FADS come and go in football. Currently, the collective isn’t known as a team or even a squad but a “group”. As of right now, half-time talks are being composed on handsome clipboards. And – this is incredibly hot and you’re no one if you don’t do it, at least for this week – managers and No.2s must converse during games with their hands cupped over their mouths, like they’re dodgy geezers in an Ealing Comedy planning an audacious heist.
But one thing always remains constant, and a solid reminder of, well, solidness – Cowdenbeath will make a man of you.
If you want it to. The warnings from fellow hacks of the technical challenges of reporting from Central Park have been sufficient for me to ask for a day off every time any of the Championship’s fallen giants are due there. It should have been Hearts’ turn yesterday but the icy Fife weather intervened and I know Hibernian fans who’re still shivering at the memory of the Biblical drookitness they suffered a few weeks back.
Central Park makes a man of the fan. On a Hibs fansite, the faithful were quickly outdoing each other for the length of time spent queueing at the burger van for a hot drink, and how many times they witnessed the solitary, standard-issue kettle being refilled.
Central Park makes a man of the player – just ask Robbie Neilson. The other day, there were warm tributes from the Tynecastle head coach for what an eight-game loan spell with the Blue Brazil had done for his development as a full-back – well, warmer than the Bovril at the Hibs game. “My first taste of men’s football,” enthused Neilson.
But here’s a funny thing – two funny things, in fact. Scottish football used to have a couple of other constants. One was that, if you were a Rangers player, you were, as the club motto had it, “Ready”. Ready for any eventuality, for any kind of crunching tackle. Indeed, you might have got your retaliation in first. The second constant was that Rangers nicked other clubs’ brightest youngsters. But suddenly, thanks to Charlie Telfer, right, both of these truths are looking decidedly shaky.
Just about Ally McCoist’s last act as Rangers manager before apparently offering his resignation was to respond to criticism from Dundee United, where Telfer is now flourishing, that he’d stifled the teenager’s talent. The boy had needed protecting from the lower leagues, said McCoist, and this was why he’d only managed one substitute’s appearance before his move to Tannadice, which then sparked a row over the fee.
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McCoist didn’t offer to quit because of the world-tilts-on-axis scenario of Rangers having a highly promising 19-year-old taken from them rather than the other way around, and then looking a bit silly as Telfer collected a Young Player of the Month award, but all this hardly helped his case.
Diehard traditionalists will take issue with the suggestion that any Ranger needed protecting from anything. After all, this is the club of “Corky” Young, Willie “Sine Die” Woodburn, John Greig, “Jaws” Forsyth and a host of other utterly uncompromising fellows down the years. To amend McCoist’s mantra (now redundant in any case), Rangers don’t do walking away from the physical stuff.
But there’s another point here. Irrespective of whether McCoist was doing Telfer a favour and, to some extent he might have been, he did not take the bold, some would say ethical and undoubtedly cheaper approach (given the club’s ongoing financial traumas) of putting his faith in youth.
Many favoured a Ground Zero strategy and rebuilding with kids, McCoist did not. Referring to the long road back from the bottom tier and the “aggressive” football played down there, he said: “The standard is such that the younger ones would certainly have needed protected, particularly in the first season. If we’d fielded a team of youngsters we wouldn’t have won the league. I don’t care what anyone says, it wouldn’t have happened.”
Instead, McCoist put his trust in experienced pros. All plucked from the top flight, they would have been among most observers’ picks for a Premier select. But, with the possible exception of Lee Wallace you’d struggle to say that any of them is playing as well as they did before donning the Light Blue. Many have gone backwards.
McCoist will argue that with two divisions won and Rangers currently second in the Championship, his policy has been justified. But, on the evidence of Friday’s dismal showing at Queen of the South, it is by no means certain the Ibrox club will return to the top tier in the quickest time possible. At a critical moment in McCoist’s personal melodrama, his handsomely-rewarded big-shots looked that bit older, that bit slower, that bit more like they simply didn’t fancy it. They were given the runaround by hungry boys from the youth policy, just as they had been at Tynecastle last month. In response, Rangers could only whinge and lunge.
Could a team of kids – Charlie Telfer equipped with a chest-expander and ten others – have got Rangers to the point where they are now? Well-managed, you’d like to think so. You’d like to think, too, that the faithful would have been patient with them because fans should always be able to forgive young players their mistakes, even in a harsh coliseum such as Ibrox. Forgiving Lee McCulloch one of his theatrical falls when caught in possession, or a studied Ian Black pass to no one in particular, are obviously different matters.
As the old cliché goes, if players are good enough they’re old enough. A Rangers team made up of kids would by now have played together, developed together, for two and a half seasons. Boys would have grown into men, thanks in part to finishing schools like Central Park. Look at how Hearts are doing, having had no choice but to go with youth. Surely Rangers, despite all their problems, could still have attracted a decent talent pool. Unless, of course, more and more of the country’s most-promising are looking at that juddering Murray Park assembly-line and deciding to try their luck elsewhere.
Placing the accent on youth would have bought Rangers some good PR. It may even have engendered sympathy as they rebuilt, and stopped them adopting the default position of siege mentality which has now become tedious. But, instead, they travel with their big reputations along football’s byways, to places with exposed terraces and single kettles, and, when they fall flat on their faces, no one feels sorry for them.
A tight, spartan, almost forgotten outpost of the game is still a great leveller, even when the pitch isn’t particularly flat.
On Friday night, despite much concealed whispering on the touchline, McCoist couldn’t find a way to get the better of one of football’s constants. More and more there are fads, and managers will always come and go, but some things won’t ever change.
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