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“With respect to David Murray and Rangers, I told them I did not want to proceed, no matter how much money was offered. What is there for me in Scotland? What kind of league is that? What other clubs would I find interesting apart from Rangers? I did not want to move there.”
It’s tempting to infer from the words of Ronaldo back in the summer of 1997 that there was more than a remote prospect of the best striker in the world, at the age of 20 and with 47 goals to his name that season, swapping Barcelona for a battle to displace Gordon Durie in the Rangers team against Kilmarnock, Motherwell and St Johnstone.
Instead, for a few million less than the £19.5m that Inter paid to bring Ronaldo to Serie A, Rangers embarked on the most exotic spending spree Scottish football had ever seen. With a tenth successive league title in Ibrox’s sights, out went the John Browns, the David Robertsons and the Mark Hateleys. From Italy, in came the £5m Adonis that was Lorenzo Amoruso, Champions League winner Sergio Porrini…and the moderately-travelled striker Marco Negri.
The 26-year-old Negri – who arrived from Perugia with a snarling teenage midfielder in tow, who would eventually blossom into the snarling veteran midfielder Gennaro Gattuso – was no Ronaldo. Before scoring 15 times for a relegated side in his first Serie A season, Negri had done the rounds (36 goals in seven years for Udinese, Novara, Ternana, Bologna and Cosenza) and, for any Rangers fans not tuning in regularly to Gazzetta Football Italia, was distinctly unproven.
Acclimatising to Glasgow’s charms after leaving Umbria was a formidable enough proposition for Negri, let alone auditioning as the long-term successor to Ally McCoist – by now nearly 35, but still sharp enough to have passed the 350-goal mark in Scottish football the previous season. Rangers’ chief scout Ewan Chester returned from one watching brief with a qualified appraisal for manager Walter Smith.
“Perugia were taking on Roma desperate for a victory as they looked to stave off relegation that year,” he later recalled to the Herald. “They had 10 men giving their all, fighting for every ball and flying into tackles…and then you had Marco with the beard and long hair who didn’t seem to be trying at all.
“He scored one, set up the other and hit the crossbar as Perugia won 2-0. I came back and said to Walter: ‘If you’re going down the road of creating a hard-working team then he’s not the man, but if you want a guy who will get you 30 goals a season then he’s perfect’.”
Smith took the plunge, to the tune of £3.5m. Negri’s settling-in period began with a goal at Goodison Park in a lively pre-season draw with Everton, and the first glimpse of the trademark Negri goal celebration.
The Italian’s first competitive assignment in a blue shirt was in the Faroe Islands as Rangers began their Champions League preliminary mission. Gotu Itrottarfelag were cannon fodder, no doubt, but Negri’s finishing had no trace of mercy about it.
Spin, volley, bang, goal, proper handshake for everyone who’d contributed. Negri buried two more in the return leg as Rangers squeezed into the next round 11-0, but it was now time for the bread and butter of the Scottish Premier Division. Another debut, another goal – bundled in against Hearts at Ibrox – was crowned, in rather more telegenic fashion for the Sky Sports cameras, with a glorious chip for his second.
Five goals in three games – not a mindblowing achievement, with Brian Laudrup supplying the ammunition – represented an encouraging start, even allowing for a resounding defeat to Gothenburg that terminated Rangers’ Champions League adventure before the group stage had convened. Even though the dangling carrot of European football had been all but swiped away (Rangers did drop half-heartedly into the UEFA Cup, but soon exited in the same manner) Negri got stuck into his domestic chores.
Dundee United were the next league visitors to Ibrox and Negri had gone two games without a goal. 86 minutes later, he was now into double figures for the season. In August.
His hat-trick goal, a minute before half-time, is a masterpiece in punching well below one’s weight. Paul Gascoigne had already controlled an Andy Goram throw-out with a first-time Cruyff turn, before swinging a pass upfield into the path of the rampaging Negri.
