ALLY McCoist believes Rangers have managed to “toughen up” in the Irn-Bru Third Division after watching his side edge Peterhead 1-0 in a physical contest at Balmoor yesterday in which striker Fran Sandaza scored his first goal in five months.
Peterhead had five players yellow-carded and were reduced to ten men when Rory McAllister was dismissed for a second bookable offence, while Rangers players, particularly Lee Wallace and Ian Black, were on the receiving end of some meaty tackles.
McCoist, however, insisted he had no problem with the ferocity of the challenges and said his players had adapted well to their new division.
Rangers were given a tough baptism in the lowest league – their maiden fixture was a 2-2 draw with Peterhead – but they have found a way to improve as the season has gone on. Former Scotland striker McCoist said: “One of the most important factors in the game was how our centre-halves handled the aggression of Rory McAllister and, when he came on, Martin Bavidge. If they don’t fancy it, we’re bang in trouble.”
Black in particular came in for some harsh treatment. He collided with a hoarding following a typically robust Dean Cowie challenge, but McCoist joked: “Ian’s all right, but I think the hoarding will be out for three weeks! I think the physicality has been taken out of the game too much, so I’m not going to be hypocritical and complain about some of the tough tackling our players receive. We’re all big boys, so let’s get on with it.
“I think after the first game of the season, the guys had to toughen up. They’re certainly handling it better and the results we’ve had recently are based on a solidity and resilience, especially defensively.”
In the opening weeks of the season, Sandaza was one of the most vocal critics of over-enthusiastic challenges he felt were being meted out by Third Division defenders. Ironically, the most serious injury he received this season came against SPL opposition when a bad facial knock sustained against Motherwell in the League Cup in September kept him out for three months.
However, the Spaniard has returned from his injury lay-off and although he suffered yet another head knock in the match, he was just full of relief at scoring the goal which gave Rangers all three points and stretched their lead at the top of the table to 19 points.
Sandaza, whose decisive strike came in the 30th minute, told RangersTV: “Today is a very happy day for me. I’ve gone a long time without scoring and I’ve been working so hard in training to come back into the team.
“After being out for three months – and I could have lost my eye – psychologically it’s not easy to recover from that. I know that supporters expect for me to score many goals but today, finally, I scored and the team worked so hard.
“It might not have been easy to watch the game but we got the three points. Now we are 19 points ahead and the team is doing brilliantly.”
Peterhead manager Jim McInally was upbeat despite seeing McAllister sent off and his side subsequently beaten.
He said: “I was disappointed we didn’t finish the game with 11 men. I substituted Ryan McCann to save him from getting sent off and within five minutes we’re down to ten men. Losing Rory was a massive loss to us at that stage of the game. I think it happens a lot where there are wee handballs and the referee turns a blind eye to it.
“Thankfully, Rangers missed a couple of sitters which kept us going, and the players worked their socks off. I thought our attitude was brilliant and our workrate was great. We started really well, and finished strongly as well, considering we’re a part-time team. If the players continue to work like that, they’ll do alright.”