There would seem few similarities between the two occasions in which Mark Warburton has grappled with Celtic. Yet, potentially troubling for the Englishman is that there are actually more than might first appear.
The Scottish Cup semi-final win in April that he masterminded is remembered for Rangers dominating their bedraggled opponents. The 5-1 loss at Celtic Park last month is recalled for his bedraggled men being dominated by their opponents. Yet, in the Hampden tie that the Ibrox men won on penalties after a 2-2 scoreline across 120 minutes, a shambolic Celtic carved out ten goal attempts – one more, indeed, than the dynamic Brendan Rodgers’ side produced as they hit their city rivals for five in early September.
Seven goals, and 19 attempts in two games – in contrast to the three goals and five attempts produced by his men – speaks of Warburton’s team as one that Celtic, good or bad, can find a way through. Captain Lee Wallace pointed out this week that Rangers have kept four clean sheets in their past five games. A welcome turn of events, certainly, ahead of this afternoon’s Betfred League Cup semi-final at Hampden. Yet there remains little evidence that, in terms of strategy or personnel, the Ibrox men will have the answers to the question posed by a Celtic frontline built on pace and power.
Warburton recognised that he required to improve all areas of his Championship winning side during the summer. However, whether through ill-fortune or ill-advised moves, his upscaling hasn’t produced the desired results. It is accursed luck that Niko Kranjcar has been lost long-term to a knee injury, but Joey Barton’s residency in the phantom zone is down to his move simply being accursed.
This afternoon, Warburton will be forced to turn to a 38-year-old in Clint Hill for one of the centre-back roles. He will do so in the hope that the veteran can enjoy a more productive derby debut than the one which befell Philippe Senderos. The 31-year-old Swiss was left red-faced before being red-carded, which allowed Celtic to run amok in the east end of Glasgow six weeks ago.
The partnership of Danny Wilson and Rob Kiernan never entirely convinced in Scotland’s second tier. Yet, were Wilson not struggling with injury, that pairing would probably be considered best placed to repel Moussa Dembele et al. Rangers do not have a single centre-back with any real pace and as a team that leave themselves open in their willingness to commit full-backs forward, they desperately need one.
Warburton, below left, has been challenged on all aspects of his backline this season. Consistency of selection – or lack of it – is a common gripe. That, though, is one charge he feels on safe ground in rejecting as entirely unjust.
“I read some media report that I haven’t settled on two centre halves,” he said. “Danny Wilson was injured, Rob Kiernan was injured in the Old Firm and Philippe Senderos got sent off. Clint Hill was ill. Danny then pulls a calf example.
“Those are examples, and there are more, of when our centre halves weren’t all available. That does dictate who plays. They have never all been available. In the last game, Rob and Clint have played. Danny had been in the team but was injured. If they are not all available, there’s not a lot you can do.”
All he can do is head for the Hill. Warburton maintains he has no concerns over making the defender the oldest player to feature in the fixture since his Rangers assistant David Weir did so at 40 in 2011, helping the club to a clean sheet that proved vital to their title defence. Then Weir was in a groove, having been practically ever-present in making more than 200 starts across the previous four seasons. Hill, who turned 38 the other day, was used intermittently by Queens Park Rangers in the past two seasons, and his outing at Inverness last Friday was his first in almost a month. Yet Warburton is willing to wax lyrical about the player.
“Just watch Clint,” he said. “Like Kenny Miller, he is still playing at this age for a reason. He looks after himself so well. We did a really tough fitness test just before the international break. I watched him finish in the middle of the squad. He was just about to turn 38 at the time. He was beating players who are ten, 12, 14 years younger than him.
“Clint had a tremendous outlook, he’s a great athlete and he’s a proven professional. [Rangers managing director] Stewart Robertson tells a story about getting a cab in London for a meeting recently. The driver got talking about football and he was a QPR fan. He said to Stewart, ‘All I wish for is a team of 11 Clint Hills’. I know the Rangers fans sing the song about ‘a team of Davie Weirs’ and that’s the similarity.
“Ideally, you want a defender with great aerial ability at 6ft 4in, a great physique, who can pass the ball with both feet and run like Usain Bolt. The fact is those guys are in the English Premier League. What Clint has is a strong aerial ability, he can deal with a physical presence and has experience. His positioning is excellent. Clint won’t say he’s the quickest centre half but I have no worries about him whatsoever.”
That sentiment may not be shared by the Rangers followers making their way to Hampden this afternoon.