THERE is more resting on Rangers’ fourth-round Scottish Cup tie at home to Elgin this afternoon than having something to show from the season other than a highly probable Third Division league title.
Ally McCoist’s side must negotiate another three rounds of the competition to avoid creating an unwanted piece of history for the club. Rangers’ last five tilts at domestic cups have failed to yield a semi-final outing. Not since the League Cup in 1946-47 has such a sequence stretched to six. It surely won’t do so today and, with the fifth round not till February, this afternoon is likely to see Rangers’ cup ambitions, and those of McCoist as manager, given breathing space. They certainly need it. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about. As a result of their Ramsdens Challenge Cup defeat to Queen of the South, Rangers will be seeking to avoid a third cup exit on their own patch inside four months when they entertain Ross Jack’s team; and a fourth consecutive home cup exit in total after Dundee United dumped them from the Scottish Cup at Ibrox in February. Across McCoist’s year-and-a-half as manager, his best showing in any of the seven cups he has guided his team in – the Champions League and Europa League bringing earliest possible exits – is from this year’s League Cup. The team won three rounds, seeing off Motherwell, before succumbing to Inverness in the quarter final. Victory over Elgin would match that run for length.
There have been signs that Rangers are developing a durability. Barring what would still be an upset today, the enhancement of such qualities should make them a more testing opponent for cup rivals than they proved against Inverness. The club’s summer signings were supposed to make them a cup challenge for any top sides that might be placed in their way in the cups. So far, they would argue their record is 50-50. McCoist’s overall cup record as manager is, though, is brutal.
Yet, defeats as a manager hurt no more than those as a player, he maintains. “I remember most of the defeats,” he says. “The worst was Hamilton at home, then Dunfermline away. Down at Ayr with Kilmarnock was a sore one. You remember the sore ones more than the victories. We don’t want to have one of those against Elgin. You take cup defeats equally bad as player or manager.”
McCoist claims there are mitigating circumstances for his side’s poor cup form. At least this season, the period he confines himself to when asked about his record in cups. “The League Cup gave us an opportunity to test ourselves against two good SPL sides, and we handled ourselves well against Motherwell – there wasn’t an awful lot between the teams. I’d say the same against Inverness, although we lost 3-0. As they’ve gone on to show, Inverness are doing all right. We want to go as far as we can because in a one-off game against an SPL club we can handle ourselves.”
Rangers, undeniably, are looking more like themselves. Their 7-0 annihilation of Alloa in the previous round of the Scottish Cup was textbook oldco Rangers. Meanwhile, away league games in the Third Division are no longer giving their players the heebie-jeebies.
“Pre-season was a shambles, in terms of not being able to play a game,” he says. “We had five players at the start of pre-season, then going into the season we lost [Doran] Goian, [Carlos] Bocanegra and [Kirk] Broadfoot. All of a sudden you’ve got 12 players who didn’t really know each other and you’re throwing them in together without any pre-season games. I was hopeful [we] would eventually get some stability. It looks as though we’re getting that, but I hope we keep progressing. We’ve got six games coming up towards the turn of the year that are important. If we do alright in them, get one or two players back, you would hope we would start to make progress.”
If Rangers do not progress to the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup this year, it will leave a pockmark.