AS he sets out in pursuit of his 25th clean sheet of the season tonight, Cammy Bell has good reason to be satisfied with his debut campaign as a Rangers player.
But even if the goalkeeper helps his team maintain their unbeaten League 1 record through the remaining three fixtures of their season, he will retain a nagging sense of frustration at being sidelined when they faced their biggest test of all.
Bell sustained concussion in a training ground clash with team-mate Sebastien Faure earlier this month, ruling him out of the Scottish Cup semi-final against Dundee United at Ibrox. The 27-year-old had to look on as an error by his deputy, Steve Simonsen, sealed Rangers’ fate as they lost 3-1.
Such was Bell’s desire to turn out against United, he tried in vain to persuade Rangers’ medical staff he should be allowed to play. But he was forced to accept their insistence that the protocol following head injuries should be followed to the letter.
“I understand why there are guidelines in place,” said Bell. “If you take a second concussion, it can be fatal. But the timing of it was so frustrating for me. It was such a big game for the club, I felt like I’d missed out on a cup final, not just a semi-final. We had been playing a small-sided game in training a few days beforehand and I dived at Sebastien’s feet. He smashed a shot and the ball hit me flush on the chin. My head whipped back and hit the ground. I was knocked out straight away. I was out cold for a few minutes and when I woke up the physio was in my face. I felt okay after it. I went to the hospital and got checked and everything was fine but I knew I was in for a battle to persuade the doc. I stayed at the training ground until 4pm on the Thursday, trying to persuade the doc I could play. But the doctor had a decision to make and I respect that.
“I’ve been knocked out before. I know what it feels like and the most frustrating thing was I felt okay after this one.”
Simonsen’s blunder gifted Dundee United their clinching third goal in the semi-final and earned the Englishman a level of online abuse which subsequently prompted him to close his Twitter account.
“Being at a club like Rangers, you are always open to criticism,” said Bell. “But some people went too far with the abuse Steve got online. All goalkeepers make mistakes and it was the timing more than anything that led to the criticism Steve got. I did feel for him. As a ’keeper, you very rarely get away with a mistake – nine times out of ten, it ends up in the back of your net.
“But Steve is a strong character and he has got on with it. He knew he made a mistake, but, apart from that, he had a solid game against United.”
Bell returned to the Rangers line-up on Saturday when they defeated Stenhousemuir 4-0 at Ochilview to take their goals tally for the League 1 campaign to 100. They could also cross the 100-point barrier in their final three games as they target what would be only the third unbeaten league season in Scottish football history – Celtic and Rangers completed the previous two in the then 18-match top flight back in 1898 and 1899 respectively.
Tonight’s visit of Ayr United to Ibrox is followed by Saturday’s home game against Stranraer and then a trip to face Dunfermline at East End Park on 3 May.
“It would be massive to go the full season unbeaten in the league,” added Bell. “We’ve drawn a couple and it’s been a tough campaign. We’ve got three hard games still to go and we’ll need to see it out. Every week these teams raise their game for Rangers but I’ve been there myself when I played for Kilmarnock. That’s just what happens against a big club. Ayr are trying to clinch a play-off place and it will be like a cup final for them.”
Rangers manager Ally McCoist believes the prospect of completing an undefeated league campaign has given focus to his players’ work long after they clinched the League 1 title. “It is definitely providing motivation,” he said.
“People keep asking if it’s difficult to keep motivating players and keep them going once the league is won. You are duty-bound to have a level of professionalism and put in a performance. But, psychologically, players can switch off – that’s a human trait, not just a football thing. So we’ve definitely been helped by having come so far undefeated and there is now a real target there with three games to go. But the flip side of the coin is that Ayr, Stranraer and Dunfermline will look on it as a massive scalp if they can be the first team to beat Rangers in the league.”
Ayr player-manager Mark Roberts wants to make things difficult for Rangers tonight and horrible for Stenhousemuir and Stranraer in the play-off race by picking up at least one point.
Roberts said: “No-one expects us to take anything from this game and, if we do, then we will have restricted Rangers really well and also disappointed the teams that want a play-off place at our expense. The longer we keep Rangers at bay the better our chances of doing something are. I would imagine that, if we keep them out all night and pick up even a point, it will be a horrible feeling for the teams close to us.”
Ayr presently sit fourth, two points behind Stranraer and one ahead of Stenhousemuir, and, after tonight, all three sides will have just two games to go with the Stair Park men visiting Ibrox at the weekend. “Rangers have been formidable all season and have kept their standards high,” added Roberts. “They are playing with a high intensity as their 4-0 win at Stenhousemuir on Saturday showed. They seem to be very focused on remaining unbeaten so we are up against it. The benefit of that is that we can go there and play with a certain amount of freedom as no-one expects us to do anything. We have players that are good on the ball and will enjoy playing at Ibrox. However, they will enjoy it a lot more if we can do something.”
Michael McGowan is available after suspension and he will play at right-back as on-loan Rangers player Kyle McAusland will not feature. Everyone else in the Somerset Park squad is fit and available to Roberts.