THE Rangers players who triumphed over Rapid Vienna in Austria in the second round of the European Cup in 1964 picked up some unlikely travelling companions as they wound their way to the airport to catch the flight home.

The Alexander Brothers hitched a ride on the team bus and entertained their fellow passengers with impromptu renditions of their best-known songs.

The Scottish folk duo would have struck up a lament if they knew what lay ahead for their hosts; the win would prove to be the beginning of the end for the great Ibrox side of that era in general and their outstanding player Jim Baxter specifically.

Baxter had produced one of finest showings for Rangers in the Westadion two days earlier. He tormented the home team from kick-off until just before full time and ensured his side won 2-0 on the day and 3-0 on aggregate to progress to a quarter-final against defending champions Inter Milan. But shortly before the final whistle disaster struck.

Walter Skocik, the Rapid full-back who had spent 90 minutes having rings run around him by the Rangers left-half, scythed his opponent down with a cynical challenge. Baxter was later found to have suffered a broken leg.

“Slim Jim” eventually recovered and continued to play club football for another five years and represent his country for another two. He enjoyed his most famous hour-and-a-half when Scotland defeated World Cup winners England 3-2 at Wembley in 1967. But, for many, he was never quite the same player again.

“Rapid Vienna was probably one of the best games that Jim Baxter ever played,” said the Rangers historian and author David Mason. “Jim controlled the match. Even the Austrian fans started to applaud him for his turns and twists as the match wore on. It was right in the dying seconds that he was fouled by Skocik. It was a sad ending as he was by far the man of the match.

“His shin bone was shattered. I don’t think Jim ever wore shinguards. If you look back at the pictures of the time, he often played with his socks down by his ankles. Maybe they would have saved him if he had.

“It was tragic because it was such a great game for Rangers. Jim set up Jim Forrest for the first goal in the first half. Willie Johnston supplied Davie Wilson for the second in the second half. According to the accounts of the day, it was a masterclass from Rangers and a masterclass from Jim.

“But after that game everything just went downwards for Rangers. Jock Stein took over at Celtic a few months later. They won the Scottish Cup against Dunfermline shortly after that and had soon taken over from their Old Firm rivals as the dominant force in Scottish football.

“The early 1960s had been a great time for Rangers. The Rapid Vienna game was just about the end of it. They beat Celtic in a replay to win the Scottish Cup in 1966. But in 1965 the balance of power shifted.

“The Rapid match was probably the end of Jim's era too. He did well for Scotland against England at Wembley in 1967. But he never really recaptured the sort of form he had shown before his leg break.."

The former coal miner from Hill of Beath in Fife had always been renowned for enjoying life to the full off the park as well as on it.

Indeed, after the win over Vienna the Rangers squad was stranded in Austria for two days due to heavy fog and snow and Baxter, with his right leg encased in plaster, and his team-mates retreated to his room to celebrate.

He drank heavily during the four months he spent convalescing. It was the start of a steady and sad decline. He joined Sunderland for a Scottish record transfer fee of £72,500 after he had recovered. But his troubled personal life was soon taking its toll on his fitness and his sublime skills.

“There was a culture of going for a drink after playing among footballers around that time,” said Mason. “I suppose if you have a broken leg, can’t play and have time on your hands then there are a few more hours in the day for that. But I think Jim would always have been liable to go down that route anyway.

“Money was the reason for him leaving Ibrox. He knew what was on offer in England. That was the biggest motivation. Jim had forced the issue with his manager Scot Symon a couple of times. But Rangers had a strict wage policy that persisted right up until Graeme Souness came in years later.”

Rangers acquitted themselves respectably against Helenio Herrera’s legendary Inter side. After a 3-1 defeat in the San Siro in the first leg they won 1-0 at Ibrox. Forrest weighed in with both of their goals. But the absence of their injured talisman was keenly felt.

“Baxter was a huge loss,” said Mason. “Jim was always the kind of player who rose to the big occasion. He was always brilliant in games against Celtic and England for example.

“My father used to say ‘Baxter only played in the big games because he only ever played for himself’. I’m not so sure that was the case. But he is certainly remembered for how he did in the more important matches. He would have loved taking part in the Inter game because it would have been a personal challenge for him.

“All of the Rangers players of that era that I have spoken to say Baxter was the best player they had. They rated him really highly. He would take the game by the scruff of the neck and could see the passes. Losing him was always going to have a knock-on effect against Inter.”

Steven Gerrard, whose Rangers team must beat Rapid on their return to Vienna some 54 years on this Thursday evening in order to progress to the last 32 of the Europa League, would dearly love an identical result to the one their illustrious predecessors romped to.

Yet, there is no prospect of any of his players, of Ryan Jack, Alfredo Morelos or James Tavernier, emulating the display of Jim Baxter, an iconic figure who is widely considered to be the most talented to ever don a light blue jersey, in 1964.