THERE will be an underlying tension to the fixture that is hard to disguise, but Ally McCoist will observe the normal managerial formalities both before and after today’s Scottish Cup fifth round tie against Dundee United.
Although the Rangers fans have been asked to boycott the match, McCoist won’t refrain from behaving in his usual cordial manner when visiting an away ground.
“We will go in and see the boys after the game and have a cup of tea or a bottle of beer, whatever it may be,” the Rangers manager said yesterday. “Absolutely no doubt about that.”
It helps, of course, that the man in the opposite dug-out is an old friend, and McCoist will be sensitive to Jackie McNamara’s own nerves and anxieties on the occasion of his debut match in charge of United. McCoist is also alert to the danger that is posed by opponents naming a new manager just days before a fixture; often it leads to re-doubling of efforts on the part of players seeking to impress the new incumbent.
“I like Jackie, I really do,” said McCoist, who played against McNamara in several Old Firm derbies between 1995 and 1998. “I’m known him for years, I’ve played against his old man and I’ve played against Jackie. He’s just a good boy. I played against him when he was with Celtic and I watched his career for a number of years. I also watched him come through with Scotland and when he came into his coaching and management.
“Both him and Simon [Donnelly, his assistant] are doing really, really well. They are just two likeable people. In fact, I played a bounce game against them the other week there and we all played together.
“He was always up for it,” he added. “And he’ll be up for it tomorrow and so will his team. I think Jackie was that type of player, one that you would certainly rather have in your team than against you; a wee fiery Scotsman with great spirit and no shortage of talent.”
McCoist knows that McNamara will have his new team fired up for this encounter, while the invigorating properties of a new manager’s arrival could well be another factor in today’s outcome. Given that United will also be backed by a fiercely partisan crowd, McCoist has no hesitation in dismissing those who have disregarded Rangers’ Third Division status as well as the hostile setting and billed the visitors as favourites to progress.
“I’m not sure the pressure’s on them [United], but the expectation is,” he said. “I said last week that United are favourites for the game and United are favourites for the game. What we’ve got is a great bunch of lads who are doing well in our division.”
McCoist used past form in cup meetings to illustrate his point. A year ago on Tuesday, and just days before Rangers were placed in administration, United travelled to Ibrox and came away with a 2-0 victory in the same competition. In 2010, again in the Scottish Cup, United edged out Rangers in a replay at Tannadice, after a 3-3 draw at Ibrox. They then went on to win the competition.
“We have lost a squad that, ironically, were beaten twice by United in the Cup in three years, a team full of internationals like [Allan] McGregor, [Steven] Davis and all those boys,” McCoist pointed out. “As good a team as they were – and they were a good team, they proved that – they still got knocked out of the cup by United twice.
“So we’re going there with a team made up of younger lads, one or two free transfers and Temps [David Templeton] and Lee Wallace. That’s one of the reasons in my opinion that United will be favourites. That said, I believe we can win the game. I absolutely believe we can win the game.”
It was possible to discern a trace of sadness in his voice as he contemplated the prospect of an away stand that will be almost completely empty. The boycott diminishes the clash slightly, although there will still be an element of spice as Rangers, and their young team, prepare to enter the lion’s den.
“They have had a lot of firsts in their short careers, tomorrow will be another first,” said McCoist of the likes of Barrie McKay and Chris Hegarty. “They have gone from the scenario of 48,000 people at Ibrox and every away game, where we have had the vast majority of the support, to now having no support. That will be another learning curve for them.
“It is going to be a game between two teams who in years gone by have always had a healthy respect for each other,” he added. “We have had good games with each other. Tomorrow will be the same. I imagine the United fans will do their best to create an atmosphere and get right behind their team. That does not worry me in the slightest. In fact, I am looking forward to it, to tell you the truth. I am looking forward to some of our younger boys handling it because it is something that will be alien to them.”
Rangers’ chances of causing what McCoist maintains would be an upset have been undermined slightly by Lee McCulloch’s continued absence. The skipper’s ankle injury, sustained in the game against Queen’s Park at the end of last year, has given McCoist a headache, while Lewis Macleod has also been ruled out for seven weeks after damaging knee ligaments during last week’s 1-1 draw with Montrose.
“I’m concerned that Lee has been for a scan and it has not shown a lot wrong,” said McCoist. “I’m not saying he is not injured, of course. He is injured, but we don’t seem to have got to the bottom of it. He is our captain, he has chipped in with a lot of goals this season and he is unquestionably a key player.”