Rangers have closed the gap on their rivals and should challenge for the title in seasons ahead, even if this year is too soon, writes Joel Sked
“Here we go, 10 in a row”
It’s a chant heard every time Celtic take to the field. Whether it is at Celtic Park or on their travels, fans of the club revel in their dominance of Scottish football.
Celtic became the first team to achieve the feat of nine-in-a-row. Under the management of Jock Stein they won every Division One title, as it was back then, between 1966 and 1974, only for Rangers to break the cycle.
The roles were reversed in the 1980s and 1990s as Rangers fell one short of the fabled 10 league titles in succession.
Since Rangers’ liquidation in 2012 there has been an increasing expectation that it would finally be achieved. With a substantial financial advantage over the other clubs, the path opened for Celtic. A path which was wide, flat, free of any obstacles with a luminous sunset up ahead.
Celtic have won the last six league titles with an aggregate points advantage over the runners-up of 127 points.
They win the league and, with it, gain the financial rewards which European football, specifically the Champions League, brings. It is a perpetual cycle as the club increase their advantage over the rest of the league. While fans of other clubs may bemoan the fact, it is a product of their success. They earned it.
For the last three seasons Aberdeen have been the nearest challengers. Yet the term ‘nearest’ should be used loosely. Even when Celtic were sleepwalking under Deila they still had the required faculties to out-manoeuvre the Dons and win the league by 15 points.
Only one team has the infrastructure, potential and finances to challenge Celtic. Rangers. Certainly for a sustained period of time. For the likes of Aberdeen, Hearts and Hibs it requires a Leicester City-esque perfect storm to mount a challenge. A Celtic implosion coupled with a refined football plan coming together, plus a certain amount of luck.
For Scottish football to make the transition from a monopoly back to a duopoly, it requires Rangers to bridge the gap to Celtic. Disheartening it may be, but it is realism.
While ambition is not an attribute which should be criticised, the Rangers fans ‘going for 55’ on their return to the top tier were, simply put, deluded.
The Scottish Cup semi-final defeat of Celtic - on penalties - worked in the Hoops’ favour more than it did Rangers. It inflamed hopes and fed the fantasy that the club could instantly take retake their position, in their fans’ eyes, at the summit of Scottish football.
However, the four years they spent in the lower leagues were not used wisely. An array of poor decisions, from management to recruitment to a forward-thinking playing infrastructure, and too much bullishness, hampered progress. Rather than act like one of the world’s most successful football clubs, they preferred the comedy route and brought a whole new meaning to the term ‘amateur hour’ - one only needs to look at how the sacking of Mark Warburton was managed.
It was only exasperated by the appointment of Pedro Caixinha.
While the board could be commended for taking a risk and looking outwith the insular world of Scottish football and the usual candidates, it was a time where a steady hand to guide the club to the summer and provide a solid footing. They went against the general consensus in appointing a head coach before a director of football.
Again the club could be commended for doubling down on Caixinha in the summer, backing him with substantial funds in the transfer market. Both the Portuguese manager and the club tried to sprint before they could even muster a light jog to the end of the road and back.
More than 130 days later, few could have predicted the nature of Rangers’ progress, especially when shambolic nature of their pursuit of Derek McInnes is taken into account.
Following a draw to Kilmarnock in October, which brought about the end of Caixinha at Rangers, the club sat fourth, five and eight points behind Aberdeen and Celtic respectively. They are now six ahead of Aberdeen and six behind Celtic, albeit they have played a game more.
The turnaround has come under the savvy management of Graeme Murty, installed first as interim manager before appointed until the end of the season. Since leading out Rangers at Murrayfield in October the club have won 40 points in 19 games. Celtic have 38 in 18.
Granted it is a small sample size, but the gap finally appears to be closing.
It is a tall order for Rangers to turn around the deficit which currently stands in the league, especially as Celtic have no European distractions. But for the first time since 2011 there are signs that Celtic’s procession to 10-in-a-row isn’t as clear as it once was.
Murty, alongside director of football Mark Allen, has recruited shrewdly. He observed the weaknesses which exist within the team and got to work fixing them. Players who are used to the peculiarities of both Scottish football, and the English Championship, were brought in meaning adaption was smooth and efficient.
Question marks were raised as to how these recruits would then fit into a coherent and cohesive system but there finally looks to be a sensible plan in place at Ibrox, one with direction and common sense. A quality which has not been witnessed too often around Govan in recent years.
Murty kept it simple, playing players in their best position. Alfredo Morelos was fielded as a lone striker, a position he works diligently in, but supported by Josh Windass in his preferred central role and flanked by Jamie Murphy and Daniel Candeias.
There is a balance to Rangers’ attack. Morelos is so adept at dropping in and linking play but also capable of playing on the shoulder or moving wide. This allows for the forward runs of Windass, Greg Docherty and Jamie Murphy coming on off the left. Meanwhile, Candeias keeps the width on the right. But he too is capable of moving in field and helping Rangers dominate with player of the season candidate James Tavernier in his buccaneering best from right-back.
There is a real verve and excitement to the way Rangers attack and commit men forward. However, as witnessed in the 5-3 win over Hamilton Academical, a soft centre does persist. Despite the fine form of Docherty and Sean Goss’ qualities as a deep-lying playmaker Rangers are still weighted towards attack.
But it is not the significant issue it once was. The recent victories against Hearts and St Johnstone suggest that there is a returning of that superiority the club once enjoyed, that fear factor. With the financial advantage they enjoy over 10 other teams, they should be setting their stall out to prove that dominance. Without oversimplifying matters, matching Celtic in games against the other teams makes it a four-game, 12-point league is what they should be looking to achieve.
The issue comes in the summer. While Rangers have recruited well, much of it was via the loan market, something which fans of other clubs weren’t slow to pick up on. Jamie Murphy, Sean Goss and Russell Martin have become important individuals but there are already severe doubts over Goss extending his stay.
In addition, the summer will bring with it rumours about the future of Morelos, who has enjoyed an excellent debut season in Scotland. What Rangers can’t allow is for the summer to be one of upheaval and transition. More uncertainty will simply hinder the momentum building.
In England some are calling for the announcement of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal departure at the end of the season. The opposite should be the case at Ibrox. Announce an extension to Murty’s contract as manager and begin looking forward, begin planning so when the summer comes Rangers can continue picking up speed.
With games against Celtic and Kilmarnock, the post-split fixtures and the Scottish Cup semi-final on the horizon more evidence will emerge as to just how far Rangers are from becoming genuine title challengers. But the signs are there that Celtic’s 10-in-a-row isn’t as simple as once thought.