RANGERS have looked like one of the best sides in the country, never mind in the Championship, as they have racked up seven consecutive victories in the Mark Warburton era.
Certainly, they were far too good for third-tier opponents last night after a cakewalk that earned them progress into the last 16 of the League Cup and the opportunity to prove they are a match for Premiership opponents.
The seeding structure for the eight ties that will be drawn at Hampden this afternoon will ensure a first meeting with top-flight opposition awaits for Warburton in four weeks’ time.
It is tempting to say it will tell us more about the Englishman’s impressive reconstruction of a previously ragged Rangers than any number of cup meetings with lower-division opponents. Except for the fact that last season Ally McCoist’s Ibrox team beat St Johnstone and Kilmarnock, but could hardly put a winning run together whenever they found themelves playing on plastic pitches at their own level.
It was an altogether different story on the synthetic surface of New Broomfield last night – even if Warburton’s team meandered through most of the second period after plunderring three goals in the opening quarter of an hour.
They came to life again at the close, with Dean Shiels netting from a rebound after having a shot saved four minutes from time before an already trademark, mazy run from James Tavernier led to him completing the scoring. After years when the simplest tasks seemed to prove excruciatingly difficult for the Ibrox side, under Warburton it feels as if every objective is being met with consumate ease.
Last night’s League Cup-tie was over almost before it had begun courtesy of Nicky Clark netting inside four minutes. With that goal, an Ibrox side that boasted five changes from the one that edged out Hibernian on Sunday for a sixth straight win of the season, was immediately settled and in the groove.
Warburton is clearly determined to rotate, integrate and experiment in cup competition. A debut for the 18-year-old on-loan Arsenal midfielder, Gedion Zelalem, whose temporary move was only confirmed on Monday, was the most notable example of this strategy. Tottenham’s loan youngsters Dominic Ball and Nathan Oduwa also earned starts and Warburton’s willingness to turn to Ball no doubt was a factor in the Rangers manager’s willingness to cut Darren McGregor and Marius Zaliukas adrift.
The trip to Lanarkshire was never going to be about defence unless you were in the Airdie rearguard, and it was the home defence’s inability to attack the ball that led to the opening goal, with a free-kick swung in by Andy Halliday allowing Clark to slid in at the back post to poke the ball over the line.
With the home side supine in the extreme, it was a surprise that a second goal for the Championship leaders did not arrive for a whole 10 minutes. As Airdrie sat off their opponents, Zelalem was able to tee-up Halliday to have a kitchen-sink clatter of a low drive from 20 yards that was past Neil Parry before he had hardly moved a muscle.
The clock had hardly moved on by the time Martyn Waghorn had slipped the ball past the Airdrie keeper after being sent away with a smart through pass from the Arsenal teenager.
At that point, the sort of eight or nine-goal thrashing that Rangers defender Rob Keirnan had insisted his team were in the shape to dish out was on the cards. Rangers didn’t quite manage so pronounced a drubbing but this was a one-sided going-over all the same.
For the historians, seven was the number that resonated at the final whistle.
In stringing together seven wins to start his managerial tenure at Ibrox, Warburton is now only one victory away from the club record eight, which Bill Struth achieved in 1920.
In fairness to Struth, his Rangers were pitting themselves against top-flight opponents which Warburton will do for the first time in late September.
Airdrieonians: Parry; Crighton, Lithgow, O’Neil, Stewart; Watt, Smith (Brown 71), Morton; Prunty (Sumsky 60), Cox (Morgan 78). Subs: Van Zanten, Ferguson, Glackin, Cadden.
Rangers: Foderingham; Tavernier, Kiernan, Ball, Wallace: Zelalem, Halliday (McKay 71), Shiels; Waghorn (Hardie 61), Clark, Oduwa. Subs: Kelly, Law, Miller, Holt, Wilson
Referee: E Anderson