SMALL steps, they may be, but in the past few days Rangers have tip-toed in the right direction – on and off the park. Rarely have we been able to say that since their 2012 collapse.
The Challenge Cup, or to give it its sponsor’s title, the Petrofac Training Cup, may be tinpot to an institution with the Ibrox club’s lofty ambitions.
But in yesterday’s canter to a final against Peterhead, surely, come the oddly distant decider date of 10 April, they are at last destined to land the bauble.
The semi-final slaying of St Mirren followed the smartly-managed annual general meeting wherein the club scotched the myth that they could not pay Mike Ashley his £5million loan back.
That transaction is expected to be completed within the next six weeks to return trademarks and securities, and ensure a 51 per cent retail cut from the troublesome link with the Sports Direct owner, a business heavyweight whose villainous status among the Rangers support remains undiminished.
‘Slaves Direct’ proclaimed a banner in the area occupied by the Union Bears, with vituperations against the Londoner from all four stands the only grumblings on an otherwise satisfying afternoon.
The resistance offered by Ian Murray’s Championship strugglers was curious, as the Paisley club’s manager admitted himself in a frank assessment.
He said: “We were really poor for the first 45 minutes. I was actually delighted with the scoreline at half-time because it could have been a lot more than 1-0.
“Losing 4-0 I think is harsh but it could have been 4-0 at half-time and it wouldn’t have flattered them.
“For whatever reason – maybe it was because it was a semi-final, or just being at Ibrox – some of our good players couldn’t even trap the ball. They couldn’t pass the ball literally five yards. We asked them at half-time to go back out and play the way we know they can play and, to be fair, I felt they did that. Only to lose three goals.”
In spells, Mark Warburton’s men played the bright and incisive way they can but didn’t in drawing at Livingston the previous week.
They shrugged off that result – which allowed Hibernian to draw level with them ahead of their game in hand at home to Raith on Tuesday – by blitzing their visitors early on.
It might have taken until the 33rd minute for Jason Holt to open the scoring, the midfielder slamming home a chip over the St Mirren defensive line from Andy Halliday. By then, though, Saints keeper Jamie Langfield had produced two fine stops and Sean Kelly had headed off the line after Martyn Waghorn seemed certain to score.
Brief respite came for Murray’s side when Stuart Carswell cracked an effort off the crossbar midway though the second period but a goal flurry for the home side could never be discounted and it arrived in 77 minutes. A delightfully worked move allowed Kenny Miller to turn in a Dean Shiels cutback for his first goal since the middle of August.
Waghorn then carved his way into the box before tucking a precise effort into the far corner for 3-0 before hapless Kelly turned a Sheils cross past Langfield at the close. “First half we were really good and in a very respectful way we should have come in more than one up at half-time,” said Miller. “We had a lot of chances, moved the ball, dominated possession. Second half was not quite as good, we had a 15-minute spell where we were sloppy and gave the ball away but it was pleasing at the end. We worked hard, got the openings and scored the goals.”
Questions were put to Warburton and Miller about the hope of playing the final at Hampden. With the draw of the Ibrox club, surely it goes without saying that the 50,000 capacity venue is an obvious choice. Miller said: “We were at Easter Road a couple of years ago, last year I’m not sure where it was because we got knocked out in the semis, but if it’s a sold-out Hampden it would be fantastic.
“I’ve got a lot of fond memories there but wherever it is we’ll take a fantastic following and we’ll be wanting to win the game. Hopefully we’ll never be back in this competition again. But this is our fourth time of asking, so I think it’s important we go there and make sure we win it. Sometimes you might never get another opportunity to play in a cup final so a lot of people might prefer it to be at Hampden.”