Rangers being pitted against Aberdeen or Dundee United or Inverness Caley Thistle, should the latter win their replay, would have answered some interesting questions. What kind of fettle are Rangers in? How far have they come? How far have they still to go? What will they bring to the the flight below the top flight next season? How exciting will the Championship be? And this – how much have you missed them, since administration befell the Big Hoose, two years ago past last Friday?
The answers may only be delayed until the cup semi-finals and, if not, then in the final, assuming at least one of the Premiership teams progresses and Rangers do likewise. Rangers v Aberdeen – do you like the sound of that? Do you remember how these two used to go at each other? Do you hanker for it again? It’s coming, if not this spring then quite soon after. So get – as they like to say on the Copland Road – ready.
How much have I missed them? It’s a difficult thing to quantify. Like many, once the Rangers-less world was determined, I was intrigued to see what it would look like. Some thought it would be the end of civilisation, and not all of the doom-mongers came from the more melodramatic sections of the Ibrox support. Others talked up the new fitba-scape, how it would be 50 per cent less predictable, providing fresh and exciting opportunity for others. But their smiles were tense, their voices high-pitched and faltering, like they really wanted to believe this but weren’t sure.
I wanted to believe it and thought we might see Celtic stutter through a combination of disorientation, complacency and having four or five bold clubs ganging up on them and going for it. Ultimately, they would still win the league but the contest would be sparky, engrossing and different. That didn’t happen last season and it’s certainly not happening this. The great, long-promised Aberdeen renaissance is finally here. Motherwell are doing their damnedest to avoid Difficult Second Season Syndrome, the usual fate of the best-of-the-rest. But Celtic are still romping it.
Without Rangers, Scottish football looks decidedly skew-whiff, like a one-legged drunk. The elephant is not in the room. Elvis – no, Mike Winters, a notable name from Glasgow theatre folklore – has left the building and, for another 18 months at least, brother Bernie must continue with the act on his own. Because that’s what the Old Firm are like – brothers. Or parents, bossing all the other clubs around. When one parent exits abruptly, it can be tough on the kids. They start to miss the other looming presence, the oddly reassuring grumpy voice. They even start to miss the rows.
It’s easy to get nostalgic for the dread certainties of Scottish football when they’re not there, or half-not there. I have a son who, until recently, had never seen an image of a completely sold-out Scottish football match with giant flags and non-stop singing. The newspaper match reports all come with photographs backed by plastic pop-up emptiness. Television had only shown him English and European games featuring this much tumult. I sat him in front of my laptop and YouTubed the Old Firm in excelsis – he was transfixed. Although when I found him later, clicking on the clips of fan aggro on the streets which turned up among the “You might also like… ” options, our little history lesson had to stop.
He wants to visit Ibrox and, one day, I’ll take him. Experiencing a game at the Big Hoose is a rite of passage. My middle-class parents were quite protective of me – I was the last in my school to see Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and was what seemed an ancient 14 years of age when I pitched up in Govan for the first time. Any traces of bravado quickly deserted me. Was 14 too old to be holding your father’s hand?
As soon the car door banged shut the old man realised he’d left the keys inside. A handily-situated lump of concrete failed to break the window – and failed to raise any concern among the general throng. A garage would hopefully unlock the vehicle while we were in the stadium – huge and scary. Stairway 13 was still a shut-off tangle of broken barriers after the Ibrox Disaster four games before. These were pre-segregation days and I wished I’d foregone the floor-trailing green and white scarf, knitted by my mother. I spent the whole match with my head buried in the programme to avoid catching the eye of a growly Bear. Willie Mathieson was the “Star Portrait” that day. Car: Ford Zephyr. Favourite food: Steak. Likes: Life as it is. Dislikes: Electric blankets.
Before Rangers get back to the top flight, complete with the inappropriately elitist re-naming which has happened in their absence, fans of all other Scottish clubs will have had the chance to visit Ibrox, some for the first time – and the Rangers Loyal have been required to locate Methil and Montrose on a map. The fallen giants of our game have been like a hoary rock band intent on playing everywhere, spreading bombast and munificence far and wide, before calling it a day. Except Rangers aren’t about to split up in acrimony over who wears the (leather) trousers.
Can’t live with them? Can’t live without them. We can discuss the kind of Rangers we’d like to see at a later date – August 2015 looks like the opportune moment – but their return to meaningful hostilities is inevitable. They will give credence to a club going the whole season unbeaten, to everything. The Old Firm derby will once again be fanfared, by a man from Sky who sounds like as he’s about to spontaneously combust, as the greatest, anywhere. Like it or not, this is how Scottish football works. As Willie Mathieson almost said: “Life as it was, life as it will be again.”