Preview: Rangers v Queen’s Park
AT TIMES in the 140-year history of Rangers Football Club, their supporters might have felt entitled to call Hampden Park their second home, so regularly did the Ibrox side appear there throughout their trophy-laden history.
Today they head back to Hampden in hugely changed circumstances, with some of the supporters reportedly organising a march to the national stadium – their last march on Hampden was a somewhat different affair as fans and former players alike protested at the plight of the club brought low under Craig Whyte’s stewardship.
Now playing in the Third Division and topping that league by nine points, Rangers will participate in what is claimed to be the world’s oldest derby against Queen’s Park, the original giants of Scottish football.
Never mind the fact Sheffield FC and Hallam FC still regularly play world football’s oldest derby – albeit not now in senior ranks – or that the early Rangers’ deadliest rivalry was with Clyde FC, today will still see a bit of history with the largest away crowd ever for a fourth tier match.
“Our supporters have been the highlight of the year for us,” said manager Ally McCoist, who has done so much in 2012 to keep Rangers alive.
“They will want to finish on a high themselves so I would fully expect 30,000-plus to be there at Hampden – which is astounding really, absolutely astounding. I don’t want to sound disrespectful to the supporters by saying they have surprised me. But they have amazed us actually, with the extent of their support.
“We always thought they would come out and support us the way they have done, but we were never sure. They have amazed almost everybody.
“I know people who talk about it, not just in this country, but all over the world. It’s a topic of conversation and amazement really, which is fantastic.
“I think a lot of people maybe did think it would fall away a little bit as the season has gone on. But one of the biggest things for me was the 42,000 against Annan exactly a week before Christmas. I thought that was astounding. For me the supporters have been the story of the year really – they have been sensational.”
One Rangers player can boast that he was at Hampden a bit more recently than his colleagues – Dean Shiels, who made his own bit of history with Kilmarnock when they beat Celtic in March to lift the Scottish League Cup for the first time.
“I’ve been reminding the lads about what happened the last time I was at Hampden,” said Shiels. “I’ve got great memories from what happened there with Kilmarnock last March.
“Individually, playing for my country is a huge thing. But beating Celtic that day was probably the highlight of my career so far. It meant a lot to win that trophy, with that team.”
It was a day tinged with tragedy due to the death of Kilmarnock player Liam Kelly’s father: “We all know what happened afterwards with Liam’s dad, which was really sad. There were definitely mixed emotions. We actually didn’t know what had happened until we were making our way from the pitch, through the tunnel into the changing rooms. When we got in there, it was complete silence so it was weird. I don’t want to dwell on it too much because Liam will still be trying to get over it. But I don’t think I’ll ever experience such a high and a low in the same moment again. It was a surreal situation.
“You never know what can happen in football. I didn’t think my next game at Hampden would be for Rangers in the Third Division. But this is where we are. Hopefully I can go back again at the end of the season for a cup final.”
After months in which they have had a testing time playing away from home, Rangers can at least look forward to a top quality playing surface today.
Shiels said: “It’s a big thing to go back to Hampden because it’s a great place to play. The lads are all looking forward to it. At most away games, the pitches are quite tight and the grounds compact. But this will be the complete opposite. It’ll suit us because of the pitch size – we’ll be able to get it down and play.
“It’ll be strange having an away game with 30-odd thousand fans there to support us. It just shows the size of the club and the fans have been unbelievable this season.
Shiels had offers from clubs in Europe over the summer – “but none were as big as Rangers,” he said – and about the only difficulty he has faced is adjusting to the physical nature of the Third Division. “I’ve been taken aback by that, it’s been tough,” said Shiels. “The other day I had about four or five challenges on me that wouldn’t have been allowed in the SPL. But that’s just part and parcel of playing in this league.
“You just have to get on with it. We’ve given out as much as we’ve taken. But the referees have been fine. I’ve got to be careful what I say – we don’t want a double Shiels hearing!”
The oblique reference to his father Kenny’s travails as manager of Kilmarnock was heartfelt: “I’ve been following what’s been happening and I’m disappointed with the way he’s been treated. It’s ridiculous.
“I think he has been portrayed as being angry and unhappy all the time, which is actually the complete opposite of what he is like away from football. I think it is because he wants to win so much, because he puts so much into the job, that you see his emotions coming out.
“If you are going to go down the road of wanting communication between the Press and managers and players they should be allowed to say what they feel rather than what they are allowed to say. There has got to be a bit more honesty in football rather than saying things for the sake of it.
“I think with the media attention he does get it does get overlooked how well he has done at Kilmarnock.”
It’s a fair point by Shiels junior, who might well make a few more points himself this season on the field of play.