AWAY back in September of 2011, Rangers beat Celtic 4-2 at Ibrox and extended their unbeaten run in the SPL to seven games. Steven Naismith scored twice.
Nikica Jelavic and Kyle Lafferty got the others. Looking back on it, it seems like a lifetime ago and in many ways it was. So much has changed and yet so much has remained the same.
The week after winning the Old Firm match, Ally McCoist’s team got knocked out of the League Cup by a coltish Falkirk side. Rangers’ starting line-up had Sasa Papac, Doran Goian, Steven Whittaker, Carlos Bocanegra, Lee McCulloch, Steven Davis and Lafferty. Allan McGregor was an unused substitute. Naismith and Jelavic played the last 30 minutes. Still Rangers lost. A domestic cup blow to go with the European ones from a few weeks earlier against Malmo and Maribor.
On Tuesday night at Ibrox, Rangers will play their 21st cup tie of the McCoist era. From the distant, and brief, days of Champions League qualifiers and Europa League knockouts to Scottish Cup, League Cup and now the Ramsdens – the focus this week with Berwick as the visitors – the record under McCoist shows a 50 per cent win rate with just ten victories, nine defeats and one draw. The Rangers manager has had a tortuous time of it on many fronts over the last two years and cup football has contributed no end to his grim narrative.
Are they over the worst of it on the field? Rangers’ League One form has been emphatic this season. Three games played, three resounding victories with 13 goals scored. McCoist is trying to build a team that has more backbone than the wretched crew of last season and he seems to be getting there. What he needs to do now is sweep all before him in the Ramsdens. It’s not the cup of choice, but it would be something. It would be another sign that things are moving away from the ineptitude that pockmarked last season
Malmo, Maribor, Falkirk, Dundee United, Queen of the South, Inverness, Dundee United again, Forfar. Rangers have never made it beyond a quarter-final of any cup competition since McCoist took charge, a failure that he describes as “disappointing” when others might go a little stronger than that.
“The Falkirk one probably hurt more than anything because we had a good team out that night and we should have beaten them,” said McCoist. “It was probably the biggest disappointment out of all the games. Certainly last year and this year I wouldn’t think we have got a right to go on a cup run. I think maybe two years ago it would have been expected. Rangers and Celtic would have been expected to go on a cup run. I don’t think we have earned the right to be expected to go on a cup run yet. Hopefully that will come in the future.
“I would never sit here and make excuses to you because the disappointments are there for all to see – Forfar, Dundee United to name just two. Inverness as well. But I would possibly say that this time last year, at pre-season last year, I could have foreseen one or two disappointments in the cups. That doesn’t mean they are easy to take, but we might have seen them coming for one or two reasons.”
And come they did. Was the off-field chaos a legitimate excuse for some of the awfulness of his team last season? Many would say no. Was it reasonable for McCoist to cite Charles Green’s outburst ahead of the Forfar defeat as a contributory factor to the upset? No. It was thoroughly unconvincing.
“He is entitled to his opinion,” said McCoist of his old foe Green and his cup-demanding ways. “I’m not sure anybody within these walls apart from Charles would share that opinion, certainly not among the staff. We have probably got a far more realistic outlook on it than Charles had, but he is entitled to his opinion.”
The Ramsdens was hardly what the now departed Green had in mind when he demanded cup success, but surely it’s not too much to ask?
“Well, we never won it last year and we have the same team,” said McCoist, who is unable to field any of his new players despite being able to play two of them (Jon Daly and Nicky Law) as trialists in the first round of this competition. That weakens the side considerably given how impressive Law has been. Daly, too. He scored twice against Airdrie on Friday and will score many more. The last time Rangers had to get by without that pair they fell in a heap against Forfar.
“Whether people expect us to win it is up to them. I don’t expect to win it, that’s for sure. I hope to win it and will do everything I can to win it but when you expect to win things it becomes dangerous territory. I keep saying, we are the same team as last year, with some free transfers. We are delighted with the players we’ve brought in but to somehow suddenly be expected to win a cup, I’m not sure I see the logic in that. I can understand people expecting an improvement in performance and I totally agree with that, but expected to win things? I’m not sure I agree with that. I can understand people maybe expecting us to win it if we get through on Tuesday, I can understand the expectation level rising then, but I will do my best to ensure that Rangers as a club never expect to win anything.”
He describes Berwick as a danger game, but even in their hapless state last season, Rangers beat them three times and drew once. McCoist doesn’t just need a cup run, he needs a cup. Anything silver will do for now.