NEW Rangers manager Stuart McCall has expressed his bewilderment at Shane Ferguson’s inclusion in the Northern Ireland squad to face Scotland next week.
The 23-year-old winger, one of five Newcastle United players loaned to Rangers on the closing day of the January transfer window, has yet to even appear at the Ibrox club’s Murray Park training ground as he recovers from a knee injury.
Ferguson has not played a senior fixture since featuring in Northern Ireland’s 2-0 win in Greece last October.
But he was recalled to his country’s squad yesterday by manager Michael O’Neill, who believes the player might be fit in time to have a role in the friendly against Scotland at Hampden on 26 March and the Euro 2016 qualifier against Finland in Belfast three days later.
That left McCall seeking clarification on Ferguson’s fitness, having previously all but ruled out the possibility of him playing any part in Rangers’ faltering bid for promotion this season.
“As far as I was concerned, Shane was going to be out for a fair length of time and he hasn’t been through the doors here yet,” said McCall.
“So I was a bit stunned to learn that he is in the Northern Ireland squad.
“There might be reasons for it, I don’t know. It’s maybe just to give him a little boost by getting back involved.”
It then transpired that O’Neill himself had been provided with overly optimistic information on Ferguson’s condition by both the player and Newcastle United.
“I sent the letters out for the squad about two weeks ago so I’ve had regular conversations with Newcastle and Shane to see where he’s at,” explained O’Neill.
“He had hoped by now he would be in at Rangers and played a game. That hasn’t happened. So it looks unlikely that he will be part of my squad. I could leave him out between now and Sunday but I thought I’d give him as long as possible.
“I had hoped he would be at Rangers now. But we have a situation where the people who brought him to the club are no longer involved there, and the manager is different. Those are things all out of my control. I don’t think it will cause Stuart any great concern that Shane is in my squad. If he’s not fit to play for Rangers, he won’t be part of my squad.”
Newcastle manager John Carver had stated at the weekend that Ferguson was “two or three weeks away” from being able to report for duty at Rangers.
That would be welcomed by McCall, although he is not setting great store on the availability of any of the quintet whose loans were arranged by currently suspended Rangers chief executive Derek Llambias through his links to Newcastle owner Mike Ashley.
Haris Vukcic, the Slovenian midfielder who is the only one of the five to make a significant contribution at Rangers so far, limped out of Saturday’s 1-1 draw against Livingston with a calf strain and will miss tonight’s game against Alloa at Ibrox.
Defenders Remie Streete and Kevin Mbabu, along with midfielder Gael Bigirimana, are not yet in contention for first team action because of injury and illness.
“Kevin has actually played a couple of under-20 games for us but, given how little football he has played in the last couple of years, it’s a question of match fitness for him,” added McCall.
“I met Remie for the first time today. He’s had an ear infection on top of injuries. I’d say he is still two or three weeks away. They are all well away from being available. If that changes, it would obviously be good for the club as it would give us more options.
“If it’s the case that Shane will be here in a couple of weeks or so as John Carver has said, then great. I can remember him playing for Newcastle, and also on loan for Birmingham, at a good level. But he has been out for almost six months, so you are talking about six weeks to get him up to any level of playing games.”
McCall is more concerned by the immediate priority of reversing the decline in Rangers’ league form which now sees them seven points behind second-placed Hibs and just four and five points ahead of Queen of the South and Falkirk respectively in the race for the Championship play-off places.
His first match in charge fell flat on Saturday with two more points dropped at home to bottom-of-the-table Livingston but he remains hopeful the change in management will eventually have a telling effect.
“I would have liked to have hit the ground running on Saturday but we didn’t get the performance or result we wanted,” said McCall.
“But I look at Tim Sherwood when he went in at Aston Villa a few weeks ago and lost his first two games in charge. Then he’s flipped it, though, winning three games on the bounce. Football can change very quickly.
“At the moment, Hibs are flying, other teams in the play-off hunt are winning as well and everyone is writing Rangers off. We’ve got to accept that at the moment and, the sooner we get a win on the board, hopefully against Alloa on Tuesday night, the better.”
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