RANGERS are running out of excuses. Not only did they fail on Saturday to secure their first away win of the season, they slumped to their first defeat, and this time there were no cramped dressing-rooms, quagmire pitches or surreal atmospheres with which to explain the setback.
Stirling Albion - Allison (9)
On a perfect playing surface at the neat and tidy Forthbank Stadium, which was filled mostly with Rangers supporters, an early goal by Brian Allison gave Stirling Albion, hitherto bottom of the Irn Bru Third Division, their first win against the Ibrox club since 1953.
Even after all that has happened to them in the last few months, this was a shocking result for Ally McCoist’s side. Draws at Peterhead, Berwick Rangers and Annan Athletic were disturbing enough, but this was the day when Rangers found yet another depth to plumb.
All things being equal, as they were on Saturday, the Ibrox side should stroll through games like these, but they haven’t, and they didn’t, which has left many to demand explanations. Given how much the Rangers players are being paid, why are they not wiping the floor with their part-time opponents?
One theory is that the manager is not all he was cracked up to be. McCoist admitted afterwards that he was “at a loss” as to why there should be such a discrepancy between his team’s home and away form. He insists that he has the right characters in his dressing-room, which only leads to questions about his own ability. For the moment, he has the fans on his side, united by the club’s siege mentality, but for how long?
Lee McCulloch, the Ibrox side’s captain, says that the club cannot afford another trauma such as this. His preference is to blame the players, whose attitude did not match that of their opponents. Rangers pummelled Stirling for long spells, but they could not find a way through the most stubborn of rearguards, and in the end, ran out of ideas. Not only did the home side snatch a surprise goal, they defended it as though their lives were on the line.
“Maybe they wanted it more,” said McCulloch. “If you watched the game from a neutral point of view, it probably looked like they wanted it more, which isn’t good enough. We’re aware that it has to change from now on because I don’t think we’ll get away with another result like this.
“You saw their defenders’ faces, the aggression they showed every time they won a header or blocked a tackle. It was as if they had scored a goal. It just shows that it’s not going to be as easy a ride in the Third Division as some people were making out. It’s not going to be four, five and six goals every game. The only way we’re going to win games is by being as aggressive as them.”
Not for the first time this season, Rangers fell behind all too quickly. It is a bad habit that gives opponents hope, as well as something to fight for. Just nine minutes were gone when Kieran McAnespie headed Daly McSorley’s corner into the six-yard box, where Brian Allison was able to turn it over the line.
That entitled the home side to more or less park the bus. They rode their luck at times – most notably when a McCulloch header hit the post – and their goalkeepers both excelled. Sam Filler, who suffered a head knock that affected his vision, was replaced at half-time by Mark Peat, who produced a string of second-half saves.
When Peat smothered the ball at Kevin Kyle’s feet with ten minutes left, Rangers’ last significant chance had gone. The upshot of it all was that the Ibrox side had slipped to third in the league, Stirling were off the bottom, and their manager, Greig McDonald, who missed the game in order to attend his own wedding, had got himself a rather special present.
It was a big day for Stirling, particularly their young players, who are unlikely to play Rangers again after this season, never mind beat them. Stephen Day, a second-half substitute, sat in the dressing-room afterwards, refusing to remove his shirt because he didn’t want the experience to end.
Across the corridor, there was anger among the Rangers players, as there had been at half-time. They have young players of their own, for whom it was also a big day, one from which they will need to learn from pretty sharpish. McCulloch worries that these troubled times could have an adverse effect on the club’s emerging talent.
“It’s affecting the dressing room, put it that way,” said McCulloch. “It’s not nice. There are a lot of young boys in there. It’s important that we keep encouraging them and not let them go into their shells. They are 17, 18, 19, and they have to be looked after. So it’s important that we stay positive.”