A CURIOSITY of a cup tie will conclude at Rugby Park on Tuesday night. The fifth round Scottish Cup pair-up between Rangers and Kilmarnock was supposed to be a 90-minute affair. The budgetary advantages of Mark Warburton’s team, and the bogging form of the Ayrshire club, had all believing that the Championship team would prove too strong for their Premiership visitors eight days ago.
When that did not happen, the convention-bucking did not end. Ordinarily, if an unfancied team escape from their opponents’ backyard unscathed in a cup tie, their chances in a home replay will be rated more favourably. Yet, that has not happened after a 0-0 draw. There is hardly a soul expressing the belief that Kilmarnock might prevail over a lower division foe within their own environs.
In itself, that is strange. There may be myriad flaws in the managerless side, excellently marshalled by interim boss Lee McCulloch at his old workplace last weekend. Yet, they do still play at a higher level each week than Mark Warburton’s team. And for all that the Ibrox manager may contend that there is little difference between top-flight sides and their leading second-tier counterparts, his team’s results in such circumstances have yet to back up his assertion.
Seven months of always scoring in games during the Warburton era came to an end for Rangers when Kilmarnock came calling. Meanwhile, the only two-goal losing margin suffered by the Ibrox club this season just happened to be when they faced St Johnstone in the League Cup last October.
These results might just be accidents of circumstance. McCulloch’s elevation following Gary Locke’s resignation seemed to provide the Rugby Park side with a sense of purpose. He is likely still to be in charge for Tuesday, even as a sizeable cast list is linked with the post. That appears headed up by Graham Alexander and Neil Redfearn.
For Warburton it seems to matter little who is in charge, or who his team is playing. Ask him about any of these elements and he trots out the well-worn “it’s all about us” mantra. But Kilmarnock might feel it is all about them. Warburton might have no great enthusiasm for the Rugby Park artificial surface but neither, it would appear, do the hosts. They have bagged as many points from away games as home encounters in the league this season – perhaps one reason why their Scottish Cup prospects are adjudged not to have improved by forcing a replay at Rugby Park.
Warburton would see his team as in charge of the tie not as a result of this fact but because he considered they bossed matters last time out. “If you look at the game again we had more than enough chances to score,” the Rangers manager said. “Nine times out of 10 Waggy [Martyn Waghorn] would score his one, he knows that. If you look at Lee Wallace, Harry Forrester, Danny [Wilson] hit the bar, Tav [James Tavernier] hit the post… we dominated, especially in the second half. I was pleased.”
Kilmarnock have taken some real sore ones on their own soil. On three occasions they have been gubbed 4-0, with the 5-2 whacking by Partick Thistle another monumental embarrassment. Yet, they have also beaten Inverness Caledonian Thistle and drawn with Celtic at Rugby Park so they aren’t entirely hapless at home. Warburton refuses to consider that his team will be stepping up in terms of degree of difficulty from their toughest league assignments.
“From the top of the Championship to the Premiership I don’t see this massive gulf. That’s not a lack of respect. I just don’t see it,” the Ibrox manager said.
“Kilmarnock showed a physicality and had very good players, but there are very good players in the top Championship teams as well, and I include Falkirk in that.
“The only reason the gap between the top two divisions is wider down south now is because of the financial climate. There’s £100 million for coming bottom of the Premier League – that’s huge money. That’s what causes the huge gulf.
“Up here you look at Hibs against Hearts last weekend and Hibs did really well [to draw from two goals down]. The gap between the two leagues is narrowing. Now it may be that over the course of a season you need a depth of squad to deal with a tougher game every week. But the gulf isn’t huge.”
A gap would open up between the perception of where Warburton feels his side is and the actuality of the position in the event of Kilmarnock winning the replay. This is a huge game for Warburton in Rangers’ road to rehabilitation under him. For all that the Ibrox side this season are immeasurably better than the Ally McCoist version of 15 months ago, it is peculiar that in one sense they have regressed.
Whatever the deficiencies of McCoist’s team, cup ties against top league opponents seemed to provide them respite in the early months of last season. In the League Cup, Inverness and St Johnstone were both comfortably despatched at Ibrox. The ground was also the scene of a fourth-round Scottish Cup tie against Premiership opposition in November 2014. It ended with Kilmarnock being swatted aside 3-0.