The Petrofac Training Cup final against Peterhead this afternoon isn’t quite the final encounter of Rangers’ lower division years. Their trip to the northern outpost in August 2012 for the opening fixture in the fourth tier where they restarted following liquidation wasn’t quite the first such outing.
Yet, the need to pit themselves against part-time Peterhead provides a symmetry to the Ibrox side’s four years as a phantom of their former selves. The vast majority of those who played a part in that, seemingly, embarrassing 2-2 draw at the Balmoor Stadium have become ghosts of the grimmest years for Rangers followers. The spirit, though, has never been stronger in Barrie McKay.
The then 17-year-old Rangers winger scored the club’s opening goal that day. The other night, as Mark Warburton’s men made certain that Ibrox will be hosting top-flight football again next season, McKay almost did likewise before James Tavernier netted the title clincher in the 1-0 victory over Dumbarton.
Other similarities between the two Rangers teams for these assignments are scant. Lee Wallace and McKay were the only starters in both, while Dean Shiels featured on both occasions. The casualty rate – a turnover in excess of 60 players – across the four years moving up the leagues looked like claiming McKay. Across two seasons he was sent out on loan without much success or hope of returning. Then came the arrival of Warburton last summer.
He made McKay a mainstay and, in turn, the youngster has come to symbolise his revitalisation of Rangers. Not least because the wide man is the only home-grown player that has come through during a period that seemed to offer a perfect platform for developing talent reared within.
Warburton’s guidance has transformed Rangers from tired and turgid to fresh and fluent. With a budget four times that of any rival and more typically ten times higher than others in the Championship, Rangers should have won their title this year. Warburton, though, has allowed that box to be ticked with a flourish.
The Challenge Cup, to denude the Petrofac of its sponsor’s name, is a competition that had brought only embarrassment to the club. Now it can become another wrong that Warburton’s team can right in, surely, the club’s final participation in it. All before the face-off with Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi-final next Sunday that would be a monumental occasion were it to bring a triumph for the Ibrox men. No wonder McKay can agree this represents the biggest fortnight of his career.
“It’s a big moment for me, the fact we have got that final stage of the journey back to the top league,” he said. “We can now go out and win this cup that we’ve never won before, and [have] a possible Scottish Cup final.”
McKay takes great pride at being able to bookend the club’s lower division era. “The fact that me, Lee Wallace, Dean Shiels have come right through the journey means a lot,” he said. “We started it and got the chance to finish it. Some boys have started it and didn’t get to finish it, and some boys are just finishing it. It’s a personal achievement that I did last that long to be able to get the club back where it belongs.”
What Warburton has done for Rangers and McKay isn’t lost on the man whose League One side they will seek to skewer at Hampden this afternoon. Jim McInally might have personal allegiances to the Glasgow team that plays in green, but he is a football lover and, as a result, an admirer of Warburton’s side. On that front, he sees McKay’s redemption as telling.
“I was at their game against Falkirk a few weeks ago and it was the best I’d been to all season,” said McInally. “It was fantastic. The reason for that was the way Mark’s team plays. I can switch football off the telly now, especially [English] Premier League games, when I think of what some people are earning.
“Some of it is rotten, there’s no entertainment value. Then I watch Rangers and Mark should be commended for the way his team play. They’re a joy to watch and they play with a big risk factor. If you can expose them you’ve got a chance – but they’re trying to do it to you for 90 minutes. To watch Rangers now – sadly for a Celtic fan like me – it’s been terrific. He should be applauded. I don’t see Mark changing next season. I think he lost his job at Brentford because he wouldn’t change. And it’s good for Scottish football. He’ll improve his team in terms of quality in the summer.
“Look at Barrie McKay. He had bad times at Morton and Raith Rovers on loan. That was because he had to do the dirty side of the job. Now he doesn’t have to come back across the halfway line. He stays up the park and does what he’s good at. Look at the full-backs as well. In that game against Falkirk, one of them was offside three times. That’s good because football’s hard to watch sometimes now. So good on them.”