BY installing Rangers as second favourites to win the Scottish Cup, placing them ahead of three teams currently in the top six of the Premiership, bookmakers have displayed an instinctive and understandable degree of self protection.
There will, after all, be no shortage of punters – and not just those with a leaning towards the Ibrox club – who will see the value in what is certainly a notionally favourable path to the final for Ally McCoist’s team.
With a home quarter-final against rank outsiders Albion Rovers standing between them and a semi-final tie which will be played at Ibrox, Rangers are entitled to believe they have an outstanding opportunity of lining up in the season’s showpiece finale at Celtic Park on 17 May.
But are they really the second-best team left in the tournament after an Aberdeen outfit who fully merit their status as favourites? Are they truly a better bet than the top six Premiership trio of Dundee United, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and St Johnstone?
The difficulty in assessing just how good McCoist’s runaway League One leaders are is akin to judging a heavyweight boxing prospect who has been carefully protected by his promoter, building up a lengthy unbeaten record against soft opposition before being manoeuvred into position for a lucrative major title fight.
Until you see their reaction when they take a clean shot on the chin from a credible opponent, it is impossible to say with certainty whether a heavily-hyped contender is the real deal.
The boxing analogy only stretches so far, of course, and no disrespect is intended to the teams Rangers have faced in the third tier of Scottish football this season. Likewise, McCoist and his players are due more credit than they have received in some quarters for putting together an unbeaten run which they extended to 30 matches with Saturday’s 2-0 win over Ayr United at Somerset Park.
It is an impressive sequence of results at any level of football. Rangers have kept 23 clean sheets in the 32 games they have played in all competitions this season and are now just two goals short of reaching the 100-mark for the campaign.
Despite the eye-catching numbers, however, you do not have to search too far to find either a pundit or a punter who will tell you that the football McCoist’s team have played has too often been of the eye-watering variety.
But, in circumstances which continue to be laced with uncertainty off the pitch two years after Rangers went into administration, McCoist is meeting the primary requirement of his job by keeping his team firmly on course for the quickest possible return to the top flight. For any manager of the Ibrox club, the unrelenting demands to win football matches has always made substance a bigger priority than style.
The current Rangers side, as it should do with the salary budget it has, does have players of genuine Scottish top-flight quality. Goalkeeper Cammy Bell, left-back Lee Wallace, midfielder Nicky Law, winger David Templeton and striker Jon Daly would all be widely regarded as first- team material for any of the Premiership teams who remain in the Scottish Cup.
Until Rangers have to face one of those Premiership outfits, it remains a matter of conjecture as to how they collectively compare to them. The embarrassing League Cup first-round defeat to Forfar Athletic at Station Park back in August, which along with the Boxing Day draw at home to Stranraer in League One provides the only blemishes on Rangers’ results ledger so far, ensured only the Scottish Cup could provide any credible guide to their progress under McCoist.
On the morning of that League Cup elimination, former Rangers chief executive Charles Green infuriated McCoist with his claim that simply winning League One would not be good enough for the manager this season.
A cup win – and he was assuredly not referring to the Ramsdens Cup – had to be delivered, too, in order to give the club value for the second- highest wage bill in Scottish football.
As much as he disagreed with Green’s assertion, a resilient McCoist may yet oversee what would be as remarkable a Scottish Cup triumph as any the old tournament has contrived to produce.