AT THE outset of a week when Rangers return to the tightrope of knockout football not once but twice, a hunched Ally McCoist gave the impression yesterday of a man who has forgotten what it is like to play with nothing to lose.
There is an ever-present threat of humiliation that accompanies Rangers’ every outing in League 1 of the SPFL, and McCoist said he could not identify any features that distinguished tonight’s Ramsdens Cup semi-final at Stenhousemuir or Friday’s Scottish Cup third-round tie at home to Airdrie from the weekly ordeal of lining up against perceived cannon fodder.
Some or all of McCoist’s 14 predecessors in office might point out that he is not the first manager of Rangers to experience this sensation, and it is undeniable that, given the team’s utter domination of League 1, losing in a cup competition would do more material damage to the supporters’ hopes for the season than will the setbacks that will visit them in the longer competition.
The former striker, however, made it clear that this week is business as usual; that whatever the stage, he will not relax or modify his game plan and the instructions he gives to his team as they contemplate two more 90-minute encounters with lower-ranked and lesser-resources teams.
“I think, and in no way do I attempt to be disrespectful to the opposition, but I think that when we come up against Stenhousemuir or Airdrie in cup games it’s more about what we do. You do your homework, look at the opposition, but we feel that if we perform to the best of our ability then we should win the game,” he said.
“Maybe if you play teams of a higher standard in the top flight, you can look at things and maybe change your shape. But I believe in games against the opposition where we are it’s far more influenced by what we do rather than the opposition.”
To the point that another league title is now a formality, Rangers have clearly gotten to grips with the fly-swatting task that was once a refreshing departure from routine. With the exception of their dramatic win at Brechin and early League Cup demise at Forfar, they have not conceded a goal in six away games this season, scoring 19 of their own. And the last time they encountered Martyn Corrigan’s Stenhousemuir, at Ibrox, they scored eight.
Rangers see tonight as just another banana skin laid in their path, however. Asked if he would modify his team talk even slightly as his team continue their bid to sate their supporters’ appetite for silverware in this inglorious period, McCoist said he would not. “The vast majority of our league games have been cup ties over the last 18 months – that’s how we feel, it really is, particularly away from home,” he said. “When you go to the grounds... even on Saturday, it’s really, really competitive. You go to Forfar and Brechin last week and they’re like cup-ties. So there is not a lot that will change in the next couple of weeks.
“The Ramsdens Cup gives the players the opportunity to get to their first cup final, for the vast majority of them, so that’s something not to be scoffed at. We genuinely want to get to the final, and it will be an opportunity to give the supporters a wee thank you and a great day out, if we can get there, and they deserve that more than anybody.”
If Rangers’ readiest source of motivation is imagining what it would be like to be a genuine supporter of a great club fallen on hard times and hoping only to avoid further ignominy, Cammy Bell sought yesterday to crystallise what it is like to be Rangers’ goalkeeper at a time when clean sheets are not always difficult to obtain.
Bell wants to add to his single Scotland cap, and asked politely to be considered for selection for next month’s friendlies despite admitting that he is not as “busy” every week as he was while minding the net for Kilmarnock, Queen of the South or Montrose, the last team he represented on Ochilview’s artificial turf.
“The Scotland set-up has always been in my thoughts. I know that Allan [McGregor] is going to miss the next game through injury and international football is something I’ve always wanted to be involved in,” said Bell, 27.
“I’d like to earn another call-up. Every time I go there I learn something from the other goalies and the staff so it’s definitely my ambition to get back in the squad. However, first and foremost, I need to play well for Rangers.
“I thought signing for Rangers would enhance my Scotland chances. Every other week I’m playing at Ibrox in front of 45,000. When I was in the SPL with Kilmarnock it was 5,000 most weeks.
“Here we play in stadiums which are tight with people right on top of you so I’d say there is more pressure on me than there was when I was playing in the SPL. It’s completely different and a hard one to judge.
“Although people may say there isn’t much action for me — and sometimes there isn’t — I still need to organise my defence when it’s like that because one goal can be crucial. We’ve worked hard as a back five to build up a good relationship.
“All I can do is play well for Rangers and hopefully that leads to a call-up to the squad.”