Thirty-five yards from goal, Negri has Stewart McKimmie and the retreating Steven Pressley to deal with first. Veteran Scottish international McKimmie (whose career, apropos of nothing, lasted just 79 more minutes after this chastening afternoon) is negotiated with two tantalisingly just-above-head-height flicks of the ball – inside, then back out.
Pressley, solidly-built enough for the job at hand, is nevertheless rendered meaningless too, as his bewildered, dizzied teammate McKimmie crashes into him on the edge of the box. Just as both tangerine shirts hit the deck, Negri lifts the ball over the head of goalkeeper Sieb Dijkstra.
Paul Gascoigne and Marco Negri celebrate for Rangers, 1997. pic.twitter.com/LnoOVYDwKB
— 90s Football (@90sfootball) September 11, 2016
That – spoilers lie here – is arguably where it all peaked. 10 goals in 6 games became 16 goals in 12 games, then 26 in 17, including 23 (TWENTY-THREE) in his first 10 (TEN) league games alone. He was confirmed as a thirty-goal-a-season man on the first weekend in December. No patch has ever been purpler, and there was a goal against Celtic on enemy turf thrown in for good measure too.
“In Glasgow, the betting shops were happy in August to offer odds and take the cash on the novelty bet that Negri would score 50 goals,” wrote the Independent. “Three months on and, for the bookmakers at least, the novelty is wearing off. He has shown himself to have the grace and style of a Versace suit and, costing £3.7m, he was almost as expensive.”
On that stereotypical note, Rangers were keen to exploit the novelty of their Italian contingent. Negri, Amoruso and Gattuso (while Porrini, who looked more likely to steal your wallet rather than your girl, presumably didn’t make the cut) were roped into posing for the club’s official Italian Collection calendar for 1998.
That was an appropriate time for the twist. Rangers began the New Year with a 2-0 defeat at Celtic Park. The following Wednesday, the squad were given their usual day off from training, a custom unfamiliar to Negri and his countrymen. To keep sharp for his penalty-area art, Negri booked a squash game with the notoriously competitive Porrini. One 100mph Italian forehand was about to be the mother of all turning points.
“‘I’m very sorry sir,’ the receptionist explained: ‘This is a maternity hospital. The nearest accident and emergency unit is at Stobhill.’ Bloody squash. Bloody Porrini. 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.”
“The squash shot was so powerful and landed with such ferocity it had thrown my eye back into my head until it bounced off the membrane that separated it from the brain. The retina had become dislodged and attached itself to the membranous gel.”
And that, in the rather slapstick and then rather too graphic words of Negri himself, was that. Laser surgery was swiftly arranged to reattach the most prolific retina in European football. If that wasn’t painful enough, a month on the sidelines – as the title race began to take shape – was pure agony.
“It became a lonely environment and walking around Glasgow in the depths of winter, with sunglasses on, certainly drew me to the attention of people more than usual. Rangers fans sent cards and offered good wishes for a speedy recovery. Celtic supporters placed their palms over their eyes and laughed whenever they saw me in the street, or feigned blindness as they groped in front of me with imaginary white sticks.”
As Negri waited first for his eye to heal and then for medical permission to start heading a ball again, Rangers clung on in an unexpectedly competitive title race. Celtic were up there, obviously, but so too were Hearts. By the time he was back in early February, all three were locked on 48 points, separated only by the goal difference that Negri’s summer/autumn goal collection had almost single-handedly established.
But, just as he returned to the fold, Negri realised he’d lost – perhaps permanently – his most potent weapon: almost literally his eye for goal.
“It left a legacy no football player, certainly not a penalty box poacher like me, would ever have wanted. 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.”
As always with Negri, the numbers tell the story best. Thirty-three goals in 26 games before the turn of the year gave way to just three in the remaining 13. Not only was there was to be no tenth league title in a row for Rangers but they would experience their first trophyless season in 12 years. Outgoing manager Smith urged Negri to prove his fitness in Rangers’ reserves, right up to the defeat to Hearts in the Scottish Cup final that rounded off their anti-climactic season, but the Italian refused.
