Being old enough to remember the Skol Festival Trophy which the English participants didn’t seem to take seriously – Coventry City turning up in hideous brown back in 1979 and Manchester City turning up, well, fat – I’ve never had high expectations of those summer skirmishes before the real action begins, even when there’s a prize on offer. But what an incredible match we witnessed at Easter Road at the weekend.
Beforehand, Rangers’ new manager Mark Warburton talked about the Petrofac Cup being just another warm-up en route to the start of the Championship, a date which seemed all too imminent for a man who had arrived at Ibrox just a few weeks earlier with no previous experience of Scottish football and no actual team at his disposal.
Hibernian, meanwhile, declared they were taking the competition seriously. They want to “do a Hearts” this season and leave the rest of the Championship coughing and spluttering in their vapour trail. They want to do unto others – in this case, Rangers – what was done to them last term. Blast it from the first whistle while their main rivals were trying to cope with regime change, a huge clear-out and the shellshockedness of the way the previous campaign had ended.
But look at how Saturday panned out. Rangers won 6-2, which absolutely no one could have predicted. Hibs moved quickly to play down the significance of the result, the scoreline, the competition, the rotten weather, cocaine-snorting lords and indeed life itself. All that mattered was the commencement of the league on 8 August against Dumbarton for which they’d be more than ready. Meanwhile, high up in the away end, the Rangers fans, counting up all the goals, were delirious.
By yesterday morning, some of them hadn’t calmed down at all. A day and a half’s worth of perspective brought the words “superb” and “world-class” into analysis of their team’s performance. The Daily Record’s Hotline, a pretty useful barometer for the casual schizophrenia and conspiracy theories of the fitba constituency, overflowed with praise. Rangers’ passing game had been “great to watch”, gushed one supporter, who pronounced it blessed relief after the “route-one stuff we suffered in the Ally McCoist era”.
World-class? Not quite, not by a long way, But you can almost forgive the hyperbole. For the past three years there have been many false dawns round Ibrox way and just as many false prophets. There have been titles for Rangers, certainly – as there should have been given the club’s might when compared with Annan Athletic and East Stirling – but also numerous abysmal showings. They have looked weak and witless in cup-ties and play-offs against top-tier teams. At no time had the light blue legions seen the team perform with anything like this kind of verve. Some of that ever-elusive perspective is much required. Rangers started the match looking like how they read on paper – a couple of survivors from the cull, a recalled loanee given another chance, David Templeton given surely one last chance, plus some guys you’d never heard of. Wes Foderingham looked to be on the small side for a goalkeeper and, up front, Martyn Waghorn was resembling a more clodhopping Colin West, if that’s even possible. But, after 40 minutes during which Hibs had been bright and quick and well on top, the game changed.
Hibs will contend that the game produced little, if any, in the way of valid pointers
James Tavernier, Rangers’ best player, equalised with a free-kick and a few minutes later Waghorn gave them a wholly undeserved half-time lead. Waghorn can’t have believed his luck. Emboldened, he tried a shot from a fairly ridiculous angle soon after the restart and that went in, too. Then it was the Hibs goalie, Mark Oxley, badly at fault for that goal, who was made to look diminutive when Andy Halliday chipped him for Rangers’ fourth to douse Hibs’ brief hopes of a comeback.
Again some perspective is required. Hibs suffered injuries before the game and during it. It was only the Petrofac Cup. And then there was The Scott Allan Affair. Speculation over the Easter Road star man’s future looked to have unnerved the team, and little wonder. Even the mildest cynic in Scottish football will take a lot of convincing that the timing of Rangers’ bid was a random thing.
If they get their man, Rangers will not only be significantly weakening their main threat to automatic promotion, but massively disrupting Hibs’ preparations with less than a fortnight until the Championship gets under way, leaving little time to find an adequate replacement. It is this, together with the derisory sums offered, which has angered the Hibs support and prompted sympathy well beyond Leith.
Do Rangers, after hitting Hibs for six, even need Allan? Post-match quotes by Kenny Miller seemed to be cooked somewhat, giving the impression that he didn’t think they did, but I’m sure the veteran striker, who made same journey along the M8 many Hibs sell-offs ago, would be delighted to see him at Ibrox, just like all his team-mates who ruffled the playmaker’s hair on Saturday and made a point of shaking his hand at the end.
This game produced much more theatre than was expected when the sides were paired together in the draw. Many more surreal moments and sub-plots and goals, too. Hibs, of course, will contend that it produced little if any in the way of valid pointers as to how the Championship will unfold.
Mark Warburton would probably agree. But, even this early, it seems safe to say that this fellow can spot a player, pick a team and drill them well. Previously, Rangers’ fitness had been questioned. By the end on Saturday everyone was still full of running, which of course you tend to find when a team are already half a dozen goals to the good and everyone’s keen to impress. Tavernier, Lee Wallace and another new man, Jason Holt, were the most impressive on the day, but Rob Kiernan and Barrie McKay, indecisive at first, improved later.
This wasn’t a complete performance, though, and Rangers are not yet a complete team. They will know that if they don’t get Allan, and that he quickly reproduces last season’s form for Hibs, they will be a whole different prospect by the time they come to Ibrox on league business on 22 August, when some of their new recruits should have been melded into the side.
By then, what should be a Championship every bit as gripping as the last one will be well under way and Saturday’s match and all its melodrama will be forgotten.
Still, it was a pretty amazing scene-setter.