SEVEN games into a 36-match league campaign is clearly not the time to rush to judgment on Rangers’ prospects of winning the Championship and completing their return to the top flight of Scottish football in the quickest timescale possible.
But even at this stage of the season, with their team just two wins off the title pace being set by Hearts, many Rangers supporters have reached a firm and unforgiving verdict on Ally McCoist’s capacity to satisfy their demands.
Monday night’s 3-1 home defeat by Hibs, in tandem with the 2-1 Ibrox loss to Hearts on the opening day of the league campaign, has raised genuine doubts over Rangers’ title-winning credentials.
The unforeseen presence of both Edinburgh clubs in the second tier this year has ensured that the smooth passage Rangers experienced in winning the old Third Division and then the rebranded League 1 cannot be repeated.
With Hearts having started their post-administration life under Robbie Neilson in impressive and free-scoring fashion, most bookmakers have now installed the revitalised Tynecastle club as favourites to win the Championship and earn automatic promotion.
If Alan Stubbs can establish a level of consistency at Hibs in the wake of their eye-catching win at Ibrox, it will further crank up the pressure on Rangers in a season when three into two simply won’t go in pursuit of the potential second promotion spot through the play-offs.
For McCoist as Rangers manager, the next couple of months are now unquestionably crucial. Anything less than maximum points from their next five league games – away to Livingston and Dumbarton and at home to Raith Rovers, Falkirk and Alloa – would see the grumblings of discontent towards McCoist grow to a crescendo ahead of a potentially pivotal trip to face Hearts at Tynecastle on 22 November.
His team have already shown themselves capable of responding to a setback, reeling off a nine-match unbeaten run of eight wins and a draw after the home loss to Hearts.
But while results are always the bottom line as far as Rangers are concerned, it is the level of their performances which are the cause of such disquiet among their fans.
Monday night was another case in point, McCoist’s side lacking the tactical wherewithal to overcome a well-organised and more defensively robust Hibs outfit. Vulnerabilities appear to abound throughout McCoist’s line-up, most notably from the accident-waiting-to-happen which is central defender Bilel Mohsni. The Tunisian seems to spread an air of uncertainty throughout his team.
There was also a complete lack of variety and inventiveness in Rangers’ play on Monday night with the deployment of Arnold Peralta and Steven Smith, both ostensibly full-backs by trade, as the wide midfielders simply not working. They were replaced by the more naturally attack-minded Fraser Aird and David Templeton, by which time the damage was done with a 3-0 half-time deficit.
The return from injury of Lewis Macleod, by some distance Rangers’ most creative player, may address some of their deficiencies but it is unreasonable to expect a 20-year-old to bear the burden of expectation which always surrounds the club. While a six-point deficit at the top of the table is no cause for panic after just two months of the season, there is already an awareness among the Rangers squad that they have little margin for further error.
“It’s still early, but obviously we don’t want to be in the position we are in now,” admitted Canadian winger Aird.
“We would have wanted to be tied with Hearts or ahead of them at this point of the season. At the end of the day, it’s two big games we have lost already this season at Ibrox and we have to look at that and improve.
“There will be points dropped all over by every team over the course of the season and it will be a tough league for everyone. You can’t count on definitely beating anyone. Even when we went to Alloa and drew the other week, it was tough.
“But we need to keep winning our games now and let the other teams drop points. The fans know we can do so much better and they expect the best from a big club like this so we need to go out and prove to them at Livingston on Saturday that we are much better than we showed against Hibs.
“There are always words between the players after a result like that. It’s obviously disappointing, that’s the only way of looking at it. There’s no point in hiding. Someone needs to look at it and stand up and take charge. It was a bad first half, with a better second half, but we need to do better.
“I can’t remember the last time Rangers were 3-0 down at half-time, especially to a team we should be beating. Hibs were not in a good place coming into the game, but we knew they were going to give their all because if they lost then I think that was them out of it.
“We’re much better than what we showed in the first half and the manager knows that. The fans were much better too in the second half. But at the end of the day we gave ourselves too much of a hill to climb in the second half.
“The players were at fault for the goals and that’s what happens in football. The hill was too high to climb, but at least we gave it a go in the second half and can take positives from it.
“Personally, I was disappointed not to start the game but every player is the same. I had two bad games previous to Monday and I really didn’t deserve to be starting.
“I came on and gave it my all as I always do, so hopefully I can get back in the team as soon as possible.”