Alex McLeish has revealed the huge surge of pride he felt after his gamble on naming Fernando Ricksen Rangers captain hit the jackpot on ‘Helicopter Sunday’.
Stefan Klos started the 2004-05 campaign wearing the armband but it was soon handed over to the fiery Dutchman when the German goalkeeper suffered a season-ending injury midway through the campaign.
Former skipper Barry Ferguson returned soon after but boss McLeish stuck by his original call and it proved to be the right decision as Ricksen – who died on Wednesday aged 43 after a six-year battle with motor neurone disease – led Rangers to a domestic double.
McLeish’s team fought against the odds to pip Celtic to the title in dramatic circumstances on the final day of the season at Easter Road, and the former Scotland boss says the sight of Ricksen lifting the Scottish Premier League trophy that day is his most cherished memory.
Speaking to the PA news agency, McLeish said: “When Stefan Klos got injured that season I gave Fernando the captaincy. It was a bit of a tactic to try and help him control his emotions and look after the whole team rather than reacting by himself.
“He was brilliant in the role. He actually ended up playing the role of peacemaker a lot of the time.
“It was a big change for Fernando but, even when Barry Ferguson came back to the club, I kept Fernando as skipper.
“I spoke to Barry about it and he could see no reason to change it again.
“We went on to win two trophies that year, culminating in that famous last day of the season at Easter Road.
“That day was one of Fernando’s proudest moments and I know I was so proud to see him lifting that trophy.”
The title race that year went to the wire, with Celtic two points in front of Rangers going into the final round of fixtures.
McLeish’s team had to win at Hibernian and hope Celtic slipped up at Fir Park.
Nacho Novo nudged Rangers ahead in Edinburgh before Scott McDonald’s late double earned Motherwell a 2-1 win over Martin O’Neill’s Hoops, prompting the helicopter carrying the SPL trophy – which had been on its way to Fir Park – to make a sharp turn back towards the capital.
“At half-time we were drawing 0-0 with Hibs and Celtic were a goal up at Fir Park – at that point the league was lost,” McLeish recalled.
“Some of the boys came into the dressing room slumped and it needed a few guys to rattle the cages. We needed them to know that we had to win our game to put the pressure on Celtic.
“I said my piece and that acted as the catalyst for the likes of Fernando and Barry Ferguson to react. They were vociferous and that started big Marvin Andrews off, giving it the ‘We believe’ stuff.
“It was a really stirring moment and it acted as a domino effect. The boys went out for the second half, got the job done and made history.”
For a spell, Ricksen made the front pages almost as frequently as he did the back ones.
But for all his off-field shenanigans, McLeish felt the former Holland international was a positive influence on the Light Blues’ dressing room.
He said: “As he got older you could see the maturity coming through. He still had that cheekiness in him in the same way that you see with someone like Scott Brown these days.
“Fernando had an aura about him – that’s what allowed him to be cheeky and get away with it!
“He had his moments, like all players do, but those were what made him the great character that he was.
“I had a lot of private moments with him at times when perhaps he was low or sometimes when he was a naughty boy.
“But we ironed those issues out. We had a book of values setting out how we felt Rangers players should behave and Fernando was a guy who was by and large on-side with how I wanted my players to behave.
“I look back to Easter Road on Helicopter Sunday and those are the moments I will remember. Hopefully Fernando can rest in peace now.”