GOING back to Ibrox with Kilmarnock on Saturday in the fifth round of the William Hill Scottish Cup will be “strange”, Lee McCulloch admits. Looking back on his eight years with Rangers that ended in the summer for the Rugby Park assistant manager might not throw up any personal regrets. But it certainly demands moments of rancour, and ruminations on the utter ridiculousness of what enveloped the club as it was liquidated and forced to start again in the fourth tier of Scottish football.
McCulloch is circumspect about looking forward to the possibility that his Premiership Kilmarnock could inflict damage on the Championship leaders – a team assembled by Mark Warburton that he rates infinitely better than the pale imitation he played in last season, and which failed to make it through the play-off route to the top flight despite boasting a budget four times as large as any rival’s.
How that £6.2million was spent became a bone of contention for supporters of one particular website, with the claim online that the then 36-year-old McCulloch was trousering £72,000 a month.
It made for some hellish moments, and there were plenty of them when David Murray sold the club for £1 to Craig Whyte, with Charles Green purchasing the business and assets after Rangers’ liquidation in 2012. It all came to a head last year. Those running the club were found out for not having the ability to finance it, as manager Ally McCoist and his team were found out for not having the ability required merely to win a division with teams operating with a fraction of their resources.
McCulloch’s last season was, he says, “a nightmare”. “It was tough going,” said the boyhood Rangers supporter, who is “hopeful” of a good reception on his return, despite being booed in one of his final games last season. “Personally – and I know there were other players as well – but the rumours going about social media and everywhere ‘you see he’s on X amount of money a week’ [made it difficult]. I don’t know who was behind it and I’d love to have found out. Some of the figures that were being bandied about that I was making a week, I just couldn’t believe it. And I just saw it as people trying to make you take your eye off the ball. Rumours grow arms and legs. That was something that really annoyed me the most because it was so far from the truth it was unbelievable.
“I don’t know where it came from. I stayed [when liquidation allowed any player to leave if they wanted], offered to play for free when I did have offers – no matter what anyone says – and knocked them back, then it comes out the blue it’s said I’m earning all this. I wasn’t even [earning] a third of the highest paid player at the club. So a wee bit of nastiness there. So, so far from the truth it was alarming. There must have been a couple of people out there who gave a false impression.
“I don’t blame the fans because if you hear that you’re going to believe it. But I don’t have a clue where it’s come from. You had to put it to one side. That’s not an excuse. The team last season didn’t play well enough, they weren’t good enough. This year they are and that’s the most important thing. Maybe in the long haul last year was a blessing in disguise for the club. The club is the most important thing.
“When careers come towards the end and you need to move on, I look back with pride and a sense of achievement with being there over eight years. And I think it’s three Scottish Cups, three League Cups, three Premier Leagues and Third and Second Division. That’s the way I look at it – all positive. The slight regret is not doing the whole journey. But everything happens for a reason. The most important thing is the club and you’ve got to say it’s in a far better place than where it was – especially last year.
“I wouldn’t change a thing, though. I’m quite loyal that way. For me, I had the chance to do the right thing and I feel I did that. So no, I wouldn’t change anything.”
McCulloch sees the Dave King takeover in March that brought such people as Paul Murray, Donald Park and John Gilligan on to the board as transformative following the make-up of previous regimes.
“I know Mr Murray and Mr Gilligan really well along with Mr Park. I think I’ve only met Mr King once and he was fine,” said McCulloch. “He seemed all right to me but in general I think they’re genuine Rangers people and have the club at heart. Look at John Gilligan, a massive, massive Rangers man. Paul Murray used to go on all the Champions League trips too. It was the same with the Parks, Graham and Donald. So for me the club is in a much better place than what it was.”
» Lee McCulloch was speaking at a William Hill media event. William Hill is the proud sponsor of the Scottish Cup.