AN OLD dependable for the back pages – at least as far as the more excitable papers are concerned – is the Rangers or Celtic fan plying his trade with a lower-league club who suddenly, thrillingly, finds himself on the same pitch as his heroes.
This normally happens in the cups, except for Rangers this season, every team has been lower-league. I guess the story got repetitive – by the law of averages, all their Third Division opponents must have contained at least one bluenose – and simply stopped appearing. So, after Elgins City’s Stuart Leslie scored the penalty against Queen’s Park which confirmed Ally McCoist’s side as champs, the following headline seemed oddly reassuring: “I’ve dreamed of scoring a title winner for Gers ... now I’ve done it.”
For any Ibrox employee or supporter afflicted by self-doubt – a rare thing, I agree – then this tiny declaration of light-blue love might have been properly meaningful. The world still knows we exist! People still care! But, really, Rangers would seem to have no worries. Last summer, top SPL talent was snapped up. Throughout the campaign there was constant talk of more big names arriving later, maybe Jon Daly or one of Dundee United’s hot young kids. The big Govan maw remains far-reaching, having lost little of its weird hypnotic power. But what does a Rangers rover-pass for the scenic route back to the top flight do for the players who clamber aboard the omnibus?
Twelve months ago, Dean Shiels and Ian Black were just about the two most potent footballers in Scotland not playing for the Old Firm. Shiels had sparkled intermittently at Hibs, then drifted down to England. Teaming up with his dad Kenny at Kilmarnock, however, he enjoyed the best season of his career, scored a fair few zingers, helped Killie win the League Cup for the first time in their history – and was on the shortlist for Player of the Year. Meanwhile, in Hearts’ midfield, Ian Black was finally producing as many classy performances as ones where he goes a bit radge. He utterly dominated Hibs in two successive league derbies, completing the hat-trick in the biggest capital clash of them all – the 5-1 hammering to win the Scottish Cup and, for himself, man-of-the-match. Twelve months ago, lots of people were talking about Deano and Blackie. And now?
The bus went up to Annan and down to Peterhead (just seeing if you were paying attention) and the league was duly won, but not with the expected pulverising performances bordering on cruel, or the epic goal haul. Deano and Blackie did not stomp all over this championship. Shiels got injured, it’s true, but neither, when they played, reproduced the form of last season. The only continuity came with Black’s 12 yellow cards and two reds. He complained of rough treatment from the tiny teams, a case of the pot calling the kettle Ian Black. The pair got winners’ medals and may even have enjoyed the visits to oor fitba’s backwaters after the SPL’s och-it’s-you-lot-again tyranny. They will have earned more money at Rangers but with Black on the fringes of the Scotland squad before his switch – he did win a controversial first cap under Craig Levein as a Third Division player – can either truly say they’ve progressed their careers now that both have turned 28?
David Templeton is younger and has more time to reclaim the profile he enjoyed at Hearts after getting a bit lost somewhere between Berwick and Montrose. Lee Wallace is also younger and maybe of all the quality recruits demonstrating Rangers’ pulling power he’s been the pick. But Francisco Sandaza should be in his prime at 28, like Black and Shiels, and following his sacking he’s been garnering the lousiest reviews of those prize signings who were supposed to guarantee the campaign would be an absolute romp. Granted, he was injured, too, but after eye-catching performances for St Johnstone in the top flight, a mere two goals in the bottom must leave him feeling pretty sheepish.
Probably, though, he’ll stop short of questioning the wisdom of his decision to accept the Ibrox shilling. Short career and all that – whatever the grade of football. And next season will be one level up for Rangers. Expect more of the SPL’s best-of-the-rest to be on the bus to Ayr and Stenhousemuir.