ON WHAT will be a poignant and emotional day at Ibrox due to the re-naming of the Govan Stand in tribute to Sandy Jardine, club captain Lee McCulloch has been handed the singular honour of unfurling the League One flag, marking Rangers’ successful completion of the second step in their anticipated return to top-flight football.
Last year it was Jardine himself who unfurled the flag of the old Third Division, only to succumb to cancer in April. The naming of the stand after Jardine is a mark of his unique eminence in the club’s history, while being asked to unfurl the latest league flag is an indication of 36-year-old McCulloch’s popularity within Rangers, the club he joined in 2007 and to whom he pledged his undying loyalty early in the chaos of administration.
“I think I’m the first player ever to do it, so it’s a great honour,” said McCulloch, a huge admirer of Jardine, whose family have reciprocated that admiration.
McCulloch said: “He was always about to lend a helping hand or a word, off the pitch and on it.
“To be asked to do this isn’t something I was expecting. I know his family will be there and I think it was them who put my name forward, so it’ll be a great occasion to celebrate a legend.
“Hopefully it’ll be a full house to see the stand named in his honour as well. I’m sure the crowd will be vocal for him.”
Indeed they will, on all sides, as it is very appropriate that Hearts provide the opposition today, given that Jardine was a much-loved player and manager at Tynecastle who grew up in west Edinburgh supporting his local club. While admitting to some trepidation at the prospect of a serving player unfurling the flag, McCulloch’s manager Ally McCoist is in no doubt the correct person has been chosen for the honour.
McCoist said: “I’m a wee bit wary of someone from within the team unfurling the flag but, if anyone deserves to, it is the skipper. He has been absolutely magnificent.
“He has been through the whole thing with us so far and with the way he is working and the attitude he has in training he is hell-bent on guiding this team through this division as well. With Sandy doing it last year and the naming of the stand in his honour, it’s fitting that the skipper does it.”
As soon as the commemoration and celebrations are over, it will be straight into action against Hearts for McCulloch, who will play in defence, according to McCoist.
That suits the player. “We played it pre-season and we played it the other night [against Hibs],” he said. “I thought it worked well in the first half but in the second half they changed their shape and that’s why we went to a four at the back. We are adaptable with players that can play in different positions, so I feel comfortable enough with the three or the four.
“The manager’s the man that picks the team and the formation, but for me it’s about staying fit. The most important thing is the team and I think whoever is on form should be playing.”
Such is the way of football that, should 36-year-old McCulloch lead Rangers back to the top division, he may not be part of the team that plays there, even though his fitness was proven by pre-season testing.
“It is the last year of my contract,” said McCulloch, “so I just need to wait and see what happens. I feel fresh and I know I am fit from the test results and everything else that has gone on pre-season.
“I was in the top three or four for everything. When we have such a young squad it’s good to know that I am there or thereabouts.
“It’s just important that the club gets back to where we were. The league, that’s the most important aim this season, and anything on top of the league is a bonus. To do it would be brilliant to get us back there for next season and be competing against the top of Scottish football. It would be a great satisfaction to the club and everyone involved with it.
“I would love that [to be part of it next season], it would be the perfect scenario, but for me in my head it’s about concentrating on this season, trying to stay in the team, trying to win things, that’s what’s important, and I think we should be trying to add another cup and not just have the pressure of the league.”
McCulloch agrees with his manager’s view that a 100 per cent record is not a possibility this season: “Some of the teams in this league, away games will be difficult. Points will be dropped, and we’re not expecting to go through the season winning every game, that’s for sure. We’re slowly getting back to what it’s like playing in the SPL. Obviously the clubs in this division are bigger than we’ve faced in the last two so it feels a step closer.
“And the bar has been raised in here in training as well. We need to raise the standards.”
Indeed, Rangers do need to up their game if they are to win the Championship. And for their supporters, nothing less will do.