Rangers could be hours away from the League 1 title. The last but one objective in Rangers’ projected return to the top tier in successive seasons could be complete. Another mission accomplished if they win tomorrow night against Airdrieonians.
It will be deservedly so. Rangers have won 25 of their 27 matches. They have drawn the two others. They have scored 84 goals, conceding only 14. They are doing what we all expected them to do. They are doing what they should be doing.
But is the journey proving as gainful as hoped? Are Rangers making enough use of their journey back to the top flight? This question was first posed last season when a team of mostly experienced professionals – in several cases, internationals – made swift work of part-time opponents. Then, the same complaint was heard. Rangers are using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. They are failing to take a prize opportunity to blood young talent in the first team.
More than one person has commented on the underwhelming atmosphere at Bayview earlier his month, when Rangers needed an injury-time penalty to secure three points against East Fife. It was a scuffed victory, set against a backdrop of yelps and shouts from the players that were heard from television screens across the land. It was as uninspiring as it was possible to be. Manager Ally McCoist admitted as much afterwards. He was happy enough with the result, just not the performance. It was far from what he had expected, he said. It was certainly far from what should be expected from what is still, at even casual glance, a team of Scottish Premiership-standard players.
For those with the health of Scottish football at heart, it is a slightly deflating experience to study the Rangers teamsheet each week. Doing so will stir far more painful emotions for Rangers fans, since it provides plenty of pointers towards why the club are still hemorrhaging money. Well-paid – some would say vastly overpaid – seasoned professionals playing far below their level is not the only reason why the club are reduced to casting around for loans. However, it isn’t helping. Much was made of how Rangers might negotiate their way back up the leagues when it was confirmed that they would begin season 2012-13 in the old Third Division. While clearly traumatic, some expressed the hope that this would at least provide them with the opportunity to rebuild from the bottom up; to resuscitate the club’s youth development programme.
Few can claim that Murray Park has been as successful on that front as was hoped. The most successful graduates are now playing elsewhere. Are there many coming through the ranks? Not on the evidence presented to date. Of the players used by McCoist on Saturday, most would not have seemed out of place in the Scottish Premiership. Indeed, several of them are not only Premiership players, but top end ones. Lee Wallace was one of Hearts’ best players before he made the switch to Ibrox, as was David Templeton. Jon Daly was regarded as a significant loss by Dundee United fans when he departed, while Richard Foster is the epitome of a dependable professional, though when he returned to the club he seemed far from essential to Rangers’ ambitions of winning the title.
Cammy Bell, meanwhile, had earned international recognition with Kilmarnock. On the bench, of course, is substitute goalkeeper Steve Simonsen, with the younger Scott Gallacher condemned to play reserve team football following his return to Ibrox after a loan spell with Airdrieonians. Defenders Craig Halkett and Lucas Gasparotto, who qualifies for Canada, are two players whom many expected to have been employed by now, but neither has featured yet this season – not for Rangers at least. Fraser Aird and Robert Crawford, who replaced Aird during last Saturday’s match, are sources of some optimism, as, of course, is Lewis Macleod, the currently injured Scotland Under-21 internationlist.
McCoist clearly does not believe others coming through at Murray Park are good enough. If he did, he would have fewer qualms about pitching them into the team, the way that Dundee United manager Jackie McNamara has done at a higher level.
It is unlikely that McCoist will be persuaded to do so next season either, in a league where teams need to know how to look after themselves, perhaps to an even greater extent than in the Premiership.
So has Rangers’ window for youth development now passed? Probably. They have other battles to fight in any case. But when they do take their place in the top flight, probably in two seasons’ time, the relief may well be tempered by a niggling sense of what else might have been delivered over the course of their exile.