It feels like we’ve been here before. After a sustained period of below par results, the Rangers manager vacates the club in complicated circumstances, leaving an inexperienced coach to handle the demands of being in the managerial hotseat.
It happened just over two years ago when Ally McCoist made a protracted exit by tendering his resignation with a 12-month notice period, only to be placed on gardening leave just over a week later.
The difference on this occasion was supposed to be the speed in which a suitable replacement was found, but it’s looking increasingly possible that it’s going to be another drawn out affair with managing director Stewart Robertson saying current interim boss, Graeme Murty, will be in charge for the “foreseeable future”, as the club’s under-20s’ coach remains among the favourites to keep the job until the end of the season.
If the former Scotland international is given more than the customary handful of matches then he’ll be hoping to leave a better legacy than Kenny McDowall was able to. The long-term coach and assistant to McCoist took over following the Ibrox legend’s exit, but results soon took a turn for the worse. In fairness to McDowall, the club was a complete basketcase at the time, but regardless of circumstance, three wins from 10 games as Rangers boss, particularly in the second tier, was not a good return.
Prior to his first game against Hibs, a 4-0 defeat where Scott Allan ran the show, Rangers were seven points clear of their hosts in second, trailing leaders Hearts by 12. By the time he exited on 12 March, Rangers had lost to Celtic in the League Cup semi-final, been eliminated at home to Raith Rovers in the Scottish Cup, and fallen five points behind Hibs (and a whopping 22 behind Hearts).
Though they had their chances under Stuart McCall to claw back the deficit, Rangers finished the season in third. This meant an extra two-legged tie in the playoffs which might have had a negative effect on the players by the time they’d bettered both Queen of the South and Hibs to reach the playoff final. Against Motherwell at Ibrox they made a good start, but when Lee Erwin opened the scoring it completely took the wind out of the home side and they never looked like recovering, ultimately spending another season in the Championship.
Though the stakes are nowhere near as high, it would be an embarrassment for Rangers if the side were to stumble in similar fashion over the coming weeks and ultimately finish third or fourth behind Aberdeen and Hearts.
So what can Murty do to steady the ship and not let it sail heedlessly into certain peril? Well, he did begin his managerial reign by doing what Warburton point-blank refused to throughout most of his time at Rangers, and that’s change the formation, going 4-4-2 for the closing stages of the Scottish Cup win over Morton. It didn’t help Rangers at the back at all, looking as exposed and open as ever, but there was a greater purpose and decisiveness to the attack. It’s something that’s been badly lacking this season as the forward players pass around the final third while barely penetrating the opposing defence.
Murty insists he will impose his own personality and style on the team and the formation change is one example of that. Another thing he should be looking at is the opposition. Philippe Senderos let slip last week that Rangers never studied opponents under Warburton. In most years they’d be able to get by with such an approach - a concentrate-on-us-instead-of-them mindset - but this team doesn’t have the talent to get away with that. ‘Plan B is to do Plan A better’ was Warburton’s thought on the matter, and he was stubborn in his refusal to deviate from it.
The horse has probably already bolted in this regard, but if Murty can somehow organise the defence, or at least give it better protection, then he’ll be giving the new boss a better foundation to build from. However, it’s unlikely he’s a miracle worker.
Looking around the Rangers squad, there’s only Clint Hill and Lee Wallace who can be classed as dependable members of the back four defensively, while there is no natural defensive midfielder to give them cover with Jordan Rossiter still out injured. The best hope may be to go with the 4-4-2 and hope they out-score opponents.
Even if Murty is only in the position for a couple of games, these matches could have a huge baring on the rest of the season.
The squad, as it stands, looks void of confidence. The likes of Andy Halliday, Martyn Waghorn, James Tavernier, Jason Holt, Wes Foderingham etc may not be the standard required to win a title or even come close to challenging for Celtic, but they’ve all proven at times this campaign they are better than what they’re showing right now. Just eking out a couple of victories from the next two games - Dundee and Inverness CT away - will ensure a happier environment for the new boss to step into and enable Murty to either leave the club or return to his former role with his head held high.