AS a man, Ally McCoist has walked tall this season. As a manager, he has barely walked at all. There has been little appetite to disconnect Rangers’ on-field disasters from their financial disasters.
The Ibrox club’s administrative state, and desperate hunt for a way out of their crippling Craig Whyte entanglement, has led to the unfailingly courteous McCoist being hailed for proving precisely the right man in the club’s hour of need. Little wonder when he has excelled as the leader, the rock, the focal point and fantastic servant whose every fibre is focused on saving his football club.
On his CV, though, there won’t be an asterisk denoting that Rangers’ dismal returns across his first year in front-line management came in the face of mitigating circumstances. Instead, there will be merely a cluster of black marks. Today’s derby encounter will see McCoist hope to avoid becoming the first Rangers manager in the club’s history to lose four consecutive home games. Already, however, this season is the first since 1950-51 in which Rangers have failed to contest at least a quarter-final in either of the domestic knock-out tournaments. McCoist’s record across the four cup competitions his team appeared in this season is horrendous. Played seven and only won one – against Second Division Arbroath – with all of these ties coming before the club plunged into administration.
McCoist, with good reason, contends he has had cope with more in the past six months than any novice manager should have to bear. He has probably attended more meetings with staff, administrators and, more recently, possible bidders, than training sessions in the past month. And Rangers have now failed to win more than half of the home games they have played this season because their form has disintegrated as the ten-point penalty and need to negotiate wage cuts to save jobs have eaten in to the team psyche. Yet, equally, it must be remembered that it was as early as the final days of last year, with their loss of the previous derby, that the possibilities of the Ibrox club claiming any silverware for the season were being widely dismissed.
Moreover, last summer McCoist was allowed to spend £3.3 million on new signings and increase the wage bill by £3m. And, after they dropped only four points out of a possible 33 in the Scottish Premier League despite not entirely convincing, it was with this player pool that form began to nose-dive. That allowed Celtic to overturn a 15-point gap. The bald facts, that do not take into account his tireless efforts behind the scenes, don’t look good for McCoist, he readily acknowledges.
“There is not a thing I can do about it,” he says. “I would argue that in terms of the learning curve I’ve maybe had a six months that no manager in the country has had. That’s certainly putting a positive spin on it, but I do appreciate that not winning anything is not ideal. We should be winning trophies, and certainly challenging at the top of the league. That hasn’t happened this year and I know my responsibilities as manager. I certainly will not shy away from that and it is a big disappointment. Even with the circumstances.”
Yet, he believes it is only the circumstances that seem set to make Celtic runaway winners of the title, probably by double the ten-point penalty imposed on Rangers. “Absolutely,” McCoist says when he is asked if his team would have taken the championship to the wire if they had avoided administration. “I believe in my players,” he says. “We are not in as strong a position as I would have hoped. It has been dictated that we have had to field a weakened side with the loss of one or two, Nikica Jelavic a key one, and then we have had injuries and suspensions. But I do believe [without administration] we would have been putting pressure on Celtic to retain our championship.” In reality, all pressure over results has been taken off McCoist by the fact they have become strictly secondary to attempting to ensure Rangers have a viable, competitive future. In that respect, many question whether it is fair to judge McCoist as a manager. “People will do it anyway, it goes with the territory,” the 49-year-old says. “I don’t have a problem with people making judgments. As long as I can live with the decisions and the things I do. As long as I do that, I certainly don’t have a problem with people having opinions and making judgments because that is what football is all about.”
McCoist might consider himself a victim of poor timing. He inherited a team on its way down, despite the league title in May. He may have been able to make better signings to revive it than those to which he was limited, but no team has won four straight SPL titles for good reason.
The Rangers manager may have to settle for drawing contentment from showing good grace and good judgment in how he has handled the responsibility of being a rallying point as the club’s figurehead at the lowest point of its 140-year history. The importance of his role should not be under-estimated.
“It’s been fine, in the respect that there’s not been an option,” says McCoist of how he’s coped. “There’s not been an alternative route or something else I could have done. We don’t have a chairman, a board of directors, a chief executive, so I’ve had to do a lot more than any normal manager would do in these circumstances. That’s not a complaint, just a statement of fact. I’ve been delighted and proud to be put in this position where I could do something. In about five or ten years, when we’re back in better shape, I hope people look back and say, ‘well, he did the club some good’. It’s not helped because I’m primarily here to win trophies and that ain’t going to happen this year. So the next best thing, in fact it’s probably the biggest thing, even before trophies, is coming through the other end with a solid, stable football club.”