NEVER mind Rangers’ hosting of St Johnstone this week being an awkward fixture for both clubs. Tuesday night’s League Cup tie is mighty awkward for the many that rush to draw hard and fast conclusions from one-off football encounters.
In being pitted against Premiership opponents, it is tempting to see the third round confrontation as an opportunity to assess just how far Mark Warburton has taken an Ibrox side that have been nonchalantly swatting aside Championship opponents.
There is just one problem with setting up the televised encounter in such terms. In the League Cup quarter-final last year, a dreadfully poor Rangers side helmed by Ally McCoist took care of the Perth club on their own patch. Their vanquished visitors were Scottish Cup holders at the time and on their way to securing European football for a third consecutive season. Yet, Warburton has little time for the tussle with St Johnstone being perceived as a first chance to judge his team for other understandable reasons.
“We know that many people will see this as our first real test but I’d say to the players it’s a bit unfair when we’ve had Hibs at Ibrox, dealt with Alloa’s surface and everyone was saying about the test at QOS,” he said. “They’ll be a very good team are in very good shape and it will be another challenge for us.
“We’re at home, in good form and looking forward to it. I think it’s important to go as far as we can in the competition. It would give us more of a chance to play Premiership teams. It gives us the chance to test ourselves again and the more matches we have the more we can utilise the squad and change it – never weaker or stronger.
“That’s the hard thing for the management: to make sure everyone is ready to contribute. We don’t want to call on players who haven’t played for five, six weeks. So when you have more games in the cups, it allows us to make sure all the squad is involved. I hope it’s an exciting one for the support, our aim has to be to keep on pushing. The more we can play to a packed Ibrox, the better so I hope it’s a really good crowd on Tuesday and we can deliver another level of decent performance.”
Warburton agrees that St Johnstone “will be a good measure of the Prmiership” courtesy of their European involvement and the fact that they are “regular top six” finishers. However, picking his words carefully, the former Brentford manager does not believe the gap between the top two tiers in Scotland is akin to his own country.
“I don’t see the gulf that I see between the Championship and the Premier League down south. That is in no way disrespectful to anyone but I think you’d agree that you look at it and the gap is much smaller,” he said. “The financial gap is much smaller, that is the reason why. Look at some of the wages and fees paid down south. They are not right. They are not appropriate. But it is what it is. Value of something is what someone is prepared to pay for it. That gap is getting wider and wider and that is not the case in Scotland. I don’t think the gulf here is enormous, far from it. It’s a lot tighter. And it’s about preparing well and hopefully delivering that consistency.”
Yet, while in general terms the 52-year-old’s assessment is difficult to dispute, it has no relevance to Rangers coming up against St Johnstone. The gap between the Ibrox men and any Premiership sides outside of Celtic and Aberdeen is one that favours Rangers, since their wage bill is around three times that of the average top-flight side. In England no Premier League side could face up to Championship opponents in a cup that had a football budget dwarfing theirs. Rangers are shorter priced than St Johnstone for Tuesday’s tie owing to reasons beyond their recent results.
“I didn’t know that we were favourites,” Warburton said. “Listen, we just want a good run. We are at home, we are on form, we are on a good surface but they are a Premiership top six club so I would imagine the neutral would imagine it would be a really close game.
“But right now we are enjoying every game so we are looking forward to it.”
Scottish League Cup third round
Dundee United v Dunfermline Athletic
Greenock Morton v Motherwell
Livingston v Inverness Caledonian Thistle
Rangers v St Johnstone (7:15, live BBC 1)
Ross County v Falkirk
Celtic v Raith Rovers
Hibernian v Aberdeen
Kilmarnock v Heart of Midlothian
Kick-offs 7:45 unless stated