RANGERS manager Mark Warburton admits to being “irked” at the reaction to his new team being paired away to Hibernian in next Saturday’s first round of the Petrofac Training Cup.
“People were talking as if we’d drawn Real Madrid,” the Englishman said. “With no disrespect to Hibs, we’re Rangers Football Club and we will go into every game well prepared and ready to apply ourselves appropriately. This is a great game for us and good for the fans. It’s game four and a really tough test. In any pre-season programme, you start and move up gradually. The Hibs match is perfect for us.”
It doesn’t speak of resounding confidence in Warburton’s remoulding of the Ibrox squad that so many of the club’s followers are fretting about a cup tie against a fellow Championship team they accounted for in play-offs only two months ago.
Yet, the fact is that now Rangers’ followers fears over a difficult start to the season will be assuaged by Warburton’s insistence in seeing next week’s trip to Leith as part of the club’s pre-season programme, rather than the start of their competitive campaign. The 52-year-old, though, makes no apologies for that fact. However, he is at pains to stress it is no reflection on his desire to claim a trophy the club have flopped in humiliatingly across their three years in the lower leagues.
“We will go into the Hibs game with the strongest team possible,” said Warburton, with Rangers yesterday confirming the signing of former Bradford City winger Andy Halliday.
“Yes, it’s game four of our pre-season programme and I would be lying if I say otherwise. But we go into every game to win it with the best team available and that’s what we look to do.
“There is no point in lying, we are four weeks in and we hope to add four or five players in the coming days, so we could have players playing in the Hibs game who have only been here for two days. So in terms of being patient, while we want to win that game and the competition as a whole, it takes time to bed players in, but we will do what we can.”
It seems curious to align the Hibs tie, and the League Cup meeting with Peterhead the following weekend, with the friendly at home to Burnley on Tuesday. The midweek encounter offers Warburton the proud moment, the “real honour” of walking out at a “magnificent” Ibrox as manager of the club, but no pitfalls. That makes it an entirely different proposition from the confrontation against Hibs or the hosting of Peterhead a week later, but not to the candid Warburton.
“I won’t be nonchalant or arrogant. If you’re a liar you need to have a good memory, so just tell the truth. If it comes back to bite you then that’s just the way I see it. I see the Hibs game as game four [of pre-season]. We’re training hard and looking forward to the game on Tuesday against Burnley which is game three and everything is geared towards 7 August [and the Championship opener at home to St Mirren] and it has to be. The league campaign will dominate, although we will try to win every other competition.”
Warburton refuses to concede even that Hibs are better prepared for a run in the Petrofac Cup. That is despite the fact that Alan Stubbs is entering his second season at Easter Road, having last summer faced a Warburton-like rebuilding job - a process currently taking longer than the Ibrox faithful deem desirable.
“I don’t think anyone is in better shape than us at the moment,” the former Brentford manager said. “Hibs have players in situ with experience, that goes without saying. I’ve seen bits and pieces. They are a very organised team. I know Alan Stubbs from his Everton days and they’ll be fit, organised and hungry. They will be tough opponents.
“I’m sure Hibs will look to play, I hate to use the term the right way, but it’s the way you prefer. They will be organised and of course they are ahead of us in the sense they have had players together for a longer period of time. That will be a benefit to them. We’ve got to recognise that and counter it. But it’s got to be about us. It’s always about us and how good we can be. If we dominate the football we’ll be fine but talk is cheap, action speaks louder than words.
“Our job is to bed in quality players into how we want to play as quickly as possible. We want to find players who will add value on the pitch and off it. There might be an outstanding striker who is a pain off the pitch and destroys harmony in the dressing room so we won’t sign him. Similarly if there is someone like that in the academy – and there won’t be – we won’t play him. We want players with the right attributes who add that value.
“[In terms of the idea we need big signings] I think the fans are looking for players who will come to Ibrox, wear the shirt with pride and produce the style of play and results they want to see. That’s what it is.
“You could get whoever it may be from South America for £5million or you can get the guy round the corner for five bob but if the guy round the corner does the job the fans will be happy I’m sure. So our job in terms of recruitment is to find the right players who can do that job.
“It is a big job to walk out in front of 45,000 people – that expectation to deliver the goods is a tough ask. That’s why our recruitment and research has to be right.
“I chat to clubs down south about the loan market. But I need players with a bit of swagger. He needs a bit of confidence to come in here and believe in his ability. Someone who doesn’t worry about making a mistake. If you make an error in front of 45,000 people, for an academy graduate, dealing with that is a big ask. That’s why I’m looking for players with confidence and belief, a real swagger. Someone who will enjoy playing here and relish the challenge.”
However Warburton may choose to assess the next fortnight, his Rangers challenge very much begins on Saturday at Easter Road.