It will take a lot to console Rangers fans as Celtic stroll to a sixth successive league title. But Stuart McCall believes that a Scottish Cup win should be the Ibrox club’s priority, particularly since it would mean their Old Firm rivals aren’t celebrating a treble.
Finishing second and somehow cutting the gap between them and the champions-elect is also a target concedes McCall, now manager at Bradford City.
But with two of his former clubs meeting at Ibrox in the Scottish Cup this weekend, McCall stressed the importance of Rangers avoiding any mishap against Motherwell.
“That’s got to be their main agenda, along with finishing second and trying to close the gap, so it doesn’t look as bad,” said McCall, on the subject of whether the Scottish Cup has now taken on greater significance in light of the seemingly defunct championship race. “But if Celtic keep playing as they are and picking up the points, then the gap will be… who knows?”
With the League Cup safely stored in the trophy cabinet and the title theirs to lose, McCall is aware hopes are high in the east end of Glasgow that a first treble since 2001 can be completed.
Indeed, such is Celtic’s current domestic dominance it will seem like something of a failure if it isn’t. There is already disquiet that a fourth treble wasn’t achieved during Rangers’ spell out of the top flight, something McCall believes marred Neil Lennon’s reign as manager. “When Rangers did dip out and go to the bottom level that was one of the things cast at Neil Lennon,” said McCall. “For all his Barcelona wins and European wins if ever there was a time to win a treble it was when Rangers were at the bottom, and yet they did not manage to do it.
“Speaking from a Rangers point of view, everyone knows that Celtic are going to win the league, we knew that before a ball was kicked. But that would be another aim – stop Celtic doing the treble, naturally.”
That isn’t solely Rangers’ responsibility of course. Many other teams, including Motherwell, will be eyeing the opportunity to pick up some silverware. Mark McGhee’s side will head to Ibrox feeling they have nothing to lose.
Motherwell lost narrowly at Ibrox in August and while their league record at the ground isn’t good, the Fir Park side recorded a memorable 3-1 triumph there in the 2014-15 Premiership play-off final.
McCall was the Rangers manager left contemplating the end of the promotion dream with the return leg still to come, when Motherwell were even more emphatic winners, 3-0.
“It will be tense because it’s a must-win for Rangers and maybe Motherwell can feed off that,” said McCall.
“In the play-off game we always felt the first goal was vital because I knew Motherwell’s record at Ibrox was poor. After getting through against Hibs we really wanted to stamp our authority at Ibrox.
“If you look at the game, Motherwell were only in our box twice in the opening 29 minutes. We didn’t create that many great chances but one breakaway and deflection and we were behind.
“It was a case of keep the head and go again. But we conceded from a set play – which can happen – then, bang, it was 3-0. Three goals in 15 minutes. That was it. Game over. We got one back but the second leg was a non-event really.
“Motherwell had a lot of players with experience in that squad, like [Stephen] McManus, [Stephen] Pearson, [Keith] Lasley, and [Steven] Hammell,” he added. “It was all about the first goal and that might be key again in this one.”
Describing Saturday’s clash as an “intriguing” fixture, McCall even joked he was planning to put back the kick-off time for Bradford’s home League One fixture against Millwall to watch the action unfold at Ibrox, which, being televised, starts at 12:30pm.
He considers McGhee to have an exciting mix of youth and experience more than equipped to pose problems for Rangers, who have the additional burden of expectation.
“Mark’s still got some of those experienced guys and he’s got a mix with some kids that I saw coming through,” said McCall, who was manager at Fir Park between 2010 and 2014. “They will thrive on playing at Ibrox in a game like this. All the pressure will be on Rangers.
“The fans will have a big part to play,” he added. “Motherwell’s gameplan will be to go and frustrate, there’s no doubt – they did it to us in the play-off game, sat back for half-an-hour then bang! a break and the tension of the stands crept in.
“But Mark [Warburton] and Davie [Weir] are experienced enough to get that message across, as is Mark McGhee. So it’ll be a battle of wits, it’ll be interesting. It means a lot to Motherwell, from a financial point of view, but the pressure is all on Rangers. It’ll be a test.”