THE bookmakers may as well pay out now on Rangers lifting the League One trophy this season.
At the end of a week when football’s relationship with the turf accountants has come under intense scrutiny, Ally McCoist’s men romped to a margin of victory over an out-gunned Airdrie side which even the most optimistic of their punters would have struggled to predict.
In a win every bit as convincing as the scoreline suggests, Jon Daly did his best to hog the limelight with his first two goals for his new club. But one man was always going to be centre of attention at the Excelsior Stadium last night and Ian Black handled it with admirable resilience.
Jeered by the home fans and lauded by the visiting support, Black justified McCoist’s decision to select him despite the pending SFA hearing against him on 160 offences of gambling on football.
If Black was at all distracted by the avalanche of newsprint and hours of airtime his betting charges have taken up this week, he hid it well. He was the most effective and influential performer for Rangers, passing neatly and reading the game intelligently from his holding midfield role in a 4-1-3-2 formation.
When he was replaced in the closing stages, Black received a standing ovation from the Rangers fans who are clearly unperturbed by any suggestion he may have placed a bet against his own team.
For McCoist, this maintained a prolific winning start to Rangers’ league campaign which has seen them score 13 goals in their three matches so far.
How times have changed since the last league meeting between these two 20 years ago. On that day at the barely lamented old Broomfield ground, Rangers clinched the fifth of their nine successive league titles with a 1-0 win.
The goal was scored by Gary McSwegan, in the side because of the leg break suffered on Scotland duty by McCoist. During the post-match celebrations that afternoon in May 1993, his team-mates paraded a life-size cardboard cut-out of their absent team-mate to mark his staggering 49-goal contribution to the campaign.
Both Airdrie and Rangers have suffered cataclysmic financial collapses since then, of course, and it is the pursuit of a third tier title which saw
McCoist back in person last night at the smart stadium the locals like to refer to as New Broomfield. This was a rare occasion when all four stands were populated. Just over 600 fans witnessed Airdrie’s previous home fixture but the sold-out signs had been posted a couple of days ago for Rangers’ visit.
Rangers had to sustain some early pressure from their eager hosts. A mistake from captain Lee McCulloch presented Airdrie with their first sight of goal in the third minute, Nathan Blockley unable to connect cleanly enough with Willie McLaren’s cutback.
More slack play from McCulloch, partnering Sebastian Faure in central defence for Rangers, provided another opening for McLaren who this time dragged a left-foot shot narrowly wide.
Black, predictably jeered by the home fans whenever he was in possession, got Rangers onto the front foot with a 22-yard shot just off target. He bettered that with a thumping volley from Daly’s lay-off which forced a fine save from Airdrie goalkeeper Colin Stewart, son of Rangers’ goalkeeping coach Jim.
Having gradually established a passing rhythm on the slick artificial surface, Rangers went ahead in the 18th minute with a well-worked goal. Lewis Macleod exchanged passes with Robbie Crawford to carve open the Airdrie defence before steering a precise left-foot shot beyond Stewart from 16 yards.
Airdrie, deploying a 4-4-2 formation, tried to remain positive and were unfortunate to have a penalty appeal turned down by referee Stephen Finnie when McCulloch appeared to strike the ball with his left arm in the area.
The home side were further deflated in the 36th minute when Rangers scored another fine goal to exert a firm grip on proceedings. Black flighted a free-kick to the edge of the Airdrie area where Daly rose to head the ball down for Andy Little. The Northern Ireland international wrong-footed central defender Gregor Buchanan with a swift turn before driving a left-foot shot high into the net from around six yards.
Stewart made another excellent diving save to keep out an overhead kick from Little four minutes before half-time and it was already clear there would be no way back for Airdrie.
That was confirmed three minutes after the restart when Rangers made it 3-0. It was a goal created by Lee Wallace, charging forward from left-back onto a good pass from Faure. When Wallace’s low driven cross rebounded off Airdrie captain Darren McCormack, it left Crawford with a fairly simple left-foot finish from around eight yards.
Daly looked set to be frustrated once more in pursuit of his first Rangers goal when he sent a left-foot shot agonisingly wide of the target. But the big Irishman, who will now not be able to play for Rangers again until September after using up his quota of trialist appearances, would not be denied.
As Airdrie grew increasingly ragged, Daly opened his account with a close-range header from Crawford’s looping cross in the 66th minute. Three minutes later, Rangers made it 5-0 with a perfectly executed training ground set-piece which saw Macleod, Daly and Little combine to set up Nicky Law for a terrific left-foot finish.
Airdrie were reeling now and just a minute later they conceded again, Daly doubling his tally with a right-foot shot on the turn after receiving the ball from Crawford inside the area.