THE extent to which Rangers’ problems are building is sometimes hard to digest. Off the field it is clearly grim indeed, but on it, too, there has been a perhaps surprising inability to find a positive reaction to the crisis.
No-one could possibly expect the players to be unaffected by the on-going travails which are set to impact in more biting fashion today. However, Saturday’s collapse against Hearts is testimony to just how much Ally McCoist’s side are struggling to rise to each emotionally-charged occasion at Ibrox. The weight of uncertainty combined with the expectation of fans is proving too hard to be borne.
Perhaps last Sunday’s win at Inverness – it finished 4-1 – was easier to negotiate because it was 90-minutes of normality in the players’ lives. They were back playing football in a setting which did not include nearly 50,000 distressed and emotionally raw home supporters, many of whom are looking for some sort of relief from the unremittingly bleak revelations about their club’s financial situation, and, perhaps, some form of pay-back too.
This transaction hinges on players being able to shut-out meetings with PFA Scotland representatives, meetings with agents, and with administrators. It relies on them being able to sweep worries about their own futures, and that of their families’, from their heads. Often players find that the perfect shelter from a storm can be found on a football pitch on a Saturday afternoon. However, Rangers seem to be finding that there is little escape, and the fans are learning that there is no relief.
Perhaps the idea that teams respond positively to trying financial times is an exaggerated one. Portsmouth lost at home to Middlesbrough on Saturday, meaning that British football’s two most high profile crisis clubs are finding it hard to provide any form of succour for their fans. “We are where we are just now,” stated Ally McCoist on Saturday evening, and, even in the circumstances, he probably realises that five defeats in their last 12 games, dating back to long before administration hit, isn’t good enough.
Today is expected to mark the end for some of those who played on Saturday. It might have been anyway, given the high standards expected at Ibrox. Few can claim that a Rangers side including youngsters such as Ross Perry, Rhys McCabe and Andrew Little would have been McCoist’s idea of a first-team a few months ago. With Lee McCulloch’s new employment as a striker, and Sone Aluko’s arrival after a brief spell in the wilderness to become one of Rangers’ most vital performers, this is a team that already shows signs of quality-reduction.
Yesterday came news that it is considered highly unlikely that Rangers will be able to meet the 31 March deadline to obtain a licence to compete in Europe next year, meaning that, for the first time since 1980-81, the Ibrox club will not feature in competitive European football next season. Yet that is a drop in the ocean compared to how far back we must look to locate the only other time the Ibrox side have endured a three game run of defeats at home that didn’t include Celtic. For this, we have to go back to 1891, when Clyde and Queen’s Park triumphed on successive visits before a familiar foe in Hearts arrived to complete a hat-trick of defeats.
Even in the midst of financial meltdown, over 46,000 Rangers fans in an attendance of 47,276 will feel they deserve better. It was the biggest gathering of football fans in Britain that day – beating Manchester City v Bolton Wanderers by 57 fans.
The fans are doing their bit, but are they entitled to ask whether the players are doing theirs? Watching a re-run of Jamie Hamill’s penalty winner, the Rangers players look frozen to the spot as the kick is converted at the second attempt. They seem distracted, agitated. If Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager, is able to argue, quite correctly, that his players were hampered by long return journeys from international football, then surely Rangers players can be cut some slack for failing to perform at their peak when their livelihoods are at risk? Worry can induce a tiredness as inhibiting as the lethargy that long-distance travel can induce.
Afterwards, McCoist commented that he was “staggered” that Rangers had ended up losing the match. He knows it will only get harder to earn points after the events of this week.Rangers have the bittersweet blessing of a fortnight of inactivity in terms of games, with no Scottish Cup commitments this weekend.
While it means no match income for three weeks – Rangers face an away match against Dundee United a week on Saturday – it at least gives McCoist time to survey his options following the expected cull of the playing squad. The next challenge after the trip to Dundee? Only to prevent Celtic coming to Ibrox and inflicting a fourth consecutive home defeat on the hosts.
Somehow, amid all the further pain that is due to be inflicted today, McCoist has to try and ensure that the players who are left manage to keep their eye on the ball.