SOMETHING often said about Rangers in the Championship is that if their bid to get back into the top flight is not going according to plan, then they will enter the transfer market with purpose and make the three or four January window signings they need to secure automatic promotion.
Right at the start of the season, Hibernian manager Alan Stubbs told me that the Ibrox club would have this advantage over his team and Hearts.
And, as recently as last week, when Rangers were trailing the Tynecastle side by six points, his words were echoed by Dave McPherson when I interviewed the retired defender with divided loyalties to both Govan and Gorgie.
Well, the gap is now nine points. The frustrated Rangers faithful following Saturday’s 2-0 slump at Tynecastle will have a number of thoughts on the issue of emergency recruitment.
Some will argue it should begin with the manager. Others will wonder how any such deals are to be funded, given the ongoing financial mess, and ask if the best they can hope for is the loan of some promising kids from Mike Ashley’s Newcastle United.
A few will argue that even if there is cash to spend, the success rate of January signings generally is not great. And more than a handful will warn: “Beware the proven Premiership player who thinks the lower leagues will be a stroll.”
Rangers, these fans will mutter, have more than enough of this kind already. If not guys who’ve actually tried to saunter through games without getting their shorts dirty, then those for whom the form dip, against inferior opponents, has been inexplicable as it has been dispiriting.
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Saturday was Rangers’ biggest game since liquidation, the biggest of Ally McCoist’s management and, if not a must-win, then a cannot-lose – readymade you would have thought for the players Rangers were able to hand pick from the top-flight, recognised and trusted names, all of whom had proved themselves on far bigger stages than Annan and Elgin.
You will have no difficulty finding support among the Copland Road cognoscenti for the theory that to a man their careers have stalled and that in some cases they’ve seriously gone backwards.
Take the strike force of Kenny Miller and Kris Boyd. When Rangers signed this pair, or re-signed them, there must have been a collective intake of breath at Hearts and Hibs. Here were two of the meanest goal desperadoes of recent times, teaming up for the final push to the summit. Surely they would score for fun.
True, we’d slightly come adrift from Miller’s story during his spell in Vancouver, but it had only been last August that he’d made out a fool out of Gary Cahill, turning the England centre-back for a fine goal in the Auld Enemy clash at Wembley.
Miller would be as hungry as ever, of that there was little doubt. And then there was Boyd. To some, Boydy will always be Scottish football’s riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside a Monster Munch packet. If only his undoubted talent had been matched by rigorous application.
But there was nothing wrong with the application at Kilmarnock last season. His goals went a long way towards keeping Killie up, with Hibs fans having grim memories of how he toyed with their team before putting them out of their misery and condemning them to the play-offs. He won a Scotland recall and was nominated for the Premiership’s Player of the Year.
Yet the duo have not terrorised defences in the Championship, neither managing to score at Tynecastle. Miller was taken off by his manager before he was sent off. Boyd, given ten minutes as a substitute, obviously had less time to make an impact, but still managed to squeeze in an ugly lunge for which he was fortunate not to receive a red card. They must have expected more from Ian Black on Saturday as well, with the midfielder unable to dominate for a side admittedly forced to play with ten men for almost 70 minutes.
Black’s last game for Hearts was the 2012 Scottish Cup final. He ran the show and was awarded man of the match as Hibs were routed 5-1. For the past two-and-a-half seasons, football matches should have been easier to run. We don’t hear the fans saying Black is doing this – even with the help in midfield of Nicky Law, who seemed to have shaved more than his hair from performances since his move from Motherwell.
Rangers substitutes at Tynecastle included David Templeton and Dean Shiels. The former was a Hearts starlet before his switch to Ibrox while the latter was another Player of the Year contender, this in the same season as Jon Daly.
Daly has the excuse of injury, Saturday being his first start of the campaign. But neither Shiels nor Templeton was summoned to help save the game, and again you’d have to ask if this scenario was not well within their remit – indeed, if it wasn’t what they’d been brought to the club for.
Maybe Lee Wallace has maintained a level of consistency which has been beyond the other high-profile signings but he must surely ponder the wisdom of his Ibrox move when he sees Andy Robertson’s achievements at Hull.
The anti-McCoist lobby will probably blame the manager for not getting the most out of his top recruits, and of course there’s all the uncertainty over the club’s future.
But football fans are often told that battle-ready players can shut out such distractions. Now more than ever Rangers need these guys to remember how they came by all their rave reviews, before they start yellowing in the scrapbooks.
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