Rangers 2-0 Annan: Niko Kranjcar, Joey Barton make debuts

Joey Barton comes on for Niko Kranjcar during Rangers' Betfred Cup match against Annan Athletic. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA
Joey Barton comes on for Niko Kranjcar during Rangers' Betfred Cup match against Annan Athletic. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA
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We had to wait an hour at Ibrox last night to see the summer’s most talked-about player in Scottish football... an honour his own loquaciousness has earned him. No wonder, then, that at that point in an untroubling League Cup sectional win over bottom-tier opposition for Rangers, the home crowd savoured the prospect of Joey Barton being given the opportunity to leave behind the words and allow the deeds to do his bidding.

On a balmy night, the excellent 31,628 crowd managed to turn up the heat further with a rapturous reception for the controversy magnet and self-proclaimed untouchable player in the set-up he has joined from Burnley.

What followed was a rather plain contribution to the victory over Annan. Alright, within nine minutes of his entrance, a player was required to leave the field injured after clashing with the combative 32-year-old.

But the truth is that the injury sustained by William Robertson after challenging Barton was not the result of any over-zealousness on the part of the Englishman.

A free-kick curled just wide from 22 yards within two minutes of his first Rangers appearance allowed Barton to come close to the sort of talking point we expect him to produce regularly. Yet, the hype cannot surely be matched by the reality.

Other new faces earned more of a claim on match reflections last night. After operating with a squad as tight as a superhero’s overpants last season, it feels that Rangers have, eh, stretched their assets over the summer.

Rangers manager Mark Warburton likes to point out that he has only really evened up the numbers when incomings are measured up to outgoings – with nine signings offset by eight departures. It is to his credit, then, that the Rangers squad seems to have been upscaled considerably. The season opener that brought a 2-0 win over Motherwell in Saturday’s League Cup sectional encounter was achieved essentially with the side that succumbed in the Scottish Cup final. Five of these players didn’t feature in the 11 tasked with taking a trip down memory lane for the Ibrox club with a hosting of Annan; just like they did in the journey days.

The fact that Rangers could look stronger last night than they did at Fir Park while central performers in the Championship-winning side such as James Tavernier, Wes Foderingham, Danny Wilson, Kenny Miller and Jason Holt were on the bench suggests Warburton has worked the market well with modest means.

It felt a little like watching a professional playing five-a-sides with his mates to see Niko Kranjcar making his Ibrox bow against so modest a side as Annan. The 31-year-old has been bedevilled by injuries in recent times to rob his career of the promise with which it sparkled when spells with Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split gave way to memorable contributions with Portsmouth and Tottenham Hotspur. The Croatian oozed the class he showed in England on his first Rangers outing, with intellect and aptitude shining through in his passing and position-taking.

The four other new Rangers recruits had varying impacts. Goalkeeper Matt Gilks and youthful looking centre-back Clint Hill had no opportunities to show themselves since the team was camped in their opponents’ half for the 
duration of a one-sided 
contest.

Rangers could have been three up inside the opening minutes. The busy Josh Windass was denied by a near- post block, with Steven 
Swinglehurst hooking away a goalbound attempt by Martyn Waghorn, who had lofted the ball over the notably small Annan keeper Blair Currie. In this spell there also developed one of the themes of the evening.

Rangers’ right-back Lee Hodson didn’t succumb to the bystander status of the club’s other new defenders because the Northern Irishman drove forward at every available opportunity and gave the ball a fair old leather towards 
Currie’s goal.

In the early stages this resulted in a stupendous reflex save from the compact keeper, with his goal coverage immense for Euro 2016-returnee Hodson’s other long-rangers.

Currie repelled such efforts all across the evening to keep Jim Chapman’s side in contention, but in the 29th minute he was undeniably culpable as Barrie McKay produced a ferocious, rising effort from 25 yards that found the net.

There was no question that the winger made good contact but his drive was straight into the middle of the goal and, though just under the bar, at saving height.

Currie made amends for this lapse with shot-stopping that required Rangers to wait until the 74th minute before doubling their lead – the Premiership new boys doing so when Hodson spotted the run of Waghorn and set him up to guide the ball neatly into the corner without breaking his stride.