This time last year Hearts had already wrapped up the Championship title, which Rangers hope to do by beating Dumbarton at Ibrox tonight. They were left frustrated in their ambitions to secure their top-flight return by Raith Rovers’ late equaliser on Saturday.
But while Hearts are likely to finish third in their first season back in the Premiership, Rangers, who have not played in the top tier since 2011-12, are aiming for higher. According to Warburton, Rangers are under even more pressure to hit the ground running.
Warburton is confident he can live with the pressure wrought by being compared with Old Firm rivals Celtic, currently bidding to overcome the challenge from Aberdeen to win a fifth successive league title.
“How well we close that gap will be about how competitive we are but Rangers will never go into that league satisfied with being third or fourth,” he said.
Warburton made it clear Rangers, because of their rivalry with Celtic and media exposure, are operating under a greater weight of expectation than Hearts, whose achievements so far this season he praised.
“I took Robbie Neilson to Brentford,” he said. “He’s done a magnificent job at Hearts. He was an outstanding player. I watched how he conducted himself as a pro. He was great for Brentford, great for me in my role and all credit to him. If we came third or fourth next year, is that seen as successful for Rangers? What would be the reporting if we came third or fourth?
“The expectation you talk about this year will be just as strong next year, if not more so because we’re back in the top flight, so we’re well aware of the expectation. What we have to do is to keep on going forward. If we’ve won this league and hopefully the Petrofac Cup [v Peterhead on Sunday) and we think that’s enough, then we’re going to flounder.
“Therefore getting the environment and the recruitment right are massive for us,” he added. “It doesn’t mean you have to have the biggest budget.
“Hopefully we can recruit wisely and add value and quality. If we can do that then I think you’ll look at me and say fourth isn’t good enough.”
There is an early chance to judge the Ibrox side’s worth against Celtic a week on Sunday, when the sides meet at Hampden Park in a Scottish Cup semi-final. But it is next season when the pressure really will be on Rangers to match Celtic over the course of a whole campaign.
Warburton was not going to risk being lured into claiming outright that Celtic, or Aberdeen, should welcome another potential title challenger. But his point seemed unmistakable: can Rangers afford to aim their sights any lower?
“I’ll throw the question back at you,” he said. “What’s the expectation of Rangers next year? My expectation is that we have to go into that league and be highly competitive.
“I view highly competitive as that we’ve got to be a very, very tough team to beat and to break down and that we go into games expecting to win them.
“If we go into games expecting to win them, I’m not going to sit here and say we’re not going to challenge for the league. I’m not going to sit here and say we’re going to win the league.
“I’d say that any Rangers team with David [Weir], myself and the staff, will be highly competitive. And we will go in prepared well with a squad of players that I think will match that description.
“I’m choosing my words very carefully because I know how you guys will report them.
“If you’re a football neutral and you look it and say that Celtic have had X years of European football – Champions League football – and the financial benefits and a squad packed with international players, the neutral will tell you that they will take some beating, absolutely.
“And it would be foolish to say otherwise – to go into a game as it currently stands, they have to be favourites.
“It would be totally ignorant to say anything other than that but our job is to close the gap. How well we close that gap will be about how competitive we are but Rangers will never go into that league satisfied with being third or fourth.”