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The Gallant Pioneers

THERE is nothing in life as powerful as an idea whose time has come.

The French writer Victor Hugo scripted that truism around the time Moses and Peter McNeil, William McBeath and Peter Campbell were taking a stroll in West End Park and discussing the possibility of forming their own football team.

Hugo’s words applied in the spring of 1872 as much as they did around 135 years later when the idea for The Gallant Pioneers started to percolate around a mind that knew as much about Victorian football in Scotland as it did Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

Still, again and again the names of the founders of Rangers would enter idle thoughts and always the same question arose: ‘Where did they really come from?’, ‘What happened to them?’, ‘Where are their final resting places?’ and, crucially, ‘How come in-depth research has never been published before?’

Robert McElroy is the standard bearer for Rangers historians everywhere and while he and Bob Ferrier had written extensively and with great passion about the early years of the club, adding to the earlier work of John Allan, still the men behind its formation remained pretty much a mystery.

Someone offered heartfelt counsel early on: ‘Don’t bother writing about early years history of football clubs. No-one is interested and there won’t be any money in it for you.’

It seemed sage advice when one publisher after another (sadly, the majority of them Scottish) rejected The Gallant Pioneers. ‘Too dry,’ said one. ‘Too academic,’ said another. ‘Too historical and not commercial enough,’ came another knockback.

One publisher clearly didn’t even bother to study the proposal at all as he fired a rejection email back within 60 seconds declaring the only book he wanted to read about the early years of Rangers related to the issue of sectarianism.

He had the cheek to call soon after the book hit the bookshelves as word of mouth and some very favourable reviews had the phones at Breedon Books, a small publishing house in Derby who eventually took it on, ringing off the hook.

What he wanted will always remain a mystery. Shamefully, for someone in the communications industry, he was told in no uncertain terms to go forth and multiply in a fraction of the time it had taken him to reject the book in the first place.

They say never burn your bridges, but this was verbal petrol happily ignited from a mouth breathing fire.

The book is now on its third re-print with sales of around 6,000 to date, but the mystic who tried to talk me out of the entire project was right about one thing: The money really is rotten - it’s no wonder JK Rowling wrote about Harry Potter, rather than the very early years of quidditch.

In truth, it cost more to research than it will ever take in royalties, but the Gallant Pioneers was never about cash.

Forgive the arrogance, but this was a book to stand the test of time, not a get rich quick scheme destined to end up in the 50 pence bin at Bargain Books, hacked out in a couple of months then hacked down in price like World Cup souvenirs two months after the final has been played.

The Gallant Pioneers took three years to research and write, each character painstakingly studied before words were finally committed to the page. Rangers fans deserved nothing less, but ego also dictated the past be raked and raked again.

That is not to say there are not mistakes in the book. Sadly, the chapter on Tom Vallance states Sir Stanley Matthews was directly related to him via Tom’s son, James.

In fact, two James Vallances married two Elizabeth Wilsons in the first half of the 20th century and the Matthews line came from the Vallance-Wilson marriage not associated with ‘Honest Tom’ of Rangers fame.

The truth has only recently come to light from a descendant of Tom Vallance and it still hurts now to think about it. It's an amazing quirk of coincidence, but the mistake was mine and mine alone - my utmost apology to all who have bought the book but rest assured complete faith remains in all its other findings.

Rangers historian David Mason was a terrific sounding board and also contributed to the research effort. Initially, we had planned to write the book together but creative differences, in the very truest sense, contributed to an amicable parting in the end. Rest assured, he retains a passionate interest about that enthralling period of the club’s existence.

The very DNA of Rangers was found in libraries, museums, archives and historical vaults the length and breadth of Britain, from Kew to Bristol and South Wales, the west coast of France to the west coast of Scotland, Lincoln to Liverpool, Dumfries to Perthshire and, of course, in and around Glasgow.

They slowly gave up the secrets stories of each of the founders - the sad plight of William McBeath, for example, who died a ‘certified imbecile’, details of Peter Campbell’s death and his family’s maritime passions, poor Peter McNeil’s struggle with mental health problems that led to him being sectioned at Hawkhead Asylum in Paisley.

Joyously, research also revealed Peter’s grand-daughters to be still very much alive and with us. Heather Lang and Doreen Holland knew nothing of their grandfather’s achievements in life, never mind his sad passing, and they were very proud guests of honour at the founders’ dinner organised by supporters and held at Ibrox in 2009. It felt like royalty was visiting the stadium.

Ironically, Moses lived longer than anyone else - he passed away in Dumbarton in 1938 at the age of 82 - but least was known about his life, although colour is now thankfully being added.

On the back of the book’s publication, a newspaper pal called to say one of his relatives was related to the McNeils and had a photo of Moses taken at his beloved Rosneath in the early 1930s. The glint in Moses’ eye was as instantly recognisable in the grainy black and white image as it was in the famous picture of the 1877 Rangers team that reached its first Scottish Cup final.

In addition to telling a great story, easily one of the most romantic of any football club ever formed, the aim of The Gallant Pioneers was to inform and inspire fans in the 21st century to the achievements of the teenage boys who helped form the club they all adore.

Book sales alone have silenced the cynics who said it would be impossible to engage with a modern audience of supporters about a story detailing the earliest decades of their favourite club.

Fans have continued to respond to the story and the ongoing research efforts of people such as Iain McColl, Gordon Bell, Neil Stobie, Alex Lister and the Founders’ Committee has helped spread the word still further among rank and file supporters.

Not only have Iain and Co been passionate supporters of the book, their own Founders’ Tours have become a must for all Rangers fans as they re-visit some of the key venues and sites from the club’s early years. They have undoubtedly helped bring Rangers supporters even closer to the club in these financially troubling times.

Throughout Rangers constant financial battle, the fans have continued to show strength and support for the club. At the close of the 2012/13 season, Rangers managed to secure the Scottish 3rd Division Title, and will begin the 2013-14 season in the Scottish 2nd Division, with hopes of further promotion.

Other fans have also been touched by the exploits of the founding fathers and even raised money to fit a headstone to the pauper’s grave of William McBeath, which had lain unloved and untended since 1917 on the forgotten fringes of a Lincoln cemetery.

They also deserve enormous credit for honouring the men who spawned a club that has given Scottish football some of its greatest players.

One of them, Sandy Jardine, has been such an enthusiastic supporter of the spirit of The Gallant Pioneers, as well as David Mason, supporters’ liaison boss Jim Hannah and Rangers Media boss Lindsay Herron. They have ensured the story has received terrific coverage in the club’s official media channels, such as the Rangers News and website.

Finally, apologies for ending with another quote, but it was Henry Ford who famously told the Chicago Tribune that all history was bunk.
If only he was around Ibrox today, he would soon recognise the folly of that remark.

GARY RALSTON