Marco Negri pic.twitter.com/DkG8ym43Kg
— Superb Footy Pics (@SuperbFootyPics) December 30, 2016
New manager Dick Advocaat, famously patient with unique characters, attempted to wipe Negri’s slate clean. Another Rangers war chest was issued – this time more than £30m – for a summer rebuild, and the forward line was restocked.
Argentine Gabriel Amato and Newcastle’s much-maligned French striker Stephane Guivarc’h scraped together 16 goals between them, but Rod Wallace was the standout – kick-starting his career with 27 of his own. As for Negri, wrote the Independent, “the only strike action seen from the front man in recent times has been of the industrial variety.” As his exile from the first team continued, Rangers won the Treble.
The descent had been quite brutal. A quiet January trial with West Ham – a specially-arranged friendly against Third Division Barnet – constituted Negri’s first start of 1998/99. An unimpressed Harry Redknapp sent Negri back to Scotland and signed Paolo Di Canio instead, while Negri returned home on loan to Vicenza for the rest of the season.
With Negri fast becoming a semi-forgotten novelty – in 2000, the Guardian would include him in their list of the 10 worst foreign signings of all time – his standing among the Rangers fans at that time remains unclear. There would be one rather emphatic character reference though; in January 1999, a teenage supporter was jailed for a minimum of ten years for killing a man who called Negri’s ability into question.
”We were walking along and I had my Rangers top on and I have got Negri imprinted on the back of it,” the defendant had told police. “We started getting into an argument over the striker. I was saying he was good and he was saying he was crap.”
Negri’s reputation was defended by the means of a concrete block to the skull.
Still picking up his £18,000-a-week wages, Negri gave an unconvincing rallying cry ahead of his third season at Ibrox. “If I said I was happy to be coming back, it would be a lie,” he said. “But I am a professional and I have a contract and if they gave me a chance I would play for Rangers. All I want to do is come back and have a proper season.”
1999/2000: one appearance (14 minutes of a Cup game at Morton), no goals.
By the summer of 2000, Negri hadn’t kicked a meaningful first-team ball for Rangers in 26 months, and reached a new nadir by turning out for the youth team in a pre-season friendly defeat to to East Fife. Finally, his patience exhausted by inaction and more injury, Negri finally agreed the termination of his contract and joined Bologna.
The tiniest of resurgences with Serie B side Livorno in 2002 – nine goals in 18 games – piqued the interest of Derby County, languishing at the wrong end of the second tier and still picking up the pieces from the expensive mistakes of Fabrizio Ravanelli and Georgi Kinkladze. A 34-year-old Marco Negri was just the ticket, then, but a week-long trial came to nothing.
Marco Negri’s Wikipedia page extends to just twelve sentences and barely 200 words and, in the grand scheme of things, that might reflect his contribution to British football. Cruel luck played a huge part, certainly, not just with his one-in-a-billion injury but also that his other-worldly goalscoring form had coincided with an unthinkably barren season at Ibrox.
Marco Negri at Rangers. pic.twitter.com/qjP7QAWrNM
— 90s Football (@90sfootball) January 23, 2016
Negri wasn’t even a one-season wonder, but his pre-Christmas run of 1997 was still enough by the campaign’s end to place him fifth in the European Golden Boot. Even by May, his 32 Scottish Premier goals were 14 more than anyone else could muster, and he’d doubled the haul of Celtic’s top scorer.
The King of style Marco Negri pic.twitter.com/vYnWox7VFo
— OldRangersPics (@oldrangerspics) April 18, 2016
The same summer that Negri had arrived to hit the ground running, the green half of Glasgow welcomed a £650,000 signing from Feyenoord, arguably even more of a gamble at a fraction of the price.
There are no records of Henrik Larsson playing squash.
For the latest instalment of ’90s Heroes check out the Bet Bright football blog this week.