Aidan Smith: Days of Rangers' Iron Curtain defence are over

Long after other clubs started putting photographs of players and match action on the cover of their programmes, Rangers stayed traditional and retained the drawing of the lines of the pitch with the names of the Gers men in position in the top half and their opponents below them. Actually, come to think of it, this was never the fashion anywhere else in Scotland. Only Rangers announced themselves in this way and, it seems now, for a very good reason.
No case for the defence: Clint Hill, left, and Lee Wallace are shell-shocked after Rangers capitulation. Photograph: Jeff Holmes/PANo case for the defence: Clint Hill, left, and Lee Wallace are shell-shocked after Rangers capitulation. Photograph: Jeff Holmes/PA
No case for the defence: Clint Hill, left, and Lee Wallace are shell-shocked after Rangers capitulation. Photograph: Jeff Holmes/PA

Brown, Young and Shaw; McColl, Woodburn and Cox. This was the defence you’d be facing in your usually deluded belief you could score a goal at Ibrox, never mind win the game. Sitting in the top half they were already dominating the other team. Placing the names in the classic 2-3-5 formation suggested these guys would never leave their posts and, though this was before my time and I never saw any of them play, the records show they rarely did. As the Rangers motto had it they were “Ready”. The defence was known as the Iron Curtain. Not to be confused in any way with the Taffeta Curtain.

The Taffeta Curtain was what an astonished Terry Butcher, stout yeoman of a later incarnation of the Rangers backline, witnessed during commentary on last Wednesday’s hammering by Hearts. It was what a disillusioned and angry away support witnessed before leaving Tynecastle early, doubtless fearing that the Jambos’ goal tally would climb higher than four before the end. And it was something the rest of us, brought up to regard Rangers’ meanness as an immovable object in the Scottish game, thought we would never see.

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Make no mistake, this was an alarmingly bad performance. A newly constructed Hearts side, who’d barely been introduced before kick-off, were rampant all the way through the second half. Surely a record was set for the number of back-heels completed against a team in the old light blue. Imagine that kind of impudence being attempted when John Greig was marshalling the rearguard. The culprits would have been marched to the top of the Copland Road end and booted skywards.

Mark Warburton has got some sort of handle on Govan tradition. “We are Rangers Football Club,” he said post-match, in one of those defiant statements which you think might be the cue for a song. “We don’t lose 4-1.” But a Swiss cheese defence – and that’s without Philippe Senderos – is not part of the culture and Corky Young and the rest will surely be burling in their graves right now.

Warburton’s Rangers like to pass the ball around. Even his goalkeeper Wes Foderingham likes to pass the ball around. But he’s not Beckenbauer and no-one in this defence is. No one-even comes close to Ronnie McKinnon.

These erratic displays from Rob Kiernan must be making the faithful pine for the erratic displays of Lorenzo Amoruso. The big Italian love-god was a sensational player but very often only in his own head. He did, however, fire the ball out of harm’s way on a semi-regular basis. These would be passes hit with the velocity of strikes on goal, sometimes winding more than one ballboy as they hurtled out of the park, but at least danger was averted.

James Tavernier must have been telling all his pals that Scottish football was a skoosh after gamboling around Championship grounds and stunning the second-tier with his thumping free-kicks and swinging crosses. He got a lot of hype, almost as if he was some kind of missionary, bringing modern wing-back play to simple folks, and his reputation went before him when he arrived in the Premiership. Life there has been a good bit more challenging.

Clint Hill has a great name. Anyone called Clint should be redoubtable and he often has been this season, one of Warburton’s better signings as the manager struggles to convince in his transfer dealings. But Hill, not yet over the hill, can sometimes look his age (38) and on Wednesday Bjorn Johnsen was able to surge beyond him quite straightforwardly to set up Hearts’ third.

Lee Wallace, normally one of Rangers’ dependables, has been caught up in the defence’s grim melodrama and – with Warburton, left, adamant that his team are doing “all right” and unwilling to compromise his football philosophy, even when playing out from the back on such a wretched playing surface as Tynecastle – the faithful are being required to yearn for the return from injury of Danny Wilson.

If the manager’s signing policy is being subjected to close scrutiny then some fans must surely be questioning his release policy as well, especially when they see the form of Darren McGregor at Hibernian. The centre-back is playing the football of his life right now, and yet he wasn’t doing too badly when he was at Ibrox, being voted the club’s player of the year just before the arrival of Warburton, who promptly got rid of him. He’s one of the reasons Hibs lead the Championship and are more defensively solid under Neil Lennon, who told me recently: “I wish I had 11 Darren McGregors. That would make my job the easiest in the world. I admire his attitude, bravery, leadership, will-to-win – he’s a fabulous player.” Warburton didn’t need him, thought he could build a better defence without him, but on Wednesday – shockingly – the evidence of this wasn’t there.

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Defending shouldn’t simply be left to defenders, of course, but Andy Halliday’s idea of helping out against Hearts was not dissimilar to Alex Ferguson’s when Billy McNeill went up for that corner in the 1969 Scottish Cup final. The memory can play tricks. Rangers backlines of old obviously conceded goals and dropped the occasional clanger. But just the thickness of the players’ calves seemed to intimidate opponents. It was as if Willie Waddell had got Jock Wallace to chop up drainpipes, halving the pieces to use as shinguards.

If the pressure on that defence ever got intense you always felt it was only be a matter of time before Ibrox’s invalid cars moved from the perimeter to form a blockade across the penalty-box.

Those days are gone and Warburton’s case for this defence isn’t looking too clever.