AT AN emotional time of year at Ibrox, Rangers inched their way back into the Championship title race with a far from straightforward victory over Dumbarton.
A minute’s silence was held before kick-off for those who perished in the Ibrox disaster 44 years ago, underlining that, however, bad it gets – and a 4-0 thumping at Hibs on their previous outing was the last straw for some Rangers fans – perspective is always on hand.
Although the defeat at Easter Road marked a nadir for some, there is also a sense that things can also only get better at the start of a new year. This feeling has been further encouraged by the welcome news of investment in the club in the form of shares bought by businessmen perceived to be in tune with the fans.
While the respect and solemnity demanded by the significance of the occasion were observed pre-match, there was also a number of reasons to be cheerful for once at Ibrox.
Former director Dave King’s purchase of a near 15 per cent stake in the club has reignited hope among the supporters that Mike Ashley’s grip can be loosened.
Saturday’s attendance was also up on recent home matches, another pointer towards better times. These fans were not necessarily lured back to Ibrox by the promise of a completely new tactical outlook under interim manager Kenny McDowall, whose selection for the game at Easter Road was deemed to be disappointingly derivative of Ally McCoist’s methods.
While McDowall hardly rang the changes here, Kyle Hutton was handed his first start since last season in preference to Ian Black, who was hauled off after little more than 30 minutes at Easter Road. Hutton replaced him that day and kept his place here on Saturday.
Notably both Black and Kris Boyd, linked with a return to Kilmarnock, failed to make an appearance even from the bench as Rangers stuttered to victory, aided by a goal bundled in off Jon Daly’s stomach.
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This drew Rangers level again after Dumbarton’s bright opening was rewarded with a goal by defender Andy Graham, when the home side were exposed, not for the first time, by a fairly routine cross from a corner into the box.
Lee Wallace’s well-hit strike from just inside the box edged Rangers ahead before half-time but they lived dangerously throughout. Colin Nish should have put Dumbarton two goals in front with a headed chance shortly after the visitors had opened the scoring while Chris Kane, due to return to St Johnstone following a successful loan spell, spurned two opportunities to equalise in the final five minutes.
A goal with almost the last kick of the game by Dean Shiels helped make the scoreline look more flattering than Rangers’ laboured efforts deserved. But there were indications that the Ibrox side might be able to apply some pressure on Hearts at the top – in order to do so, this victory will need to be followed by wins over Alloa, Hearts themselves and then Cowdenbeath before the month is out.
Perhaps by then McDowall will feel more confident about imposing his own philosophy. He has put one marker down by playing Hutton, who is unsurprisingly glad for the opportunity to show what he can do under the new regime.
“Obviously I want to play every game so as soon as I was given my chance I knew I’d have to do my best if I’m to keep myself in the team,” said Hutton afterwards. “Hopefully I’ve done that.
“All the boys, along with my dad, mum and family, have helped keep my head up when I’ve not been playing. I’ve just gone into training every day and tried my best, kept my head down and kept working hard. Everybody helped keep me going and now I just want to kick-start and get a few more games.”
Even Black searched Hutton out and offered him his best wishes before the game, which marked the midfielder’s first start for Rangers since a 4-0 win over Stenhousemuir in April. McDowall informed Hutton that he had been selected on the day before the game. “He just said: ‘it’s up to you, you’ve got your chance so keep yourself in the team’.
“All credit to him for giving me the start.” added Hutton. “It’s up to me now to repay him by going out and putting on good performances for him to keep myself in the team.”
Plagued by injury in recent times, Hutton is keen to make an impression as he reaches the end of his contract. Indeed, he can speak to other clubs as of now. But he is keen to convince whoever will be making the decision about personnel for next season that he is worth a new contract at Ibrox.
Hutton realises he has to accept such talks are unlikely to prove imminent. Following Lewis Macleod’s move to Brentford last week, raising money may continue to be the Ibrox club’s primary objective over the next few weeks.
McDowall was short and to the point on Saturday when asked if, to date, there has been contact from elsewhere for players such as Wallace, whose failure to celebrate after scoring Rangers’ second goal was judged by some to be significant.
“No,” said the interim-manager. There was nothing in his tone that suggested he expected this to remain the case. McDowall hasn’t asked for any reassurances about keeping players because he realises that, despite the brighter news of the last few days, the club remains in a perilous financial state. “I don’t want to lose anyone but with the state we are in at the moment, it is not my decision,” he said. “I will just keep my fingers crossed.”
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