NICKY Law has made all the difference to Rangers. Not only did he score the second of their four goals against Brechin City on Saturday, he dictated the play from his berth in the centre of midfield with such poise and purpose that it changed the Ibrox side out of all recognition.
Rangers 4-1 Brechin City
Scorers: Rangers - Hegarty 2, Law, 40, Black 82, Shiels 85; Brechin City - Jackson 66
The Englishman, who signed from Motherwell in the summer, is one of several new Rangers players who are allowed to beat the club’s transfer embargo by playing as a trialist before it expires on September 1. Jon Daly, who joined from Dundee United, is another who has exploited that loophole.
The contrasting fortunes of the team, with and without those two, is compelling, even this early in the season. When they played against Albion Rovers in the Ramsdens Cup, Law scored twice in a 4-0 victory. When they had to sit out the Scottish League Cup first-round tie against Forfar Athletic seven days later, Rangers were bundled out of the tournament.
At Ibrox on Saturday, in the opening match of the League One season, they were key figures. Daly missed a string of chances – especially during a first half in which Rangers should have scored at least four – but his presence gave the home side another dimension. So, too, did Law, who was named man of the match. He played well but, more importantly, he inspired those around him to do the same.
Too often in the Third Division, Rangers were one-paced, predictable and short of ideas, but not here. Chris Hegarty, their young full-back, admitted that the team in which he was a regular last season were some way short of that which Ally McCoist is now building.
“Last year we had a young squad and we had a lot of learning to do. The manager has bought very well with the likes of Nicky and big Jon. He has brought in a lot of Premiership experience. Those boys are brilliant. We are knocking the ball about brilliantly at the minute. The tempo is brilliant, we’re closing teams down and we’re looking very fit.”
Hegarty scored Rangers’ first goal after only two minutes, when a Law shot broke to him on the edge of the six-yard area and he turned the ball over the line. The rest of the first half was owned by the home side, who seized a deserved second seven minutes before the interval, when Law hit a low shot into the bottom corner.
“Getting that early goal set the tone of the game,” said Hegarty. “You saw the amount of chances we had. We could have scored five or six. The way we passed the ball and moved after that. . . Brechin did well to keep with us at times. It was hard for them. They couldn’t really touch the ball.”
Of course, too much should not be read into one match. Even within its 90 minutes, there was a short spell, early in the second half, when Rangers lost their momentum. Brechin pulled one back thanks to a clever overhead kick by Steven Jackson and the home side grew anxious. But a controversial penalty with ten minutes left allowed them to relax once more. When Andy Little was barged over by Paul McLean, the referee sent off the defender and pointed to the spot, a decision their manager, Ray McKinnon, described as “very, very soft”. Although Ian Black had his spot-kick saved, he converted the rebound.
With ten men, Brechin were now intent only on limiting the damage, which they failed to do. Five minutes from the end, Dean Shiels spotted the goalkeeper off his line and promptly found the net. The substitute, making his comeback from a long-term knee injury, celebrated on the touchline with Steve Walker, the Rangers physio.
Hegarty, who had a hernia operation during the summer, is another with Walker to thank. Not only has he reclaimed the right-back role at the start of this season, he has scored his first competitive goal for the club. Tomorrow is his 21st birthday, and on Wednesday he will be in the Northern Ireland under-21 squad for their match against Denmark.
Whether Hegarty can keep it going is another matter. On September 1, when all is supposed to come together for Rangers on the pitch, he will have Richard Foster, the right-back signed from Bristol City, to contend with. Happy though Hegarty is to see the arrival of eight experienced newcomers, somebody has to make way for them.
Asked if he was resigned to losing his place in the team, Hegarty replied: “No. At the minute, it’s in my hands. If I keep working hard on my fitness and keep playing well, I’ve got to put it in the manager’s mind that he has to play me. If he doesn’t, fair enough, but if Ricky has a bad game or gets injured, I’ll be knocking on the door, ready to go and play.”