Alex Rae knows when he looks back on time spent with Fernando Ricksen that the glory days in the lead-up to ‘Helicopter Sunday’ will always outshine the more painful moments of recent times.

Ricksen died on Wednesday morning at the age of 43, following a six-year battle with motor neurone disease.

Rae found it difficult watching his former Rangers team-mate’s struggle, so tough that he admits for a long time he kept his distance as he tried to come to terms with what his friend – the man who skippered the Ibrox club to their famous last-day title triumph in 2005 – was going through.

The pair did eventually reunite in recent months, but those are not the memories Rae will look back on.

SOCCER Rangers 13
Alex Rae (left) has many a fond memory of Fernando Ricksen (Danny Lawson/PA)

Speaking to the PA news agency, the 49-year-old said: “The year we won the league he came into the midfield to partner up with me. It was a great season and he played such a big part.

“He was the ideal guy to have alongside you in the middle of the park. He was tenacious, energetic, technically good – but most importantly he was a leader.

“Off the field he was just a larger-than-life character. He was brilliant to be about.

“There would be some mornings where I’d be in the breakfast hall at Murray Park just trying to get a moment to myself before training.

Fernando Ricksen Tributes – Ibrox
Tributes were left outside the gates of Ibrox on Wednesday in memory of Ricksen (Euan Parsons/PA)

“But then Fernando would burst in and start scudding you with toast and hitting you with newspapers.

“He was a nuisance in training, too. We’d be trying to do passing drills and he’d be flying in with slidies. You’d want to slap him at times, but you’d always end up laughing.

“That was just his nature. A brilliant, brilliant person.

“Those are the memories I’ll try to remember.”

Rae forced himself to pay his old friend a visit just two months ago, having previously shied away from facing up to the harsh truths of Ricksen’s heartbreaking plight.

Soccer – CIS Insurance Cup – Final – Rangers v Motherwell – Hampden Park
Ricksen (right) celebrates CIS Insurance Cup glory with Nacho Novo in 2005 (Maurice McDonald/PA)

And, while the frail figure that met him at the St Andrew’s Hospice in Airdrie bore little resemblance to the feisty character that picked up seven trophies in six years with Rangers, the spirit within was the same as Rae had known all along.

“The last six years have been difficult to watch,” he said. “I was finding it difficult to see him deteriorate in the manner he did. He was just wasting away in front of your eyes.

“I was grateful that Connal Cochrane from the Rangers Charity Foundation asked me to do an event for the hospice looking after Fernando and on the back of that it actually instigated me going up and seeing him.

“The tenacity he had as a player was mirrored in how he took on his disease. He fought it right to his dying day and that was the mark of the man.”

“It made me think that if I was struggling, then how was Fernando feeling?

“I spent some time with him which was great because even though his body was deteriorating, his mind was really sharp.

“He’d been fitted with a computer which was a God-send as it gave him back the ability to communicate after he’d lost the ability to speak.

“His wit was still as brilliant as it always had been and I had a real laugh with him. We didn’t speak about his illness, we just had a carry-on and it was like being back in the dressing room all those years ago.

“The tenacity he had as a player was mirrored in how he took on his disease. He fought it right to his dying day and that was the mark of the man.”