As Manchester prepared yesterday for what could be the largest migration in decades of fans following a British team to a single match – tomorrow's Uefa Cup final between Rangers and Zenit St Petersburg at the City of Manchester Stadium – the Rangers goalkeeper, Neil Alexander, said he was readying himself for a siege of a different kind: another penalty shoot-out.
Predictions that more than 125,000 Rangers fans could descend on the North-west are probably on the high side. But even Manchester City Council estimates that the influx could reach six figures by tomorrow, most from Scotland. Of those, thousands will travel in a convoy of coaches, cars and minibuses due to leave Ibrox at 10am today.
"If you look at all the fans from both teams with and without tickets, we're looking at 100,000," said Vicky Rosin, the council's assistant chief executive. The council will provide three giant screens, plus entertainment and refreshments, in Albert Square, Cathedral Gardens and Piccadilly Gardens. Rosin said trying to stop fans drinking would be like telling them to "stop breathing".
There will be room for 23,000 fans around the screens, while Manchester's bars and clubs can cater for 22,000 more. Some 20,000-plus other Rangers fans are expected to be inside the stadium.
Alexander said he was dreaming of a third penalty shoot-out win of the season for him and a fourth for Rangers. They won the CIS Cup in March on spot-kicks with Alan McGregor in goal. But when he was ruled out with ligament damage Alexander took over.
He saved two penalties in a shoot-out in the Scottish Cup semi-final win over St Johnstone while his save from Fiorentina's Fabio Liverani in the Uefa Cup semi-final shoot-out helped Rangers to reach their first European final in 36 years.
"[The prospect of penalties] has already entered my head and obviously saving a penalty to win the cup would be the best thing in my career," he said. "I've been lucky since I've been at Rangers and I just hope it continues. Maybe we will do a little bit of studying before the game to see if it can give us a clue, but I think it will just be about what happens on the night."