Scottish Cup: Mechanics of the mind are Rangers’ enemy in Forres

THERE may be no lobster telephones or melting clocks at Ibrox, but Rangers have certainly been swimming in surrealism this season. And, while onlookers have the luxury of regarding the club’s life in Division Three with ghoulish fascination, the players have simply had to adapt as quickly as possible to the extraordinary circumstances in which they find themselves.

There is no time for self-pity. No time for standing in the middle of Balmoor or Borough Briggs and asking what the point of it all is. The faster they come to terms with life in the bottom tier, the quicker they will get out of it.

The competition is different today, as Ally McCoist takes his squad to Forres Mechanics in the second round of the Scottish Cup, but the theme remains the same. It’s another new ground for the squad to play at, against another team desperate to take the scalp of the biggest club that most of them have played against,

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“It’s surreal, but we have to make it as real as we possibly can,” the Rangers manager said yesterday. “The best way to do that is getting right in about your business from the first whistle.

“Maybe it’s easier to say than do, but as a player I always used to say that I loved playing in the big stadiums – like Wembley or the Bernabeu – but once the game’s going you don’t look about. So it should be the exact same whether it’s Annan, Forres, Peterhead – because I don’t remember looking about the Bernabeu or Wembley and saying, ‘This is magic’.

“So I would hope my players don’t look around grounds in SFL 3 and say, ‘What are we doing here?’ We’re here for a reason, and the reason is to win the game.”

McCoist is confident that his players have the physical strength and technical ability to get the better of most rivals: they showed as much in their impressive 2-0 win over Motherwell in the League Cup on Wednesday. But he acknowledged that the psychological side of the game could be more taxing – one reason, perhaps the main one, why Rangers in their new incarnation have found life on the road so difficult.

“I think the main thing probably the team has to get its head around is the mental side of these games,” he explained. “The best way to put it is the opposition we are playing against in SFL 3 and certainly tomorrow will treat the game like a cup final.

“We have to be the exact same as them: we have to treat the game as a cup final. If we can do that and get our head around that mental approach then we will be fine.

“The important factor for me, and we saw the other night, is the tempo we play the game in terms of our closing down, our passing and asking demanding questions of each other. If we can keep that to an extremely high standard then I think the level of opposition is taken out of it to a certain degree. It becomes more about your own performance.

“That has been the problem that we have had in SFL 3 games. There hasn’t been a massive difference in the quality of the opposition that we have played or the way the opposition have played the game. There have obviously been different shapes and tactics and things like that, but in terms of the opposition they have brought a lot of the same ingredients to the game.

“We have to match that, and we have to be ready for it, and we have to learn now. It’s no use learning it in a couple of weeks. We have to start learning ASAP what it takes to start winning against lower-league opposition away from home.”

Having seen his team learn what it takes to beat higher-league opposition, albeit at Ibrox, in the shape of Motherwell, McCoist is optimistic not only about today’s game, but also about the forthcoming games on the road in the Third Division. “I hope that Wednesday helps the players more than anything – the belief in themselves that hopefully they can take from that good result and that good performance.

“I would think common sense would tell you that if you can perform and get a result like that against one of the better teams in the country – a team sitting top of the SPL – no matter who the opposition is in the country you should be able to have a reasonable belief in your own confidence to go and win the game and play well. I’ve said to the players that the most important thing from watching the game on Wednesday night is that they have to realise what made them perform like that and they have to reproduce it.

“I’ve said to the players that is the standard we should be aiming for, definitely. I think the performance level will obviously fluctuate.

“We will get better performances within the team and as a team, and we will get some poor performances. But in terms of the all-round willingness to play, that is the standard we have set and that is the standard we will be asking for every week.”