It is a task that has been four years in the completing but, by Saturday night, Rangers could have finally sealed their return to Scottish football’s top flight.
The scamper back up through the divisions was intended to be swifter, more of a formality, but Hearts and then Motherwell intervened to leave them languishing in the Championship a season longer than planned.
For much of this campaign they have looked intent on ushering any doubt aside, and even when some wondered if the long-term injury to Martyn Waghorn may allow the likes of Hibs to sneak past them, they showed the kind of resilience and consistency no-one around them could better.
So now they head to Kirkcaldy on Saturday to do all they can to win all three points. If they leave with the win, Hibs will need to match that result away to St Mirren or the league title race will officially be over.
In reality it has been for a number of weeks, Hibs’ slew of dropped points in recent times giving Mark Warburton’s men too plump a cushion. Falkirk took some of the air out of it just over a week ago but it was never likely to do anything other than delay the inevitable. Provided it did not precipitate some kind of late collapse.
Against Queen of the South on Saturday there were vulnerabilities but it did not stop them crossing the line. It was a fine metaphor for their season.
For all that manager Warburton poo-pooed it in the post-match press conference, while there is pace and some verve going forward, defensively his team are still prone to switch off. He highlighted a run of games which preceded the most recent two outings. In those the defence had proved miserly, giving away just three goals in 11 matches, and he claimed that the six conceded across two games, against Falkirk and Queen of the South was “not us”.
But he also revealed that additions and improvements would be necessary ahead of the new season. “It’s about the team, not the defence. We weren’t tight enough in midfield and we gave the ball away,” he said. “We don’t concede a goal if we take care of the football but we made poor decisions. But Rob Kiernan has been outstanding this season, and Danny Wilson alongside him. Tav [James Tavernier] and Lee [Wallace] have contributed going forward and defensively. But we will add more because we will need one or two more in terms of numbers but we will look to add quality in the four or five we add.”
While the management will be looking to add to the strength in depth, the fans are walking with a strut that comes with renewed belief. Having spent the past four years working their passage back to the Premiership, victories over the likes of Kilmarnock and Dundee on cup duty has given them a confidence that they can emulate the likes of Hearts and immediately immerse themselves in battles for European spots and, even the title. The litmus test for that,they believe, will be the Scottish Cup semi-final against their Glasgow foes, Celtic.
But unless the key signings are made for the new campaign, they may need to show a little more patience, if the last two weeks have been any kind of indicator.
Against Queen of the South on Saturday, they pulled it all together for a period at the start of the second half, according to their own gaffer. It was a blistering spell and one which ultimately assured them of the victory but, having played within themselves in the first half, they then switched off at points later in the second half and that almost denied them all three points and would have prolonged the league celebrations.
Rangers had broken the deadlock in the 13th minute when Harry Forrester burst into the box to lash a shot past Robbie Thomson but they allowed their guests to settle down and ease their way back into the game. In the 25th minute, some neat one-touch passing in the middle of the park gave them the chance to break upfield where another one-two allowed Iain Russell to close in on goal before he was felled by Lee Wallace. The striker dusted himself down and dispatched the penalty into the Rangers net.
All level at half-time, Rangers showed greater intensity and verve as the second half got underway and pinned James Fowler’s men back. Three quick goals from Michael O’Halloran, Halliday and Tavernier within ten minutes of the restart had Queen of the South floundering but Rangers backed off again, and lapses in concentration allowed the visitors to hit back in the 56th minute through Gary Oliver.
Opting to twist rather than stick, Queen of the South went all out to reduce the deficit further and apply some pressure and they succeeded in that aim with Mark Millar getting a goal in the 90th minute. However they just ran out of time to inflict any further damage to their hosts’ hopes of wrapping up the league title as soon as possible.