THE biggest headache Rangers manager Stuart McCall faces after Saturday’s salvaged point may not revolve around the likelihood that second place in the Championship has been surrendered to Hibernian. His biggest headache might centre on what to do about Lee McCulloch.
The ferocity of the abuse Rangers fans heaped on to their captain after he was ragdolled by John Baird as Falkirk made it 2-0 on the hour really did chill. The jeers, which followed the Union Bears section pointing at the captain and shouting “what the f***in’ hell is that?”, were an outpouring of a resentment long in gestation.
McCall said the treatment “sickened” him. He pointed to the fact that within minutes there was an effort from supporters on all sides to drown out boos with cheers and claps for a player in his eighth year with the club, and so the last remnant of a Rangers that could win top-flight titles and reach a European final. Yet, frankly, the fans are sickened by McCulloch’s increasing on-field failings.
The contempt for the centre-back on the blogsphere is near universal. Various websites practically campaign for him to be dropped, suggesting – without any foundation – that he has a clause in his handsome contract that prevents him being omitted.
McCulloch, who will turn 37 in little over a fortnight, is considered a downward pull on Rangers’ prospects of going up – which were dented despite them showing real backbone to force a result against a fading Falkirk with an angled drive from Nicky Law deep into added time.
If the fans hadn’t turned on him quite so violently, McCall might have quietly dropped the faithful servant for Saturday’s final league game away to Hearts. An encounter they must win if they are have any chance of avoiding the prospect of six play-off ties. Really, however, they need snookers to regain the runners-up berth they were replaced by Hibs in at the weekend, because as well as winning at Tynecastle they also need Alan Stubbs’ mean to fail to take three points away to Falkirk.
“That is the worst thing about the result. It is now out of our hands,” said Rangers attacker Tom Walsh.
“When you are at home you want to give the fans a show and something to cheer about. It didn’t happen in the first half and then we had a terrible start to the second half.”
“But, we fought back well,” added Walsh. “I hit the post and their keeper [Jamie MacDonald] had a few other great saves. I think they will all be professional enough. They [Hearts] will want to put on a show for their fans on the last day of the season. We are under no illusions as to how hard it is going to be. But we were great here when we beat them here a few weeks ago. We have to take confidence from that.”
It must dent confidence that Peter Houston’s team pulled Rangers apart for a spell either side of the interval. The home backline could not handle Baird, who connected with a corner to net with a flashing low effort from close in shortly before squaring for Tom Taiwo to appear to put the Scottish Cup finalists in an unassailable position. A Haris Vuckic header in 81 minutes began the fightback and, as McCall petitioned, Rangers had a threat throughout that meant they could not be begrudged their equaliser.
The Ibrox manager also expressed his fear that young players such as Ryan Hardie and Walsh, who he has had the bravery to play, would be affected by the insurrectionist mood among supporters demonstrated in the McCulloch mauling. The mature and erudite Walsh suggested otherwise.
“You’ve got no choice, you have to go and play,” he said. “You cannot let it affect you. You have to play your game. You have to show no fear and get on with it. It was disappointing but Jig has been great for Rangers. I think we managed to turn it around. We got the goals and then they were back on our side again. All you can do is get on with your game.”
Falkirk scorer Taiwo had words to both comfort and discomfort Rangers after his team’s display that showed they will be no patsies for Inverness Caledonian Thistle in next month’s Hampden showpiece.
The spat between Houston and Stubbs following Falkirk’s win over Hibs in the Scottish Cup semi-final nine days ago – Stubbs effectively describing Falkirk’s success as unjust, Houston hitting back that the result was down to Stubbs being unable to organise his defence to deal with crosses – made for needle that Taiwo says “probably” will carry on in the teams’ game on Saturday.
Moreover, with the confrontation the last chance for claims to be staked for a cup final places, the former Easter Road midfielder believes Falkirk – even after Queen of the South moved beyond their reach in the final play-off place – will have plenty to play for beyond rubbing Stubbs’ nose in it with a fourth victory over his team.
“It’s disappointing when you work extremely hard for a victory and you score a very good goal and people don’t want to give you credit for it,” he said. “Hibs is a great club and I really enjoyed my time there but sometimes people have to hold their hands up and say we have been better than them over four games this season. We have always congratulated teams when they win and we look at what we did wrong. A little bit of praise wouldn’t go amiss sometimes.”
Taiwo has plenty of praise for Queens, to the extent he believes it might not be decisive in the context of Premiership promotion whether Hibs edged out Rangers for third. “Queens could go all the way,” he added. “There’s a lot of pressure on Rangers and Hibs and Queens can play with a freedom. They won here and at Easter Road. They make their place a fortress and then they are not afraid to go away and come to places like this. I think they will be a real force to be reckoned with.
“It’s hard to deal with the pressure and the expectancy for Rangers and Hibs. You saw today when we had a good spell and we nearly scored and it brought an anxiety on in the crowd and that can seep down to the players.”