A FOOTBALL fan’s quest to collect the signatures of every player from Rangers’ nine-in-a-row campaign has finally come to an end.
John Irwin secured the final autograph in Ukraine last week when he met ex-striker Oleg Salenko – and immediately dedicated it to the memory of Ryan Baird, the Gers fan who was killed in a bus crash on his way to Ibrox last Saturday.
John said: “I was shocked by the news but it was only when I saw Ryan’s picture I realised I’d met him at Ibrox.
“He’d bought memorabilia I was selling to fund my trips and we were friends on Facebook.
“I got a T-shirt printed with Ryan’s picture on it, which Oleg signed, and decided to dedicate the last signature to him.”
John spent seven years tracking down the 85 living players who featured in league matches for Rangers in those championship-winning seasons between 1988 and 1997 to have them sign his favourite jersey.
Whether they were legends like Ally McCoist and Richard Gough or only made one appearance, like Paul McKnight or Darren Fitzgerald, the 66-year-old vowed to find them.
The priceless shirt has travelled approximately 100,000 miles around the world, including Australia, America, Dubai, Israel and Europe, not to mention across Britain, from Wick to Devon.
It began in 2009 when John, who had just moved back to Glasgow after three decades living in England, decided to begin collecting autographs. His first was Dave McPherson.
“I had no idea the task I was taking on, but once I started I was determined to finish,” John continued.
“I spent hours at the computer and on the phone trying to find the players.”
His incredible journey came to an end on Friday in Kiev, when he finally met Salenko, who played for Rangers in 1995. It was John’s second visit to Ukraine, having first gone over four years ago to meet Alexei Mikhailichenko.
Having drawn a blank in finding Oleg, it was thanks to Jim Gillies, winner of the Inspiring Senior category at The Broons Awards earlier this year, that John was able to contact the former Russian internationalist.
Jim, who visits Ukraine every year to provide aid for children affected by Chernobyl, asked a friend over there to find a phone number for Salenko after hearing about John’s search.
“I have mixed feelings about it being completed,” John said.
“I’m glad it’s finished because seven years is a long time and I feel I’ve really achieved something.
“But it’s strange to think I’ll no longer be searching for players or trying to organise my next journey. It’s been such a big part of my life.
“I have to thank my nephew, Andrew Thomson, who not only funded this trip but paid for other visits, including Dubai and America. Without him I wouldn’t have managed this.”
John hopes to honour the late Davie Cooper – the 86th player – in some way, perhaps by having one of Coop’s relatives sign the shirt.
In the meantime he is writing a book about his adventures, which will be out in time for the 20th anniversary of nine-in-a-row next May, and he hopes the shirt can play a part in any celebrations the club organises.
He added: “I’ve created a one-off that I don’t think will ever be achieved again, but just as importantly, I have memories that will last a lifetime.”