THE last time Rangers played Raith Rovers a veteran striker appeared from the bench to score the final goal in a 6-0 victory at Stark’s Park with which the Ibrox club closed in on a record-equalling ninth consecutive Scottish league title triumph.
Ally McCoist was that substitute in April 1997, in a heady era for Rangers when he counted world-class talent such as Paul Gascoigne and Brian Laudrup among his team-mates.
Fast forward 17 years and McCoist finds himself in the lead role of a very different Rangers movie as they prepare to go head to head with Raith Rovers in tomorrow’s Ramsdens Cup final at Easter Road.
It is not a tournament which McCoist would ever have envisaged being on his glittering CV, but it is a necessary part of the road to recovery he has been attempting to negotiate with Rangers since their financial collapse two years ago.
Despite facing opponents currently one division above them in the SPFL set-up, it is a final which also sees McCoist under significant pressure to deliver a trophy which his club’s supporters would previously have treated with disdain.
“That was all I ever had as a player and then assistant manager at Rangers,” says McCoist. “So it is good to get back to that level of pressure in football terms as manager. I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in more cup finals than most down the years and you tend to remember the ones you don’t win more than the ones you do.
“For me, it’s great to get that feeling of anticipation back again. That would indicate how seriously we are taking the competition. This is a great form of pressure. It is the pressure you want as a manager or player.
“If it isn’t exactly an enjoyable pressure, it is a pressure which you can accept, understand and appreciate. It’s far better than the pressure of administration, liquidation and all that stuff. This is the kind of pressure you actually look for when you are involved in football.
“It would mean a lot for everybody at the club to win on Sunday. We have always said at this club that we want to win every competition that we enter. This is no different. Last year was a disappointment, I tell you, when we were knocked out of the Ramsdens by Queen of the South at Ibrox. We had a goal wrongly disallowed for offside, it went to penalties and they were the eventual winners of the tournament. It did annoy us because we wanted to win it.
“This year we have got ourselves to the final. Raith Rovers have sold out their tickets, we have sold out our tickets, it is a proper game. I would suggest the fact we are in it has taken the media coverage of the final to a greater level than in previous years. It is a good one to win, one we really want to win. It would give everyone a boost – the players, our supporters, everybody connected with Rangers.” Although on a 39-match unbeaten run in all competitions, Rangers have been subjected to consistent criticism of the unconvincing nature of many of their performances in recent weeks.
McCoist believes there have been mitigating factors in his team’s displays and insists the manner in which the silverware is collected tomorrow will be of secondary importance.
“We haven’t played fast, free-flowing football in the last couple of weeks but we won the games which shouldn’t be dismissed,” he said. “We’ve won at tough places like Brechin and Arbroath, who are fighting to survive in League 1, and it will be equally tough for us on Sunday.
“I just think that sometimes, towards the end of the season, the surfaces are not really as helpful towards good passing football. But, if you ask any of the Raith players or supporters whether they would rather win the cup or see their team play fast, free-flowing football and lose the cup, I know which one they would pick. Cup finals, as we’ve noted in the last few weeks, are all about who is lifting the trophy at the end of it.
“We are favourites with the bookies on Sunday but there is still uncertainty, because no-one really knows how to gauge Rangers yet. We have former SPL players in our team, but at the same time we are playing a team from the division above us. We had that uncertainty when we played Falkirk in the Scottish Cup this season and dealt with it. But this is a different Rangers team playing in this cup final. The Rangers teams which have played in cup finals previously have always been at the top of the Scottish game. Through no fault of the players, this one is not.
“It will be difficult for us on Sunday and we’re certainly not underestimating it. Based on the times I’ve watched Raith Rovers, they are in a false position in the Championship.
“They could have gone ahead in their Scottish Cup tie against St Johnstone and missed two big chances at 1-1 in that game.
“I spoke to big Lofty [Terry Butcher] recently and he said Raith deserved their Scottish Cup win over his Hibs team at Easter Road this season.
“They are good in a one-off game, they can raise their game. They’ve also got nothing to lose in some ways, because the majority of people expect Rangers to win – rightly or wrongly.
“So there’s no pressure on Raith. They can go out and enjoy their day.
“I was at Ibrox in 1994 when they beat Celtic to win the League Cup final and it was incredible. That’s what Raith Rovers want again on Sunday. It’s up to us not to give them that.”