IN years to come the moment when Alloa Athletic suddenly became Rangers’ bogey team will certainly rate as an intriguing footnote in the great history of Scottish football – but Mark Warburton’s side stopped it expanding to chapter-length yesterday with another impressive display.
Kenny Miller, with a double, James Tavernier, Martyn Waghorn, with a penalty, and Jason Holt sent the Ibrox men to the top of the Championship and set them up for a clash next Sunday with Hibernian which even this early in the campaign looks to be loaded with significance.
Neither of these sides, of course, will have Scott Allan at their disposal but on yesterday’s showing the Rangers fans – even if they arrived at the foot of the Ochils in mild trepidation – will feel they can win this league without the coveted playmaker’s input.
Last season, the Wasps had been a considerable irritation to Rangers, and to all three Ibrox managers. Archie Macpherson, as lyrical as ever, recently recalled one of the fallen giants’ displays at the Indodrill as “morbid” and “catatonic”.
Alloa emerged from their two visits to Govan undefeated and dumped the Light Blues out of the Petrofac Cup after giving them two goals of a start on a synthetic pitch which the bold Archie reckoned had been laid with “carpet-remnants off a stall at the Barras”.
But Rangers wasted no time in asserting themselves. The interchangeability of the front six which has been a feature under Warburton allowed Miller to drop deep in the fourth minute and thread a pass to the edge of the box where Nicky Law dummied to neatly spring the ever-marauding Tavernier. The full-back banged his third goal of the campaign past Andy McNeil, the former Hibernian keeper, who was still adjusting to the surroundings on his Alloa debut.
The home side, though, required little more than two minutes to draw level. The chequered career of Michael Chopra continues in Alloa’s hoops and the veteran striker showed his class by letting a dinked pass from Graeme Holmes drop over his shoulder and onto his right foot. The rasping finish gave Wes Foderingham no chance.
If Rangers were stung by that, the sensation didn’t last. In the ninth minute, Alloa’s creator turned sinner, as Holmes clattered Holt in the box, allowing Waghorn to send McNeil the wrong way from the spot.
Rangers were coping all right with the surface. There had been no giant black-pellet dust-clouds caused by clodhopping miskicks and prompting rueful glares at the drastic plastic – although Warburton stated beforehand they wouldn’t be allowed to use the pitch as an excuse for failure. His players continued to move the ball smartly and the only concern, after Waghorn had struck the bar and Miller a post, was that they weren’t further ahead.
Alloa had fallen right out of things. A free-kick from Michael Duffy which required a diving save from Foderingham had been a quick and decent response to Waghorn’s penalty but after that Chopra had to come deep to retrieve the ball. “A lot of what happens to Alloa this season will be down to me,” he’d declared. With his hunched, rolling gait, Chopra certainly cut a distinctive presence, but he couldn’t get his team back in the match, with not even his stepovers proving inspirational.
In quick succession, Barrie McKay, Andy Halliday and Holt all found themselves in promising positions with the ball at their feet on the edge of the Alloa box. When they failed to contrive the disguise or cuteness on the pass which could have prized open an admittedly over-stuffed defence, the thought did occur: “Where was Scott Allan when you needed him?”
But Rangers eventually increased their lead in the 39th minute when Lee Wallace, confirmed as Rangers captain before the match, took up an identical position and elected to shoot. McNeil parried his stinging effort, only for Holt to net the rebound.
Four minutes later Rangers scored their fifth when Tavernier cut in from the right to set up one of the easier goals of Miller’s long and fruitful career. How Chopra, disconsolate at the other end of the park, must have yearned for such service.
His team-mates must have been desperate to hear the half-time whistle. Alloa manager Danny Lennon had wanted his team to put on a good show in front of the TV cameras, and prove wrong what in his programme notes he termed the “so-called experts” who’d predicted relegation for his part-timers, but the game wasn’t working out like that.
They tightened up in the second half and McNeil – who’d earlier made the wrong choice in rushing from his goal, only to be saved by the woodwork – managed to pull off some decent stops. Then Warburton made a triple substitution, affording the Rangers contingent their first look at Nathan Oduwa, a young loan signing from Tottenham Hotspur who’d given himself the big build-up. “I’m very tricky,” he’d promised. “I’ll bring a lot of entertainment, I’ll get the supporters on their feet quite often.”
In an eventful cameo, he attempted stepovers, nutmegs and rainbow flicks. Not everything came off and there was some fairly theatrical appeals for a penalty, not given, and some of the fancydan stuff seemed to irritate the Alloa defenders who’d put in a hard shift already. But it was from his dance along the line near the end that Miller eventually scored Rangers’ fifth.