There were vague compliments fluttering around Hampden for Rangers making more of a game of it in the second half of the Old Firm League Cup semi-final, but Kenny Miller didn’t want to know. The team had not performed well all season, the striker said – and as few as three players could justifiably claim to be content with their efforts.
Miller’s brutally honest verdict came as the hubbub surrounding the fixture, the first between the Glasgow rivals for three years, died down. Yes, the atmosphere, if not the result or much of the football, had been “fantastic” and, yes, he was keen to sample it again soon but that simply had to be next season. Indeed, Rangers failing to secure promotion to the Premiership would be a “disaster”.
The 35-year-old frontman was asked if Rangers’ improved performance after conceding two first-half goals to Celtic had in some way silenced the club’s critics.
“Listen,” he said, “we were better without creating any great chances. The goals we lost were terrible. When you set up a way to play, doing the work during the week, you expect to be able to deal with cross balls. Arguably the smallest man on the pitch [Leigh Griffiths] got a free header in the six-yard box. If you give goals away like that then you’re always going to find it tough.”
Did the second 45 give the team encouragement for the challenges ahead? “It has to to do,” Miller said. “Simple as that.” What gave him grounds for optimism that the second half of the season could be any better than the first? “To be honest with you I don’t know, on the field or off it, if it could be much worse. I don’t not think we’ve played particularly well at all. We’re always going to win games because arguably we have better players than the other teams but, for me, we have to win games by showing a bit more in terms of performance and not just results. We have to get better. If we want to get back into the title race then we can’t slip up too many more times in the last 15 or 16 games.”
So how can Rangers bring about that transformation? “Everybody has to look at themselves,” Miller added. “You can afford a couple of guys to be off their game if you have another nine guys on it. But, at the moment, we have maybe got three or four who are on it and five or six who are not. It’s important we come together as a team. Individually our performances need to be better but, more importantly, collectively we need to start performing. We need to start helping each other. We need to find some cohesion in the group that’s going to take us that next step.”
Rangers currently sit 16 points behind Championship leaders Hearts with two games in hand. So, does Miller realistically think the Ibrox club will be playing league games against Celtic next season? “I do hope so. Obviously if it is not through automatic promotion it’s going to have to be through the play-offs. For me, we have to be playing them, it’s as simple as that. To be honest, to be in the second tier and to contemplate not even winning it is unimaginable. To not go up this year would be a disaster for me. And, of course, if we do go up we’ll be expected to win the Premiership! That is just the nature of life at this club.”
Losing one manager can be considered unfortunate. Losing a second so soon after seems like carelessness. Rangers must muddle through in the wake of Ally McCoist’s departure and Kenny McDowall’s decision to work his notice, and again Miller stressed the need for the players to stand up and be counted.
“The mainstay of everything was Ally,” he added. “He was the glue that held it together for a long time but now he’s away. Kenny is in a position where he’s working his notice and giving everything he can to the cause and you would not expect anything less. As players we can only respond to who’s in charge. But, I say again, we need to be performing better.”
Looking back over the cup-tie, Miller said it was “fantastic” being back in the Old Firm pell-mell again. “It was a long time coming – two-and-a-half months since the draw was made – but I was really, really looking forward to it. I was always hopeful we could produce a shock. Celtic were favourites, and rightly so, and that was shown in the game. You never know what can happen in a semi-final but the damage was done in the first half and it was always an uphill struggle for us after that.”
Did he fear a hammering after the ease with which Celtic went two up? “Two-nil is one of those scorelines that, if you get the next goal, you’re right back in it. If a third goes in then you start to think about damage limitation but that goal never came. We’ll look back over the game this week and I’m sure there will be a few disappointed faces in the room because these were poor goals. In the second half we changed things by bringing on Jon [Daly] and putting me in a position just off him, which also helped the midfield. We got a foothold in the game that we never had in the first half. We were able to get up the pitch and it was better. We tried but on the day we weren’t good enough.”
One consolation to come out of the weekend for Rangers was that Hibernian failed to bump them down to third place and it’s the Leith team they’ll play next in the league, after Saturday’s Scottish Cup tie against Raith Rovers. The latter would be “another fantastic occasion” for Rangers. “We’ll get that out of the way and then it will be down to focusing on the league, winning as many games as we can and hoping Hearts slip up.”
At 35, Miller has a year’s option on his current contract and wants to be involved next season. “I still feel I have a lot to offer, on and off the field,” he said. So the current difficulties weren’t putting him off staying? “Not at all. I love the place. I came here with my eyes open. I knew the situation at the club and never thought twice about coming back.”