IN THE end, it was a frustrating, untidy way to become champions, but then, it has been that sort of season for Rangers in the Third Division.
Having just about fulfilled their part of the bargain earlier in the day, it was only when the result came through from Hampden that they were able to celebrate their achievement. If “celebrate” is the right word.
The lunchtime kick-off for their scoreless draw at Montrose meant that Ibrox stood empty when it was confirmed that they had won the title. Instead, the achievement, which was finalised by Queens Park’s 1-0 loss to Elgin City, was marked in the kind of modest manner it deserved. Even Ally McCoist, the Rangers manager, would be hard-pressed to make a virtue of his team’s hapless stumble over the finishing line.
Not that the party was ever likely to be so boisterous as those that followed the club’s other titles, all 54 of which they were allowed to keep after an SPL Commission investigating undisclosed payments, ruled in their favour. McCoist will be relieved to have got the job done, but not nearly so relieved as he was to hear in November that Rangers had won the Big Tax Case.
There have been plenty of victories for Rangers this season, but the meaningful ones have not been on the pitch. McCoist will doubtless make all the right noises about this triumph, but he knows as well as everyone else that it was inevitable. He knows that his club, starting a new life on the bottom rung after last year’s liquidation, would be judged not on whether they won the league, but how they did so.
Rangers are 22 points clear, with the margin only likely to grow between now and May, but it has been a thankless task for all those involved. They have had everything to lose, and very little to gain, from a league schedule that has resembled nothing so much as an entire season of awkward Scottish Cup ties. Nonetheless, there has been some awful football along the way, not just recently, but in the early part of the campaign when they had to wait until 28 October for their first away win. The defeat to Stirling Albion during the same month led to speculation that McCoist was in line for the sack.
A run of 11 consecutive wins towards the end of the year suggested that they were at last clicking into gear, but in one of them, they needed a last-minute winner against ten-man Queen’s Park. More embarrassingly, they could manage only a draw at home to Elgin City, who were a man short for half of a match in which Rangers had taken an early lead. Then there was the home defeat by Annan Athletic only the other week, the attendance for which showed a significant drop.
That the crowd for the Annan game was still 34,441 speaks volumes for the supporters’ backing. In December, they had 49,913 for the visit of Stirling Albion. They are averaging well over 40,000 for the season. Whether that is down to loyalty, passion or sheer, bloody-minded defiance, it is unarguably impressive, although their repeated claims to have broken the world record for a bottom tier must have been tricky to verify.
The trouble is that the figures now seem to be tailing off, which will be a worry to Charles Green, their chief executive. Rangers made great play of their big, new adventure at the start of the season, of making friends and feeling welcome – which they had not been able to do in the SPL – but the novelty is now wearing off.
For a club that has dominated Scottish football as part of the Old Firm, enjoyed European success and attracted some of the world’s best players in years gone by, there is little value in hiking about from Berwick to Peterhead, eating humble pie at the least salubrious of locations. To compound the problem, Rangers have added little to the product, which has been so poor in the last couple of weeks that their players have been jeered off.
However willing those fans have been to swallow their pride this season, you wonder if they will have the appetite to do so again. Will they turn up in the same numbers if the proposed reconstruction of Scottish football consigns them to another season in the bottom tier?
Even on this, of all days, Rangers are frustrated. They have won the league, but if a new hierarchy of 12-12-18 is established, there will be no promotion. McCoist argues that they should be catapulted into the second tier, as Stranraer were in 1994, but the precedent is a dubious one.
Rangers supporters don’t know if they are coming or going. Green says that the club must be allowed to rise through the divisions, but he maintains that he wants no part of the SPL, a contradiction that he has never satisfactorily explained. He would take them to England if he could, but they are not wanted. He would set up shop abroad, but as yet, there is nowhere to do business. To make matters worse, there will be no room in a new marketplace for sectarian singing, which resurfaced during matches at Berwick and Queen’s Park.
McCoist has said that Rangers still have the brand, that the international reach of their story has given them the potential to be stronger than ever, but in the short term, the club need something new, something that will demonstrate to the fans that they are making progress.
Rangers sold around 38,000 season tickets for their first campaign in the bottom tier, aided by a number of relatively high-profile signings, but with the possible exception of David Templeton, the new men have not captured the imagination. A few of the young, home-grown players such as Lewis MacLeod, Barrie McKay and Fraser Aird have taken their chance, but will that be enough to keep the turnstiles ticking over next season, especially if East Stirlingshire, Clyde and Montrose are again the visitors?
Another year of this is no good to anyone, except perhaps Rangers’ opponents. When Elgin City sold too many tickets for a league match against the Glasgow club at Borough Briggs, it may or may not have been an innocent mistake, but it added to the impression that the rest of the Third Division is lapping up this opportunity of a lifetime. For them, if not the cash cow they are milking, it has been a blast.