Rangers under Mark Warburton have been characterised by their forward-thinking instincts. Goals in every one of the 26 Championship games have been perceived as the propulsion that – with an 11-point lead over second-placed Hibernian – now looks like zooming them into the top flight.
Yet that there has effectively been a six-point swing over Alan Stubbs’ men in the past week has everything to do with defence, not attack. Hibs have scored the same number of goals in their past two games as Rangers. Courtesy of clean sheets in the weekend hosting of St Mirren and their Dumfries encounter with Queen of the South the previous Sunday, one goal in each of these games was all Warburton’s men required to claim six points. Leaking six goals in their two games last week, meanwhile, is what has well and truly torpedoed the Leith club’s title ambitions.
In Warburton’s early months, sending his two full-back bombing on and leaving the far-from-pacey pair of Danny Wilson and Rob Kiernan to cover all sorts of acreage when counter-attacked almost made it seem he considered the pursuit of defensive solidity a business beneath his charges. With six clean sheets in their past eight outings, the concept appears to have been embraced. Just as well because the goals have largely dried up, though more should have dripped through Saturday’s confrontation than the smart strike from substitute Harry Forrester four minutes from time.
The fact that didn’t happen means it is more than a month since Rangers won a game by more than a single-goal margin. That is not lost on Wilson. He seems to ruminate on it, though, almost to provide reason for not seeing further than the club’s hosting of Raith Rovers tomorrow when it comes to a Championship title race that is no more.
“It’s boring to keep saying it, but you just need to take it one game at a time. That’s all we can do,” he said. “We need to look after ourselves, we are in a fairly commanding position at the moment and the games are ticking down. In the last couple of weeks we have been just getting over the line and sneaking 1-0 wins, but they are just as important. We are not going to put four or five past teams, you saw that with St Mirren. Teams are not going to come here and make it easy for us. It’s just about getting the three points, it doesn’t matter if we score in the first or 90th minute – it’s just about getting the points at this stage of the season.
“At the start of the season we were scoring a lot of goals, but we were also conceding a lot of goals too, but we have tightened it up at the back. We’re having days where we are not great in front of goal and we just sneak the odd-goal win, but it’s the same three points at the end of the day. We’re just happy to get the points and to chalk another game off.”
In truth, central defence was one of the areas of the Ibrox side most have considered would need to be improved on to push for the leading places in the Premiership. Wilson rejected the notion that the tightening up of recent times suggests Rangers are more prepared for the top flight.
“I wouldn’t say that because it is easy when you are conceding goals for people to point the finger and say there is a weakness there,” the 23-year-old said. “But in the main we were trying to do the right thing. Maybe we’ve had a little bit more luck or maybe we are more organised that’s allowing us to keep the clean sheets, but we’re just happy when the forwards aren’t scoring as much as they had been to keep the door shut at the back.”
One of the more remarkable statistics about Rangers’ run towards the title is that they have only used five players in their back four. James Tavernier and Lee Wallace have been ever-presents, while Dominic Ball has vied with Wilson and Kiernan for the central berths.
“It’s unusual because a lot of teams like to carry a big squad, but the manager doesn’t, he likes to have a tight squad,” said Wilson. “This is our squad and we only have about 18 or 19 players who are fit and that’s going to be us until the end of the season, but it’s good because everybody feels involved and it’s good for the understanding because we are not always changing at the back. We have got the five defenders and we are all capable of going in there when needed.”
Owing to wastefulness in front of goal from Kenny Miller and the otherwise impressive Michael O’Halloran, the St Mirren defence, which has been much improved under Alex Rae, looked like it was going to do all it needed to claim a point. Then defender Gary Irvine made a calamitous error, hitting the ball straight to O’Halloran when seeking to punt it to safety. Forrester took full advantage when the ball was played to him by sweeping in a outswinging effort that eluded Jamie Langfield.
The keeper made some decent stops and, despite the defeat, believes a fourth-place play-off position is not beyond Rae’s side.
“To lose a goal, albeit a cracking finish from Harry Forrester, it’s a hard one to take especially when we’d dug in so deep,” he said. “But I think we take a lot more positives than the last time we were here [and lost 4-0 in November’s Challenge Cup semi-final]. If anyone was at the game the last time we played here we were all over the place and didn’t function as a team.
“Something Alex has done since he’s come in is to get back to basics. We’ve a strong back four and midfield four and together with the two up front we’re working our backsides off for one another. You can see that out on the pitch.
“It’s all about us now. We’ve got another tough game on Tuesday against Falkirk but you can definitely see the difference in our team. With the play-offs, you’ve got to keep believing, haven’t you?”