IT’S NOT yet become a crisis, but a few folk down Ibrox way must be feeling a tad uncomfortable at Rangers’ current inability secure a victory on the road in their new Third Division surrounds.
The visits to Peterhead, Berwick and Annan have all ended up with them having to settle for a share of the spoils and whilst the unthinkable – a defeat – rarely looked like materialising at Galabank yesterday, it has to be said the lack of creativity and width on show from Ally McCoist’s men played a significant part in them succumbing to a stalemate.
No one, least of all the Rangers manager himself, is outwardly showing any signs of panic about their surprising difficulty in being able to return to Govan with all three points and in fairness it is hardly the case that their presumed progress towards an end-of-season promotion success is in any way under threat at this stage.
“We didn’t really create enough chances” was McCoist’s sanguine assessment but he was once again gracious to acknowledge the endeavours of another set of fired-up part-time opponents. “Credit to Annan, they took part in a very competitive game and you saw for yourselves it’s not easy.”
When pressed on why there appears to be such a dichotomy between his side’s home and away form, with victories being seemingly a matter of routine at Ibrox, McCoist did not hesitate to pin-point the causes. “We’re not starting the games nearly quickly enough and in the second half in particular we didn’t get the ball into the wide areas enough,” he said.
It didn’t take long for some of the now-familiar features of Rangers’ on-the-road experiences to date to surface here. Annan were a highly motivated and organised opposition who were in their faces right from the off. Little, if anything, was held back when it came to challenges across Galabank’s impressive artificial playing surface and unfortunately for David Templeton an awkward fall from one such skirmish was enough to see him hobble off with barely ten minutes on the clock, to be replaced by Fran Sandaza.
The pace was truly frenetic and, while Rangers could not be accused of lacking energy or focus, they were often too hurried for their own good, with a bit of craft or vision perhaps being required to unlock the door against an Annan defence that was prepared to put bodies in the way as and when required.
The visitors were on top but time and time again Harry Cairney’s men, inspired by the towering defiance of 19-year-old centre back Steven Swinglehurst and backed up by some brave interventions by goalkeeper Alex Mitchell, steadfastly repelled the waves of Rangers attacks.
Sandaza wasted little time in assuming a pivotal role in trying to engineer a breakthrough for the Ibrox side, being denied by immaculate last-ditch blocks by Michael McGowan and Mitchell in the space of a minute. Shortly afterwards the Spaniard galloped down the right flank and crossed for Lee McCulloch, whose first-time volley had the beating of the Annan goalkeeper but drifted just wide.
The home side may have been under siege for long spells, but as long as the game remained finely balanced, they sniffed a chance of causing a commotion. A couple of well-drilled corner kicks by Graeme Ramage in the first half had the Rangers defenders glancing uneasily at each other and either side of the interval Jack Steele was presented with great openings to put the Dumfriesshire side ahead but he just could not retain enough composure to hit the target.
“At some point in their away games, Rangers are going to give somebody a real doing,” said Cairney afterwards, “and we’re glad it wasn’t us today. Wee Jack’s been clean through for us but put it by the post but probably they’ve had the better chances and our keeper’s made the better saves, so I can’t complain about getting a point.”
The pattern of play remained almost unchanged after the break, although the hosts sat deeper as the match progressed, while correspondingly Rangers’ attempts to unpick their defensive lock grew more and more desperate. The dearth of invention from the men in blue was woeful at times and for all their frantic scurrying they really did not do enough to merit a win bonus.
Chances still came their way to get the monkey off their backs: Mitchell had to come sliding out of his goal to deny Dean Shiels, Sebastian Faure should have done better with a volleyed effort when presented with a sizeable chunk of the Annan goal to aim at and McGowan again put in a fearless block with McCulloch
sizing up to blast in a shot.
Perhaps appropriately, Mitchell really did save the best till last when young Barrie McKay threatened to get a late winner with a thunderous strike, but the Annan goalkeeper demonstrated wonderful agility to tip the ball over the bar.
Annan Athletic: Alex Mitchell, Blake, Peter Watson, Swinglehurst, McGowan, Steele (McKechnie 87), Jardine, Chaplain, Ramage (Sloan 78), Murray, Daly (McGachie 68). Subs Not Used: Summersgill, Thorburn. Booked: Daly, Chaplain.
Rangers: Alexander, Faure, Perry, Emilson Cribari, Wallace, Templeton (Sandaza 10), Black, McKay, Macleod, Shiels (Crawford 78), McCulloch. Subs Not Used: Gallacher, Hegarty, Kyle.