IT FEELS like the BBC has chosen the wrong Rangers joust to screen live this week.
If only they could have somehow tempted Mike Ashley, Dave King and Brian Kennedy on to the Ibrox pitch to debate robustly the merits of their emergency loans/bailouts/rescue packages, then a ratings winner would have been assured. A League Cup quarter-final against St Johnstone on Tuesday may not quite prove so gripping from Govan, but it could yet have a lasting value not to be under-estimated.
Ally McCoist has endured some desperate cup experiences in three-and-a-bit years as Rangers manager. He has never led the club to a League Cup semi-final. He accepts that making the deepest inroads into one of the domestic knock-out tournaments is required to engender a sense of rehabilitation in the lower-league era ushered in by the old Rangers going bust in 2012.
Most pressing for McCoist this season is earning promotion to the top flight, of course. But the League Cup, in which Rangers have already accounted for Premiership opponents with the last round success over Inverness Caledonian Thistle, is hardly an irrelevance. The Ibrox manager is well aware of what winning the trophy would mean for his club.
“I think it would be recognised as the first step back, in terms of competing with the big boys again,” he said. “Stating the obvious, cup competitions involve all the teams in the country including those above us.
“We won two titles [with the fourth and third-tier championships] in recent seasons and a lot of people, understandably, say that’s to be expected. I’m not saying you don’t get any credit for it, but it’s a case of ‘well done, let’s move on’.
“I think a real indication of a step back, in many people’s eyes, would be clinching a domestic trophy. Certainly in our club’s history and among Rangers fans, it would be an achievement that would be remembered for a long, long, time. Taking a wee step back, even reaching a final would be seen as an improvement and a move forward.”
McCoist sees the possibility of lifting the League Cup as a genuine target – as it really should be when Rangers operate with a £7 million wage bill. The form of St Johnstone has nose-dived and, at present, they do not seem as formidable opposition as an Inverness that were beaten by McCoist’s team without, he says, them being “great”.
The Rangers manager trusts the squad he has assembled to make a genuine challenge for a cup tournament won by Kilmarnock and St Mirren in recent years. Well, more than in previous years. And with caveats. “I still think Celtic are by far and away the best team in the country. You look at the rest of it, and Aberdeen and Dundee United will beat most teams on their day,” he said. “I’ve been delighted and surprised by Hamilton.
“But I would say that on our day we would be a match for all the teams in the top flight. The first year we were very, very weak and wouldn’t have fancied it, to be honest. Last year we would have taken our chances. This year we’re slightly better again. My opinion is we’ve improved over the last three years, without being brilliant or anything like the finished article. But I think we’re in a place now where we’re comfortable in the company of the vast majority of the teams in the top flight.”
Asked if he would welcome facing Celtic in the semi-finals in the event of both traditional rivals coming through their last-eight ties, McCoist said: “I’m not sure I’d welcome it, but I’d certainly accept it.”
The League Cup elicits mixed emotions for Rangers defender Darren McGregor. He was a St Mirren player when the Paisley club snared the trophy in 2012 but he played no part in that triumph because he was then sidelined with a cruciate knee injury.
“It’s difficult to put it into words what that day was like,” said the amiable McGregor, who is expected to trigger another year on his one-season deal by being available for 50 per cent of the club’s matches. “You are happy for the boys. You are with them for the whole season, you’ve seen them progress and do well. Obviously, in that sense, you want them to do well. But it’s just such a gutting feeling to miss out on something that you might never take part in again. At the end, they won the League Cup and it was deserved, and now I’m in a position where I can maybe help Rangers do the same. That’s all I’m focused on at the moment.”
Watching McGregor embrace with relish on a daily basis the opportunity he has been given at the Ibrox club is like seeing “Billy Bunter being given the keys to the tuck shop” according to his manager. McGregor, for his part, doesn’t expect the Ibrox legions to be as sweet on him as players from the old days, especially if he is utilised as an emergency right-back, where he played until being restored to his preferred central defensive role.
“I can justify my place here playing in a central position, whereas at right-back, I do a good job defensively and not so much going forward. I’m happy to be back in my position and I hope I can keep it.
“I don’t think I will ever be remembered as a Rangers legend. That is never going to happen. However, if I can contribute in this league and get us into the next league, I will be happy with myself playing at a club of this size and I will have fond memories of it.”
How fond will depend on nights like the one to come on Tuesday.