It remains frankly preposterous that Rangers would throw such resources at a playing squad competing outside the Scottish top flight, especially when the notion of the club breaking even over a financial year – even a future one in the Premiership – appears fanciful. It is equally preposterous that, having spent in this fashion since liquidation forced them to reform in the fourth tier in 2012, the Challenge Cup – to give the Petrofac its sponsorless name – has remained elusive.
Warburton practically comes out in hives when you put it to him that he really ought to be winning this trophy and the Championship owing to the economic advantages he has over any other opponent in these competitions. However, under his predecessor Ally McCoist, Rangers managed to screw up right royally in Scotland’s least prestigious national cup. It therefore follows Warburton is deserving of some acknowledgement for thus far making his budget count.
Rangers looked to be operating on a different financial and playing field from their Challenge Cup semi-final opponents St Mirren on Saturday. They beat what was in front of them with nary a thought from an observer during their swashbuckling start – even one that didn’t yield a goal for more than half an hour – that they wouldn’t be the final opponents of Peterhead in the showpiece, eh, four and a half months from now.
Questions have been asked about the Ibrox side following last week’s draw at Livingston and the defeat away to Hibs earlier this month that see Alan Stubbs’ men level on points with the Championship pacesetters.
Ian Murray’s side tried to sit in and hang tough. Livingston have patented that approach for opponents of the Ibrox men. That some joy has been gained from it has started to cause anxieties for those Rangers followers believing Warburton’s possession-led patient prodding can be a little powdery.
The Ibrox men passed up opportunities against a visiting side in a worrying state of disarray as they attempt to avoid being plunged into a second relegation scrap only a year after dropping to the Championship. However, the Paisley side, that Murray said were as “poor” as they had been in a first period wherein “they couldn’t pass the ball five yards”, even with a “much better” second period, did not possess the fortitude to stop the Ibrox followers looking to 10 April, surely at Hampden, as an afternoon when they will add one more trophy to their monumental collection.
Their goals showed guile and conviction. Jason Holt, a vital support scorer, lashed in after ghosting in behind a static defence to latch on to an Andy Halliday chip after 33 minutes. The tie was sealed by a sight that has been absent for three months – Kenny Miller finding the net. Silver service provided his drought-ending moment, with the St Mirren backline carved open by Dean Shiels feeding Martyn Waghorn to lay on a plate the opportunity for Miller to despatch past the one defiant visiting player, goalkeeper Jamie Langfield, with 13 minutes of regulation time remaining. Waghorn then bagged his 15th of the season when stepping forward and planting a shot in the far corner, before the luckless Sean Kelly turned the ball into his own net at the close.
Miller’s goal, days after the near 36-year-old signed a one-year extension, seemed particularly satisfying for Warburton. “He’s earned that deal. There’s no sympathy vote – the club can’t afford that to happen,” the manager said. “He is training exceptionally well and, although he has missed a couple of chances lately that he would normally put away, Kenny’s appetite never changes. I’m delighted for him and it’s well deserved.”
Peterhead’s desperation to earn a bumper payday at Hampden should surely ensure the national stadium will host the Petrofac final.
Raith Rovers did not want to hand Rangers such a numbers advantage two seasons ago – which they might feel was justified as they won the Easter Road-staged decider – but there are no such issues this time around. “I hope so,” said Warburton when asked if the final should be staged at Hampden. “That’s what I’ve been told and I hope that’s the case. I think Rangers will send a very strong support there and I’m looking forward to that type of challenge.”