It isn’t often that Rangers have truly kept company with old rivals Celtic in recent times. Being on the receiving end of an unexpected thumping won’t have been what the Ibrox side would have hoped for from the weekend.
The fact that every side in the top six – now including Brendan Rodgers’ men – can struggle or be stuffed by the teams around them will be little comfort to Rangers as they reflect on their dismantling by St Johnstone on Saturday.
Interim manager Graeme Murty presented the 3-1 loss to an on-point Perth opponent as a case of his team failing to demonstrate the same intensity in a game they were expected to win as they had in racking up four straight wins courtesy of victories from pressurised encounters against Aberdeen and Hibernian. It wasn’t that.
Rather, Rangers’ luck simply ran out. They benefited from all manner of breaks at Easter Road the previous midweek and were extremely streaky in seeing off Ross County at home days earlier.
Murty has done a fine job with the hand he has been dealt – no team has claimed more points than Rangers across the eight games he has been in charge – but it remains a rum one. All over the pitch, and now removed from it in such as Carlos Pena, the Rangers squad is weighed down by expensive deadwood.
Bruno Alves, pictured, could offer only platitudes over what went wrong as he was part of an Ibrox side that shipped in three goals for only the second time this season. He was hardly going to point the finger at himself. A corking first-half hit from Blair Alston might have been the start of Rangers’ problems, a matter of minutes after they seemed to be on their way with a fifth-minute Alfredo Morelos opener. But in the second half, Denny Johnstone should not have been able to arc a header in largely unimpeded, while cover was lacking as Graham Cummins steered a low shot in from the edge of the area.
“From what I remember of the goals, I don’t believe they were mistakes,” said the 35-year-old Portuguese international. “It was a good shot, a good header. Sometimes it is not just mistakes. Sometimes you need to value what the opponent did and the quality. I don’t believe they were mistakes but we need to be more focused and try to be more away from our box and prevent the counter-attack. We are always attacking but we also need to prepare to defend when we lose the ball.”
St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright said he was convinced that his team could capitalise on defensive vulnerabilities and a central pairing of Danny Wilson and Alves seems to offer these up. The Euro 2016 winner suggested the team as a whole allowed themselves to be panicked in adversity – though their previous two wins were achieved after going behind.
“Sometimes with a big team there is pressure, especially when we concede goals,” Alves said. “We need to know how to handle the pressure because the pressure will always be there for the big teams. If we know how to handle the pressure better, we can have better results. Sometimes we need to have more patience with the ball. Sometimes it is not the best way to play fast. Sometimes we need to move the ball and wait for a better chance or a different solution.
“The players know how to handle it. It’s always a difficult situation when you need to score. We want to make everything faster. We need to be prepared when results are not the best for us. Sometimes when we concede a goal, we have to be patient, move the ball and wait for a better solution. It’s about being patient and believing that we can score.”
Patience was the watchword for St Johnstone. They shuttled the ball around with poise and simply waited for their moment when they could slice through Rangers’ soft centre. A first league win at Ibrox for the club since 1971 and a third straight victory on the road was a personal triumph for Chris Millar. The 34-year-old midfielder proved the bedrock for his team’s display. His first outing for the club in two months, in a season where his manager has believed his time at the club could be up, at Ibrox Millar effectively raged against the dying of the light.
“One hundred per cent” stated the veteran when asked if he had a point to prove. “I’ve been frustrated,” Millar said, confessing he “of course” thought he might have played his last game for the club when he dropped out of the team in mid-October.
“People can say this and that but I’m one of the hardest working and fittest guys at the club in my opinion. I go in every day, keep my head down and work hard. At the end of the day I just want to play games. I’m absolutely delighted, the boys played brilliantly, we got the three points and I’m back in the team – it’s been a great Saturday.
“The longer I don’t play then people will say ‘he’s finished’. Hopefully that performance showed there’s still plenty of life left.
“I’ve never doubted my ability. There has been a lot said about my injuries and stuff. This year I’ve been available for so many games and I’ve not been playing. That’s the manager’s decision and I respect that. I feel I can offer this club – or any other club – something.
“I’m 34, I need to be playing games. It needs to be here or if it comes to the crunch where I’m not playing games then I’ll obviously need to look somewhere else. I’m contracted to St Johnstone, I love the club, I’ve been here ten years. It’s my testimonial year and I want to finish it here but if I’m not playing games at 34 then obviously I’ll have to look elsewhere.”