THIS time last year, Rangers were at the top of the SPL and looking forward to a Boxing Day game against Celtic. Today, they are ahead in the race for the Division Three title, and about to take on second-placed Elgin at lunchtime.
That contrast may appear to many outsiders as yet another example of how far the once-mighty Ibrox club have fallen, but Ally McCoist views things differently. For him, the time to look back wistfully is over; instead, with Rangers in a secure financial position once more, it is time to look ahead.
“The future of the club is safe and that’s great,” the manager said. “The last year has been really tough, but there’s absolutely no point in looking back now. We have to look to the future.
“We’re in SFL3 at the moment. We don’t know if there’s going to be league reconstruction, so we just have to set our targets on winning the league and getting into SFL2. That’s what the future will hopefully hold for us.
“It’s certainly a better place to be now in terms of the club being in a healthier position. We want to get back to the league we were in last year, of course we do. We want to be playing in the top league.”
Having said all that, McCoist also acknowledged that there is still a surreal element to the situation in which Rangers have found themselves since former owner Craig Whyte took them into administration in February. Certainly, while getting ready to go to Celtic Park as SPL leaders in December 2011, he did not come close to envisaging what would happen.
“A year ago we could never have seen this happening. Six months ago the very future of the club was in jeopardy, serious jeopardy.
“A year ago, we would have thought you were mad if you said the following year would contain this. You would have said you were off your head. But it did happen. And if it can happen to us, it can happen to anyone. The most important thing is that we never allow that to happen again. We want to get back to welcoming Celtic, Hearts and all the big clubs in the country. That’s what we want, but it ain’t going to happen overnight. I would far rather get back there in a stable position with youngsters who have played a few games and can go and compete than any other way.”
While the natural instinct is to want to get back to the top flight as soon as possible, McCoist is aware that the young players who make up a fair chunk of his squad may not be ready to perform a division higher for each of the next three seasons. “It’s a tough one, because you want to get back as quickly as you can. But hanging about would suit the young players, no doubt about that. From the club’s point of view, though, the sooner we get back there, the better.”
The risk in doing that, of course, would be that Rangers might not simply ease back into their familiar place in the top two. Having had three seasons as a lower-division club, they could fail to get close to the upper reaches of the SPL.
“That would be difficult for the majority of the fans and myself to accept,” McCoist admitted. “But a couple of people whose opinions on the game I very much respect have said to me that it is all about managing your own level of expectation at the moment.”
McCoist’s expectation today is that his team will face one of their most demanding league fixtures of the season, albeit against opponents who they have already beaten twice at Ibrox, once in the league and once in the Scottish Cup. “We’re going to a place where I think we will get one of our toughest tests of the season in the league. Elgin are second at the moment and I can see they really fancy it from the quotes from Ross Jack, who I have a lot of time for, and the Elgin players.”
This match should have been held a few weeks ago but was postponed for safety reasons when it was learned that Elgin had sold too many tickets. Whatever annoyance McCoist may have felt at the time, however, has long since disappeared.
“I have a great degree of sympathy, because every away game is, in a nice way, the circus coming to town. Everyone wants to get as much for their own club as they possibly can. It was a shame what happened. But we’re over it and I just want Elgin to get over it now. It’s history and there is absolutely no problem between the clubs. That was clearly evident in the cup game. We got a wonderful welcome from Montrose last week and I’m sure it will be the same again.”