ANY team moving 16 points clear at the top of a league table with just 15 games of a campaign remaining would fully justify being regarded as champions-elect.
That is the favourable scenario awaiting Hearts if they can maintain their remarkably consistent momentum in the SPFL Championship by defeating pre-season title favourites Rangers at Ibrox tonight.
For most observers, this is a race which is already run. Such has been the disarray onand off the field at Rangers this season, it is difficult to make any credible case for their capacity to reel in a Hearts side operating in a starkly contrasting environment of harmony and stability.
But, while Rangers caretaker manager Kenny McDowall accepts that the Gorgie side fully merit their current advantage in the chase for automatic promotion to the Premiership, he believes the most difficult part of the season for Robbie Neilson and his players has yet to come.
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A member of the Rangers coaching staff for three consecutive top-flight title wins under Walter Smith from 2009-11, then assistant to Ally McCoist for the fourth and third tier championship successes of 2013 and 2014, McDowall believes that experience could yet be a valuable commodity for the Ibrox club over the next few months.
If his team can win this evening to cut the gap at the top to ten points, he is hopeful it could turn up the heat on Hearts.
“We’ve been over the course of winning titles and it’s a hard thing to do,” said McDowall. “I don’t believe there’s ever been a title handed out in January before. Getting over the line is the hardest part in winning any title, handling the run-in. That’s why it would be nice if we could beat Hearts on Friday night and put them under a bit of pressure.
“We know what we’ve got to do, we’ve got to go and win the three points. It’s a must-win game. If we are to have any aspirations of winning the title, then we need to try and win the three points.
“I can’t argue with the league table. Hearts have gone unbeaten so far and I can’t say they don’t deserve to be where they are. Not at all. They have done well. Robbie Neilson will be well pleased with how his season has gone and they absolutely deserve to be where they are.” Rangers winger Fraser Aird raised a few eyebrows with his assertion that, despite having lost twice to Hearts already this season, the Ibrox club boasted a better team and better players than their Tynecastle rivals.
McDowall was untroubled by Aird’s comments, pointing out that his player was responding to Hearts striker Genero Zeefuik’s claim that a win at Ibrox would signal the end of the title race. But McDowall admits he would prefer Aird and his team-mates to articulate their point through improved performance levels.
“I don’t have an issue with Fraser,” said McDowall. “He also said what the Hearts player said was disrespectful. That’s fine.
“It’s okay saying what Fraser said, but the Hearts boys are 13 points clear at this point in time so they have a right to say what they want to say. You need to be careful how you put it out there. You should be confident, absolutely, but keep a lid on it. Do your talking on the park.”
Rangers have lost home and away to Hearts already this season but McDowall does not see any great disparity in the quality of the two teams. “They are a tough team, as are Hibs,” added McDowall. “But I could also say that about Alloa, who have given us tough matches. Every game we play is tough. It’s been tough against Hearts, but they have been close games, so I wouldn’t say they are miles better than us.
“In the first game of the season here at Ibrox, we should have been two up at half-time against them and ended up paying the penalty for it. We went 1-0 down, equalised late on and then gave a really poor goal away straight after the restart for them to win it 2-1. We felt we should have won that game.
“Then at Tynecastle in November, we started great but obviously Stevie Smith’s sending-off had a bearing on it. We played with ten men for 70 minutes that day. It wasn’t until late on that Hearts got their second goal with a penalty. Nicky Law had a fantastic opportunity to make it 1-1 right after they scored. So we might have got a draw out of it.
“This is a bigger game than most weeks, because Hearts are the leaders, which brings its own wee bit extra. But they are all big games that we play in, whether it is Cowdenbeath or Alloa or Hibs or Hearts. They are always up for playing against us. From that side of it, we always know we will be in for a tough game anyway. But that wee bit of spice is added because it is Hearts who are the leaders.
“But, at the same time, although it’s a big game and a big three points, there are still plenty of games to go. We need to try to get a bit of consistency back. We’ve started to do that, winning two games back to back, but the players have got to keep building on that. There would be no point in beating Hearts then going out and losing the next one. That would only set us back to square one. From now until the end of the season, we need to show a bit of consistency.”
Rangers will again perform against a backdrop of discontent tonight as their supporters react to the news Mike Ashley is seeking security over Ibrox and Murray Park for possible further loans to the club.
“The obvious thing for me to say is that the bigger support we have behind us, the better,” said McDowall. “But I think it’s up to the supporters to make their mind up. It’s easy for me to sit here and tell them to come to the game, but they’ve every right to come or not come.”
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