RANGERS’ defeat on Saturday was predictable. The character they showed was not.
For many neutrals, the main question before the Scottish Cup semi-final was how Ally McCoist’s team would lose to Dundee United. Would they be ripped apart by the Taysiders’ flair and pace, and if so would it be such a humiliation that the manager’s position came under further pressure? Or would they succeed in limiting the damage by restricting the amount of football their opponents could play?
Neither scenario materialised. There was no humiliation, and Rangers lost while trying to play football. United, as ever, were a delight to watch at times, but they were second best both before taking the lead and for a long stretch of the second half as Rangers pressed for the equaliser.
Jackie McNamara’s side are in the final on merit. The poise of Paul Paton and John Rankin in central midfield kept them in contention throughout, and the finishing of Stuart Armstrong, Gary Mackay-Steven and Nadir Ciftci did the rest.
But it could have been a different story if Rangers had converted one of their early chances, and there would perhaps have been time for another twist or two to the plot late on had goalkeeper Steve Simonsen not gifted Ciftci the final goal in United’s 3-1 win.
Having exhibited such fatal flaws at either end of the pitch, Rangers at most remain a work in progress. But, after the multi-faceted ineptitude of their Ramsdens Cup final defeat by Raith Rovers at Easter Road six days earlier, this was at least a performance from which their supporters could glean some much-needed hope; one which will surely buy their manager some more time.
Any number of things went wrong in that 1-0 loss to the Kirkcaldy team. The tactic of playing Jon Daly as the lone striker in a 4-5-1 formation was bizarre: having been unable to train during the week because of injury, the Irishman was virtually immobile.
The refusal to use substitute Dean Shiels was inexplicable: the longer that game went on, the more obvious it became that Rangers were desperate for more pace through the middle.
And then there was the ponderous approach. Even allowing for the fact that half the side had fitness doubts, Rangers were plodding and predictable.
So the zip with which the Ibrox club played on Saturday was a relief to their own fans, and possibly a surprise to United, who looked ill-prepared for the early onslaught that might easily have yielded a goal. Certainly, the response at the end from the home support was in marked contrast to the frustration they had vented six days earlier. “It was good to see, but I thought we deserved it,” substitute Nicky Clark said about the reaction of those supporters.
“The fans were great with us all and the atmosphere was amazing. We performed really, really well and on another day we could have won. We would have liked to have got to the final, but it wasn’t to be.
“I think we should take some encouragement from that performance. We played really well and we created a few good chances in the first half, and maybe on another day we would have taken them and gone on to win.
“Everybody was fired up for it. All the boys performed out there. On another day we might have won and I don’t think there would have been too many arguments had we done that. Obviously, we were disappointing last week, but I think we bounced back and put in a really good performance against a really good SPL side and I think we can take credit for it.
“We can take that into next season. It will be a good standard next year, and after today we know we’re capable of raising our game and playing against the top teams.”
Finding out whether Rangers can indeed raise their game regularly will be one of the fascinating aspects of next season’s Championship. The received wisdom is that they have fallen towards the level of their opponents in their past two league campaigns, with perhaps only Lee Wallace – absent on Saturday through injury – able to maintain his own high standards.
If they remain, at root, good players, they should be able to play at a far higher level week after week.
Of course, it’s not just about individual form. If Rangers are to win the Championship, they will have to be far more coherent as a team. Too often over the past two years they have looked like a bag of pick’n’mix: an ill-judged selection of attractive items which really do not belong together.
McCoist needs to recruit new players over the summer. Presuming his club are in a position to let him do that, he will thenceforth be judged not on his team’s performances in the cups, as has been the case these past two seasons, but on their run-of-the-mill league outings.
When the likes of Stenhousemuir and Stranraer were regular opponents, it was obvious that the League Cup, the Scottish Cup and even the Ramsdens should be seen as a truer guide to Rangers’ form.
In a Championship comprising the likes of Hearts, Raith, Hamilton and Falkirk, McCoist’s ability to manage will be put under scrutiny as never before.