That rumble of Ibrox disapproval is a most familiar thing. Historically, it emanates especially from the main stand, and roams around the ground, as the patrons groan and deplore the sub-standard stuff from their team. On Saturday, humble Alloa triggered the latest bout of it.
Whatever else Ally McCoist’s Rangers are, they can be as leaden and stale-minded as the worst of them. On top of that, this is a Rangers team that, come next season, if it succeeds in reaching Scotland’s top division, will need almost-wholesale refurbishment. It is a daunting prospect and a damning indictment on three years of short-term thinking. Rangers are now stacked with ageing limbs.
None of this should take anything away from Alloa. Barry Smith’s side of part-timers had a full-time team’s fitness, a lovely confidence with the ball and an approach to possession football which seemed well above their station. Liam Buchanan’s 78th-minute equaliser provided a just outcome in a match in which Rangers made heavy weather of it.
So everything is set for Tynecastle on Saturday lunchtime, and a match between Hearts and Rangers that could put Robbie Neilson’s men nine points clear in the Championship title race. Rangers may yet have something to say about that, but McCoist will feel every nuance of anxiety as he approaches this fixture.
The Rangers manager is hardy and good-natured to the end, but there were sporadic shouts for him to go on Saturday from some Rangers fans who, if this is at all possible, have just about had their fill. It is a harsh, relentless, unforgiving environment for McCoist. His team – strewn with ex-SPL players who can fairly run up blind alleys – was sorely laboured.
“We’re bitterly disappointed,” said Lee McCulloch who, at 36, is now the club’s defensive anchor. “We missed some chances, and the longer the game goes on the more nervous you become. It wasn’t to be for us today.”
Poor Kris Boyd, a free-scoring striker for Kilmarnock last season, is toiling to reproduce his form back at Rangers. On Saturday Boyd had a couple of decent chances, but Craig McDowall saved excellently in the first half, and thereafter the ball either skited off Boyd or simply wouldn’t fall for him at the right moment. The striker trudged away disconsolately, substituted again by McCoist before the hour mark.
Smith was a fairly animated Alloa manager. It’s not always a good thing in a coach but on this occasion it seemed to rouse his players. With McCulloch having stabbed Rangers ahead from a Lewis Macleod corner after 72 minutes, Alloa responded to their manager’s cries and were back up at Rangers and level through Buchanan six minutes later. It was skilful, gutsy stuff by the visitors.
Michael Doyle, the Wasps’ right-back, was typical of this little team which has ascended two divisions in Scotland in recent years. Doyle, still only 23, has done the rounds in Scottish football, including being on the books of Kilmarnock and Stirling Albion, and having been Celtic’s under-17s captain at one point. He explained, in part, his team’s success on Saturday.
“We’re a part-time club but we’re not scared of anything,” said Doyle. “We’ve got a great group of boys, and as soon as Rangers scored, we had the ball back up to the centre-circle straight away, ready to go again. We felt we had nothing to lose. A lot of the boys at Alloa, like me, are trying to get back to a full-time club. So if you want to be noticed, you can’t have any fear factor, you’ve got to show what you’ve got. We just came here and gave it a go.
“We’ve taken a few points off the bigger teams this season. We’ve worked hard on our fitness and on our counter-attacking football, and it seems to work. We work really hard on a Tuesday night and a Thursday night, and I actually don’t think many teams will be much fitter than us.”
This is commendable talk but, in fact, Rangers ought to be significantly fitter than Alloa, though you wouldn’t have known it at Ibrox. This troubled, mysterious Ibrox season goes on, while Alloa will surely now look forward to their re-match with Rangers in their Petrofac Training Cup semi-final on 3 December.