infection often only found in patients that are HIV positive. The stark reality that he could be suffering from the disease was one Negri knew he could not ignore, nor felt able to face alone in a foreign country. “It wasn’t the fear of having to deal with yet another injury, nor the discomfort of being out of contract and, therefore, the pressure to find a new club, nor even the disappointment of having to end my career in that manner,” the player later reflected.
Rather, it was the terrifying prospect of learning that I could be seriously ill… I didn’t feel able to deal with such a thing alone. I needed my family around me and wanted to undergo further tests in Italy to understand exactly what was going on, the risks and chances of recovery. I had to return to Italy, and not on a temporary basis. I asked my lawyer to speak to Rangers about an early dissolution of my contract.
Though the medical scare led to Negri leaving Glasgow, it was thankfully proven inaccurate. Further tests in Bologna showed no such anomaly and the player was given a clean bill of health to continue his footballing career.
Perhaps unfairly, Negri is now often found on countdown lists of some of football’s worst ever signings. There’s no doubt that his air – one of apathy and unhappiness, even when scoring freely – may have contributed to this. That, combined with a rapid decline in form from previously unmatched scoring records, have made him someone fans of rival teams in Scotland often revel in mocking.
But ask any Rangers fan and they will most probably tell you that he represents what was perhaps best about their club at the time of his arrival. His ability to score goals in a manner that made the opposition look amateurish was representative of the Rangers team of that era. Their dominance was total, and Negri only further confirmed that.
Ultimately, bizarre incidents and clashes of personality led to a fractious relationship between club and player, whose career faltered thereafter. But, for a brief period, Negri was everything Rangers were in Scottish football — a class apart.
Words by Laura Bradburn @WeeMan88
Laura has had a long love affair with Calcio that began thanks to a certain Gabriel Batistuta. Whether it's a match to decide the Scudetto or a battle at the other end of the table, she can be found on her couch most weekends taking in the wonders of Italian football. You can read more of her musings at www.goodfeetforaweeman.wordpress.com