Rangers are following in the footsteps of Hearts by storming their way to Championship success this season. That is where Ibrox manager Mark Warburton intends the comparisons between the pair to end. The Tynecastle side clinched the second tier a year ago this week. Only three of their side from that weekend featured in the 3-0 home loss to St Johnstone nine days ago.
Essentially, Robbie Neilson ripped up his title-winning squad and started again to pursue progress in the Premiership – a strategy that looks like delivering European qualification. Warburton, right, though, baulks at the notion of practically starting afresh when it comes to constructing a squad for more exacting challenges. “I don’t understand that,” the 53-year-old said. “Everyone’s different. No disrespect to Hearts or Robbie, that’s their choice. But I think you have to recognise the quality you have in the squad. You always, always under-estimate teams that go up and over-estimate teams that go down. Always. That’s fact.
“So if people underestimate Rangers going up, that’s great but we have a number of people in the squad we know can go to the next level. Our job is to supplement that with four, five or six that we need to deal with the next level and make the impact we want.”
Warburton will be in a very different position from Neilson come the close season, though. Hearts were never going to be judged against Celtic. The former Brentford manager knows that is coming down the track for him. The financial commitment coming down from board level at the Ibrox club he believes will recognise that.
“It’s what the fans expect,” he said. “We’re not going up to make up numbers. That’s no arrogant blast, we have to go up there to be more than highly competitive. The expectation of the club won’t change in the next division. The proof is always in the pudding but so far when we’ve gone for players we’ve got the players.
“In June of last year we went for the likes of [James] Tavernier, [Jason] Holt, [Wes] Foderingham, [Martyn] Waghorn, [Rob] Kiernan and [Andy] Halliday, and we got them. We got the backing we needed.
“What we have to do now is give our targets to the board, maintain good communication – which is every day – and push hard to see what we can get.”
Warburton is switched on to the fact that the Rangers support will demand that their club can instantly challenge Celtic for the title. “I understand the size of the club and it’s naïve not to think that way. Logic will tell you that Celtic, and teams like Aberdeen and Hearts, have been in Europe and have battle-hardened, experienced players at that level. But we have also got quality within our squad. What we have to do is recognise the task and recognise the expectation.
“They won’t say ‘go up there and enjoy it and hopefully in season 18-19, have a go’. That’s not going to happen. We know the club, we know the expectation. We have to go up there and give it the very best shot we can. Every season it’s the same. It doesn’t change.
“We understand that, therefore what do we have to do? We have to get our recruitment right and get the environment right. We have to give ourselves the best possible chance. There’s no wild statement, no ‘we’re going up to beat…’ none of that nonsense. All we’re saying is that we’re comfortable that we can go up and be highly competitive.”
Hearts won the Championship far more comfortably than Rangers have this season. Yet, Neilson and the powers that be at Hearts, felt their squad needed upgraded simply for them to be among the leading places – their current position of third behind Celtic and Aberdeen the target set for them by their demanding support. Rangers have to take a much bigger step – yet there seems no means for them to move into the £1 million or £2m bracket for new arrivals that allows Celtic to look down on all others in the top flight. “I think some of the biggest disasters have been the biggest fees,” Warburton said. “It’s not about how much you spend, it’s how you spend what you have available.”
Polish goalkeeper Maceij Gostomski – who lasted only two months – is alone among the 15 players to have arrived in Warburton’s first season not to have offered any return. The Rangers manager has built confidence as much as competence. To such an extent that full-back Tavernier, one of his major successes, believes the Ibrox side are good enough to prosper against Celtic right now. The teams will meet in the Scottish Cup semi-final on 17 April and there is a feeling that if Warburton’s side do not modify their open, expansive approach they could be asking for trouble. The 25-year-old has no fears about his team’s approach against the Scottish champions.
“We’ll stick to our game, stick to what we know, and what we know best is our system,” he said. “We’ll use that no matter what, no matter who we play against, and we don’t adapt to any other teams, we always go out and play what we want to play. They need to adapt to us.”