McCoist’s keeping the faith

As solemn as could be, Ally McCoist spoke on Friday about the latest Rangers capitulation in Europe, describing his team’s second-half performance in Maribor as “inept” and saying that, of all the things he has had to deal with since taking over from Walter Smith, those 45 minutes in Slovenia were the hardest to handle or, as he put it, “the biggest shock to the system”. He said he was still scratching his head trying to figure out how Rangers got beaten. “But we did get beaten. And that’s it,” he argued, with a pained expression.

He didn’t say it in so many words, but clearly McCoist is of the opinion that Rangers are better than Maribor, hence his head-wreck. He also has a view, and this time he’s not so reticent in expressing it, that his team will do what needs to be done on Thursday night. He didn’t just say once or twice that Rangers would make the group stages of the Europa League, he said it three and four times, like a man who could see into the future and already knew the result. “I’m not pressing any panic buttons because I believe we’ll go through,” he said. “Honest to God, I don’t know if you believe, but I think we’ll do it, I really do. Without being over-confident, if we play to anything like our potential we’ll go through.”

There is a hostage to fortune element about all of this. After all, nobody ever went broke by backing against Rangers in Europe. Granted, the damning statistic of one win from their last 24 European matches happens to include admirable draws against teams of the quality of Manchester United, Valencia and Fiorentina, the pair of 0-0 stalemates against the Italians taking them to the UEFA Cup final. So there are nuances in their record. But the simple fact is that no kind of draw will suffice on Thursday. Rangers must win. And they’ve only done that once at Ibrox in their last 12 attempts in European competition.

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Where does McCoist’s confidence come from? For the second leg, he has Steven Naismith and Steven Whittaker suspended, he has Kyle Bartley, Sasa Papac and David Weir struggling badly to make it back in time from injury while Matt McKay and Alejandro Bedoya are ineligible.

Well, he has to believe, doesn’t he? If he loses the faith then they are truly sunk. These are critical times for McCoist. He’s attempting to put his stamp on the job, to establish his credibility as the rightful heir to Smith and, even before he gets to Thursday night, he has a knee-knocker of a game to get through. Rangers’ meeting with Motherwell at Fir Park today is going to test him. They’ll have it all to do to beat Motherwell, who are atop the SPL. They haven’t conceded a goal. They are a well-drilled team with the potential to cause a fragile Rangers some more embarrassment. Heaven help McCoist if they don’t deliver a victory this afternoon.

“You question everything, you question yourself, you question the players,” said McCoist, returning to the dejection of Maribor. “You’ll maybe get all your team playing really well once a season, but you can get away with it if only two or three are not firing, but I felt the second half we had more not firing than firing and that gives you a problem. I’m not trying to dissect everything and pressing panic buttons because that’s not going to help anybody and I don’t think there’s any need to, but you just have an intelligent look at it. The bottom line is that our four in the middle of the park should have been able to handle their four in the middle of the park. And it didn’t happen.”

Naismith, of course, was off the field in that second half, removed because he couldn’t be trusted to curb his frustration and button his lip. That’s a terrible indictment of the player. Naismith saw the consequences of hot-headedness in Malmo when two of his team-mates got red cards, one of them, Whittaker, for an utterly berserk offence. Was he not watching? Did he not listen to his manager? What is wrong with the guy?

“We had a chat with the boys about discipline and when I talk about discipline I don’t mean running around and kicking people, I mean stupid bookings, silly red cards. We’ve had that discussion, so the substitution was made at half-time. We’ve been criticised in some quarters for the substitution, which I don’t regret at all. It had to happen. I could have stuck another midfield player on, yes, but that substitution had to take place. You could see the referee looking for him [Naismith]. I’d hate to take away his natural enthusiasm and zest but we just have to be a little bit cuter, channel it in the right way.”

McCoist is trying to put a team together while fighting indiscipline, all against a backdrop of mounting pressure. At least the cavalry is coming, albeit we won’t see many of them today or on Thursday. Alas, you have to expect, we won’t see Tottenham’s Jake Livermore at any point. Livermore, such an impressive, and goal-scoring, presence at the heart of the Spurs midfield during the rout of Hearts, was offered to Rangers on loan during the summer, but they opted not to go for him.

“His name was put forward, “ said McCoist. “The boys [scouts] had seen him, not a bad player, but hadn’t played a lot. I don’t want to get too many loans in. It’s far better to get your own signed players. I thought we were really lucky with our loans last year, who really knew what the club was about and got into it straight away. With others it takes a while and they’re not sure about the place they’re going to. Nobody came up and said, ‘Look, have him [Livermore]’. But I suspect he’ll be in the Spurs squad now.”

An opportunity missed. Another one. Following on from the failure in Malmo and the disappointment of Maribor, Rangers have taken some wrong turns in the season so far. They’d better get back on the straight and narrow quickly.