WHEN he accepted the task of trying to salvage Rangers’ season two months ago, many observers felt Stuart McCall had committed himself to a lost cause.
Two games into his tenure as interim manager, both of them drawn at home to relegation strugglers Livingston and Alloa, McCall might have been forgiven for accepting that grim analysis of his situation.
But it was at that moment he says he took inspiration and encouragement from his experience as a member of Scotland manager Gordon Strachan’s coaching team when they began their tenure two years earlier with back-to-back defeats by Wales and Serbia.
Happily for McCall, the similarity was maintained. Just as Scotland had snapped out of their wretched start to life under Strachan with an impressive and momentum-generating 1-0 win away to Croatia, so the beleaguered group of Rangers players he inherited suddenly produced a convincing display to win 2-0 against Hibs at Easter Road and revive their promotion hopes.
McCall has now lost just one of his 13 games in charge, fuelling him with belief Rangers can finish a job which tonight reaches the first leg of the play-off semi-final stage against Hibs at Ibrox.
“My start at Rangers took me back to when Gordon, Mark McGhee and myself took over at Scotland,” reflected McCall.
“We were absolutely rotten in those first two games, especially against Wales at Hampden. The first 30 minutes especially, it was the worst football I’d been involved in since I was two years old. The team just couldn’t pass to each other.
“Then we went to Serbia and lost as well. Two games in and we were s***e – no other word for it. So you are thinking ‘what have we let ourselves in for?’ But football can change so quickly and we then got that great result in Croatia and built the confidence on the back of it.
“That was what I grasped onto, really, after drawing the first two games with Rangers here. All right, we were s***e, but there can still be light at the end of the tunnel. That result against Hibs at Easter Road helped us to get that.
“I remember the day before the game, Lee Wallace telling the press that he’d never known confidence or morale to be so low. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the quotes, I thought ‘what the hell is he doing?’ I wanted to get hold of him and give him a big cuddle.
“But no-one in the team had been performing particularly well. Ally McCoist had gone, Kenny McDowall had been in charge for a couple of months and results weren’t good. So, really, I could understand how Lee was feeling. But he then scored in that win against Hibs and it just shows the thin lines between success and failure.”
Just as he did in the the second leg of the quarter-final against Queen of the South on Sunday, McCall goes into tonight’s match facing the possibility it could be his last at Ibrox as Rangers manager.
There remains no certainty over his long-term prospects in the role but he insists it will not prove a distraction to him,
“Listen, even if we lose 3-0 to Hibs, it won’t be my last game at Ibrox because we’ll win 4-0 at Easter Road on Saturday!” he smiled. “Seriously, though, I won’t think about that at all. It’s not about me, it’s about the club.
“People have said I need to take them up to the Premiership but I’ve said from day one my job was to come in, lift morale and maybe improve the style of football. I don’t think the job is definitely mine if we go up.
“Am I proud of the job I’ve done so far? Yes, but it’s not really the time to speak about it. We’ll discuss it at the end of the season. I knew what I came into – well, I thought I did – and if it hadn’t been this club, I wouldn’t have taken it on. Looking at what has changed and at the response of the players since I came in, I’ve been pleased.
“They have been caned for much of the season, rightly so at times. But this isn’t a Graeme Souness, Walter Smith or Dick Advocaat side who can be expected to go out and obliterate opponents. The games are hard for us.
“But we’ve had some good results since I came in and I’ve been proud of some of the performances and of some of the goals we have scored.”
With both Hibs and Rangers having won on the other’s home patch during the regular Championship season, McCall is refusing to attach too much significance to his team’s need to build a telling first-leg advantage tonight.
“I’ve heard some people saying we need to take a lead into the second game,” he said. “I don’t follow that logic. We’re as capable of winning at Easter Road as we are at home, and Hibs will think the same.
“I don’t think there’s a lot between the sides. It’s certainly not a case of it being 15 minutes to go and we desperately need to go to Easter Road with a victory. Obviously it would be nice to but we are also capable of winning the away leg.
“I’d rather be at home first because Ibrox can be a difficult place to play, with the expectation surrounding us. Hibs will think if they can stop us scoring, and score first against us, then the crowd will turn and it will get tense.
“There were periods on Sunday when it was tense. But in the last two games, our supporters, as much as the players, have got us where we wanted to be.”
Rangers captain Lee McCulloch, who sat out both legs of the quarter-final against Queen of the South through injury, is available for selection again.