Mark Warburton is facing the most challenging task of his Rangers tenure thus far after his side dropped points in their second successive game, the first time they’ve done so this season, following a 2-1 defeat at third-placed Falkirk.
Even had Martyn Waghorn accepted the gift referee Willie Collum presented to the visitors with the award of a 91st minute penalty, and not watched his effort be pushed on to the post by Falkirk goalkeeper Danny Rogers, it still would have been a disappointing day for Warburton and his men who went into the game with the expectation of rebounding from last week’s home draw with Morton.
It means that Rangers have now won only two of their last six games in the second tier, a dip in form that could not have come at a worse time with a top-of-the-table clash against Hibernian taking place next Monday. The teams are currently tied for first place with Rangers leading the pack thanks to their much superior goal difference (they have an advantage of +15 over Alan Stubbs’ side).
That fact is not lost on Warburton who is growing increasingly incredulous with the narrative surrounding his side now that they’ve hit a rough patch. When asked what the team could do to “turn it around” at the post-game press conference, Warburton bristled at the question. “We’re still top of the league, aren’t we?” Warburton asked sharply before looking around the assembled press pack. “Just checking. I’m being polite, because I know the negativity that will come. We’ll feed off that. The more negative headlines there are the more we’ll feed off it.”
It must seem like an odd line of enquiry for a manager who has won 13 of his 17 league games thus far and, as he points out, still has his side top of the table. But it is an indication of the pressures that go with managing Rangers and the expectation that they will win every match in which they play, particularly within the more modest confines of the second tier.
Furthermore, it is not just the results that have taken a downturn, the performances have as well. Falkirk started Saturday’s match with a greater intensity than the visitors and won a penalty in the second minute. Replays would show the incident took place just outside the area, but after checking with his linesman, Collum pointed to the spot and John Baird dispatched the penalty.
The visitors got back into the match a short time later through Barrie McKay, though this still failed to spark them into life, and Falkirk created the next great chance when Baird, in an offside position, thoughtlessly bundled over Kevin O’Hara’s shot when the ball seemed certain to cross the line regardless.
Baird apologised to his manager for the error at half-time, but Peter Houston instructed the striker – whom he later quipped was a “greedy wee s***” – and the rest of the team to move on from the mistake, and they took to the second half with great gusto, restoring the lead through Will Vaulks before O’Hara was denied twice more by a couple of excellent stops by Wes Foderingham.
It was only in the last 20 minutes that Rangers began to look at their best, pinning the hosts deep in their own half and creating three terrific chances, including the penalty, that were all repelled by Rogers in the Falkirk goal.
While Warburton may defiantly focus on the positives, midfielder Nicky Law knows standards have slipped since the club’s rip-roaring start to the season.
“We know ourselves the last few weeks we haven’t been good enough” admitted Law. “You’re going to have these spells in a season. You’re not going to have a season where everything is rosy, and we’re going through one of those spells at the minute. I don’t think the energy is what it was at the start of the season, the pressing hasn’t been there the last few weeks. So, for us, it’s about getting back to the standards we set for ourselves. We’ve dropped well below them. We need to find that solution which will enable us to win games and break teams down.”