ALLY McCoist can boast a 100 per cent winning record as Rangers manager at Tynecastle – which is more than he is able to say about Balmoor, Galabank, Shielfield, Forthbank or Station Park.
So when McCoist insists that a trip to Gorgie is something he and his players will relish rather than fear, he means it.
The past two post-administration seasons have seen Rangers largely deprived of the kind of high profile, high octane away fixture they face against Hearts this lunchtime.
Despite those occasional and embarrassing dropped points at places such as Peterhead, Annan and Berwick, the pathway through the bottom two tiers of Scottish football has been straightforward for McCoist’s team.
There is no such formality about the final stage of Rangers’ projected journey back to the top flight. So far, it is Hearts who have firmly seized the initiative in the Championship with 11 wins and two draws from the first 13 rounds of fixtures.
Although taken aback by the level of consistency shown by Robbie Neilson’s side –who could open up a nine-point gap between the title rivals at the top of the table with victory today – McCoist is bullish about his return to a venue where Rangers recorded 2-0 and 3-0 wins during the fateful 2011-12 campaign which plunged them into administration, his first season in the job.
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“I have been surprised by Hearts,” admitted McCoist. “They have done extremely well and are showing a level of consistency that has surprised me. That doesn’t mean I didn’t think they’d do well, but their level of consistency has been very good and it surprises me that anybody has been able to show that level of consistency in such a competitive league, so they deserve all the credit for that.
“But these are the games our players all want to play in. Outside Ibrox, Tynecastle is one of my favourite grounds in the country, with the atmosphere and the fact that the stands are steeper and the fans are right down on top of you.
“It’s a great place to play, so even one or two of our lads who haven’t experienced Tynecastle’s atmosphere will enjoy it. I’d be very hopeful they’d enjoy it but it won’t do us any harm at all to have players who have sampled it before.
‘It generates a fantastic atmosphere when it’s full. There are good teams throughout history, not just Rangers ones, who have gone to Tynecastle and struggled. I remember they even beat Bayern Munich 1-0 there when Iain Ferguson scored many moons ago.
“It’s a place that can be intimidating if you allow it to be. But certainly our players will not be in any way, shape or form intimidated by the atmosphere.”
McCoist added: “I think our players are relishing the prospect of going to the team which is top of the league. I don’t think they are looking at the bookies odds and saying ‘Hearts are favourites, that’s an added incentive’. The far greater incentive is to claw back three points and cut the gap to three at the top of the table. That’s the main incentive.
“This is what we haven’t had for the last two years. In a masochistic way, I’m certainly enjoying it. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t enjoying it when Alloa equalised against us at Ibrox last week. Far from it. But this is us back at the sharp end of football.
“We are back playing big games on a far more regular basis than we have been. The big games are coming thick or fast now, whether it is Hearts tomorrow, Kilmarnock in the Scottish Cup next week, and then Queen of the South and Hibs away.
“These are now big, big games. That’s no disrespect to the teams we have played in the last couple of years. But there is a lot more focus on these games than there has been in the last 18 months or two years.
“We are hoping for something similar to our games against Inverness and St Johnstone in the League Cup this season. We deserved to win both games against top flight opponents and kept clean sheets in both. This is another massive test, because Hearts certainly wouldn’t look out of place in the top flight.”
Last Saturday’s poor performance and 1-1 draw against Alloa has ramped up the pressure again on McCoist and Rangers, who had previously earned some breathing space with eight consecutive wins following their 3-1 home defeat to Hibs at the end of September.
“The main difference I’m looking for from us this week is better finishing,” said McCoist. “We didn’t play particularly well last week but just as we didn’t get carried away when we won eight in a row and kept seven clean sheets, so we don’t stick our heads in the oven when we lose a late equaliser to Alloa.
“Win, lose or draw at Tynecastle, there will be a massive reaction to the result. We have to find a balance and we will do that, regardless of the result. Whoever wins the game will certainly not be guaranteed winning the Championship. But let’s not kid ourselves – it’s a big three points both teams are playing for. We are not thinking about anything other than victory.”
McCoist’s preparations for the match have been undertaken against a backdrop of further verbal mudslinging between former Rangers director Dave King and current football board chairman Sandy Easdale, in a week when cost-cutting measures have seen redundancies for around ten administrative and marketing staff at the club.
“We are all really sorry that we’ve lost people at the club who have worked here for a long, long time and given the club tremendous and loyal service,” added McCoist.
“We are sorry to see them go, but as sorry as we are, we can’t have a bearing on it. The only thing we can have an effect on are the games that we play. That has to be our 100 per cent focus. We have lost good colleagues but we must concentrate on the job.”
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