Hearts’ decision to remove Craig Levein as manager is widely considered to have enhanced Rangers’ status as overwhelming favourites for their Betfred Cup semi-final against the Gorgie club on Sunday. Ibrox captain James Tavernier refuses to take that view, though, with the right back maintaining that the challenge for his club at Hampden remains the same.
“I wouldn’t say [it gives us an advantage] because it’s still the same players who gave us a hard game at Tynecastle recently [the sides drew 1-1 in the league two weeks ago] and we’re all 90 minutes away from reaching a cup final, so there’s plenty of motivation for them,” said the Englishman, whose focus is on producing a performance at the national stadium akin to the one that secured a comprehensive 4-0 victory away to Ross County on Wednesday.
“Obviously, the news is fresh and I don’t know if that will affect the Hearts squad. We know it’s going to be a tough challenge. We didn’t have one of our best days in that 1-1 draw at Tynecastle but if we can play like we did at Dingwall then we’ll have a really good footing in the game.”
Tavernier’s footing at Rangers has appeared a little more precarious of late. The club’s penalty taker for more than three years, the 28-year-old was booed by his own supporters after missing a third spot-kick this season in the scrappy 2-1 victory over Motherwell at Ibrox last week. It was the fourth time he has failed to convert in nine attempts over the past six months and, before the County game, Gary McAllister hinted that Tavernier had been relieved of such duties, saying cryptically that the “issue” over who would be the club’s penalty taker had “been sorted out” but that he did not want to give “clues” to the opposition.
Taken as a roundabout way of acknowledging that Tavernier would not be allowed to continue in the role, the player himself was equally circumspect yesterday. “I’m not going to give away anything for the next game,” he said. “I’m not giving anything away because it’s an in-house thing.”
Tavernier claims the grief his own fans gave him for only a fourth penalty miss of the 26 he has taken for the club was not too hard to take.
“Not so much,” he said. “I’m a strong character. I have missed a couple this season and I have scored plenty before. I am always looking forward to bouncing back whenever I’ve been knocked down.”
Steven Gerrard rallied round his captain and demanded the same from the club’s supporters after Rangers shook off the first-half penalty miss against Motherwell to dig out a victory. Tavernier wasn’t slow to express his gratitude to his manager and the travelling fans at Dingwall.
“I really appreciate that [support from the manager],” he said. “Me and him had a private chat and I know I have the full backing of him, the staff and the players. The game at Ross County was great with the fans singing and having their full backing. I only want to do good at this club. Sometimes you get setbacks, but it is about how you deal with it.”
Tavernier has had many setbacks in cup competitions in four-and-a-half years in Glasgow. This weekend’s semi-final gives him the opportunity to help the club reach only a second domestic final across that period – the previous one ending with defeat by Hibernian in the 2016 Scottish Cup finale. The player believes that a Gerrard side tied on points with Celtic at the top of the table and in a promising position in the Europa League this season have the strength to succeed where they have failed over recent campaigns.
“You always want to be in cup finals, especially when you’re at a club the size of Rangers,” said Tavernier. “That’s why we all signed up here – we want to be winning trophies but we need to get the job done on Sunday first of all. I believe we’re better placed to do that than at any time since I signed; this is the strongest squad we’ve had in my time here. You can see the depth in it, there’s quality in every department of the team and on the substitutes’ bench. Consequently, I’m really confident about this season.”