Mark Warburton gets Scottish football. He has experienced enough in 11 months to know that normal rules don’t apply. Yet, even the 53-year-old might have indulged in a little head scratching about the subjects he was probed on most at Hampden yesterday.
The Rangers manager was conducting his pre-match media duties for the Scottish Cup final against Hibernian on Saturday, of course – arguably the biggest game that the Ibrox club has faced since the Govan ground was last playing host to top-flight football in 2012. A first major trophy for five years would also provide the prize of a shot at qualifying for the Europa League, with continental competition last an issue for a Rangers team also in 2011.
There was chat about such matters, naturally, but they did not dominate the back-and-forth with the typically courteous and expansive Warburton as much as the prospect of requiring to usurp Brendan Rodgers at Celtic next season, with Joey Barton Rangers’ midfield enforcer.
Barton, weighing up contract offers from Rangers and current club Burnley after visiting the Murray Park training complex on Saturday, may or may not be playing his football at Ibrox next season. The 33-year-old has “possibly” had more talks with Rangers in recent days and will “possibly” have a decision for Warburton before tomorrow’s final. “I’m not avoiding anything; it’s literally like that,” said the Ibrox manager.
“He’s a very talented player in the Championship team of the year. I am sure he will have many suitors. Our job is to highlight what Rangers represent in terms of an opportunity. We can’t get near the salaries being paid down south. What we have to offer is an opportunity.”
Barton comes with more baggage than British Airways, and with his barneys and big mouth, as much of it has gone astray as with the airline. Warburton often has discussed dissecting the characters of prospective signings to ensure the squad harmony he prizes so highly is not threatened, which makes his enthusiasm for recruiting Barton appear at odds with his standard practices. “The only baggage I’m looking at is that he is in the Championship team of the year and the team that just won that division,” said the Rangers manager.
“He’s an outstanding player who’s had an outstanding season. He is experienced, combative and very intellectual about football. When you speak to him, he is a very knowledgeable guy.
“Everyone has history. Everyone. How many years do you go back? The fact is that in the most recent season he was outstanding. And quite rightly named in that team of the year. That was our focus. We have looked at his fitness, looked at his impact on games and how that might benefit us. And also how we might benefit him. Forget some of the baggage you refer to, he is a very talented player. No doubt about that. A top Premier League player.”
Warburton dismissed the notion that the stepping up of his attempts to remodel his squad that have taken centre stage this week could destabilise his players going into a monumental cup final.
“Good players want the club to go and recruit better players. Simple as that,” he said. “If you are confident in your ability and have good self-belief, you want the club to go and get better players to compete at a higher level. Those who doubt their ability and have a bit of negativity, those are the ones who would fear people coming in. But they won’t be here.”
There wasn’t exactly oodles in the way of positivity from Warburton concerning the circumstances surrounding tomorrow’s showpiece. He despaired about the “repetitive” nature of the Scottish game, with the final his team’s sixth encounter with Hibs. Meanwhile, the three-week lay-off his team has had to negotiate brought a sideswipe over future scheduling.
“It’s been a challenge and it makes a mockery of the winter break,” he said. “That gives you the same scenario – three weeks off between the first and 21st and you have to do as best you can by giving the players time off, doing warm weather training and organising games. It’s a bizarre situation – you have a winter break and look for games.
“It’s always a risk having a break – you can look at it both ways. You can say it’s hard on Rangers having a break or tough on Hibs having four games in a fortnight [with the play-offs]. They can run the risk of fatigue or injury. We have done the best we can.”
Warburton stands on the threshold of an achievement that would be remembered down the ages. And exceed all expectations. No-one seriously believed that his team could take the Scottish Cup, if requiring to eliminate Celtic in the semi-finals.
“[The talk] was only: win the league. As simple as that. I’ve said that many times. The target was clear – beating Celtic and winning the Petrofac are enjoyable bonuses. We entered and wanted to win the Petrofac and in the Scottish we wanted to go as far as we can. I was delighted with the semi-final win and now we’re looking forward to Saturday.”