ON THE face of it, a season in which they have finished third in the second tier of Scottish football, a massive 24 points behind the champions, can scarcely be regarded as anything other than failure for Rangers.
Stuart McCall, however, has no option but to try to bring a very different perspective to the latest chapter of the fallen Ibrox club’s bid to reclaim former glories.
From the moment he was named interim manager in March, McCall’s focus has been firmly fixed on leading Rangers back into the top flight of Scottish football via the play-offs.
That process continues in Dumfries this evening with the first leg of the quarter-final against Queen of the South, an assignment McCall is determined his players will approach without trepidation.
Ahead of the trip to a venue where their inadequacies have twice been laid bare already this season, in the shape of 2-0 and 3-0 defeats during the regular season, the Rangers squad have been urged by McCall to seize the opportunity to shape what he believes can yet be regarded as a successful campaign.
“Since Kenny Black and myself came in to the club, we have been building with the players for this moment,” said McCall.
“We knew we weren’t going to catch Hearts but after our first couple of games, a few people even questioned whether we would make it to the play-offs. We knew we would. Now, whether it’s six games, four games or two games, this is what we have been looking forward to.
“They are probably the biggest games of my managerial career so far. They are important games to try and get Rangers back up to the top division. It has come down to, hopefully, a six-game season for us. But it’s a chance for the players to grasp it. I’ve told them not to fear failure in these games. Be the best you can be, grasp the opportunity and take it from there.
“This season can still be a success for them. Hopefully we can still say that after the second leg against Queen of the South next weekend too. Yes, everyone connected with Rangers wanted the team to go up as champions. But no-one will care a jot next season how Rangers got there, as long as we get there and are on the fixture list against Celtic and Aberdeen.”
Much has been made of the artificial playing surface at Palmerston Park in the build-up to the tie but McCall is adamant it should not be a factor in assessing Rangers’ prospects of success against opponents who have previously caused them so much difficulty.
“I said last week we wouldn’t train on our own astro pitch at Murray Park this week because I’m quite superstitious and we lost 3-0 at Palmerston after doing that in the build-up to our last game there,” he said. “But that was a bit tongue in cheek and we have trained on it this week. Listen, I’d much rather be going to play at Palmerston, which is a good surface, than on a dry and bumpy end-of-season pitch.
“We have got players in our squad who are technically good, which you need to be on that surface. The surface is 1 million per cent not a problem. The two games Rangers lost there this season had nothing to do with the pitch – it was because Queens played well and we weren’t very good.”
Rangers have lost just one of their 11 games under McCall so far and he remains upbeat about their capacity to successfully negotiate their way through the play-off maze.
“I’m confident in the players we have,” he added. “I’m really pleased with the opportunities we have created since I came in and I feel we have a creative team here. Going forward probably suits us more.
“What we have to do is cut out the sloppy individual errors which have cost us a lot of the goals we have conceded. It happened again last week against Hearts when we were 2-0 up away to the champions, then conceded two poor goals in the closing stages. We have to make teams work hard to score against us. Going forward, I’m confident we will create chances against any team.
“It’s a bit different now that we are going into two-legged ties. If we do concede the first goal on Saturday, we don’t have to go gung-ho to try and get it back. There is no negativity from us, though, going into these games. No-one can predict how they will go but I have enough confidence in the desire and the ability of my group of players to encourage me that we can achieve our aim and win promotion.”