In the aftermath of Rangers’ 4-0 Scottish Cup semi-final capitulation to Celtic just over two weeks ago, Graeme Murty bullishly insisted his tenure as manager of the Ibrox club would not be defined by that game alone.
As it turned out, he was right, if not in the manner he would have hoped. As Murty now becomes simply another footnote in Old Firm history, his time in charge of Rangers will always be defined by two games.
While his fate had effectively been sealed already by that Hampden humiliation at the hands of Rangers’ greatest rivals, the inevitability of his departure from the job was confirmed by last Sunday’s record-breaking 5-0 league drubbing at Celtic Park.
The cruel reality for Murty, who was a dignified, courteous and articulate public face of Rangers while in a role he was catapulted into on two separate occasions, is that he has been chewed up and spat out by the club’s desperate struggle to reclaim some degree of competitive parity with the now seven-in-a-row Scottish champions.
Murty arrived at Rangers in the summer of 2016 as a highly regarded youth coach, a burgeoning reputation in that field earned through his work first at Southampton’s academy and then in charge of the under-18s at Norwich City. On appointing him as their head development coach at under-20 level, Rangers expressed their belief that their young players would benefit from Murty’s ‘input as a modern innovative coach’. The former Reading and Scotland defender duly impressed everyone at the club with his work on the training ground but, just over six months after his arrival, the relative anonymity of his position was dramatically altered for the first time when Mark Warburton was dismissed as manager along with his assistant David Weir in February 2017.
Murty was asked to take caretaker charge of the first team and did so with enthusiasm and diligence. His six-game stint could hardly be described as stellar, including as it did defeats at Dundee – where his abortive attempt at a celebratory headstand when Rangers missed a glaring chance to score became an internet hit – and Inverness. But Murty signed off with a 1-1 draw at Celtic Park, courtesy of a late Clint Hill equaliser, which earned him the appreciation and gratitude of the Rangers support.
It allowed Murty to return to his development squad job with his standing at the club very much enhanced, a position he would probably still be enjoying today had Rangers not got their choice of replacement for Warburton so horribly wrong. The Pedro Caixinha project lasted just seven months, the Portuguese coach spending a sizeable summer transfer budget on players who would mostly prove wholly unsuitable and ill-equipped for the demands of Scottish football.
When Caixinha, pictured left, was sacked in October last year, the SOS from the Ibrox boardroom to the youth department at the Auchenhowie training ground was transmitted again. Murty answered the call, probably anticipating like most observers that it would once more be only for a handful of games.
His second caretaker stint began with an encouraging 3-1 win over Hearts at Murrayfield inspired by two goals from veteran striker Kenny Miller, instantly recalled to the first team by Murty after having been given the cold shoulder by Caixinha. It soon became clear that Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes was Rangers’ preferred candidate as their next permanent manager but the protracted nature of their pursuit of him created a situation which saw Murty oversee back-to-back wins over the Dons.
While negotiations between Rangers chairman Dave King and McInnes faltered, Murty became increasingly upbeat and publicly ambitious about his own hopes of securing the manager’s job for a longer term. When McInnes then turned Rangers down, Murty was appointed manager in December with an initial contract until the end of the season. For the 43-year-old, it has turned out to be the most painful of reminders that you should be careful what you wish for.
A goalless draw at Celtic Park at the end of December, part of a run which saw Rangers suffer just one defeat in 12 games, further emboldened Murty who was supported by the arrival of five new players in the January transfer window – midfielder Greg Docherty on a permanent deal and the loan acquisitions of Jamie Murphy, Russell Martin, Jason Cummings and Sean Goss.
A sequence of six consecutive victories leading up to the Old Firm game at Ibrox on 11 March even sparked talk of a genuine title challenge from Rangers. But their bubble was burst when Celtic, despite playing much of the afternoon with ten men after Jozo Simunovic was sent off, won 3-2 after trailing twice on a dramatic afternoon.
Suddenly, Murty’s tactical nous and game management was under fresh scrutiny which only intensified when Rangers lost 1-0 at home to Kilmarnock the following week. The unforgiving environment of Old Firm management was starting to swallow him up. It’s reasonable to surmise the Rangers board had already made up their minds by then that Murty would not be their manager next season. If the Scottish Cup semi-final offered potential salvation, King’s comments in the build-up which appeared to cast real doubt on Murty’s future were ominous for the 43-year-old.
He remained defiant and, effectively, in denial amid the fall-out which saw senior pros Kenny Miller and Lee Wallace suspended for alleged misconduct immediately after the game. Even when Rangers’ bid to appoint Steven Gerrard as manager became public knowledge, Murty clung onto his belief he could hold onto the job. Sunday’s mauling at Celtic Park shattered that notion and Murty was formally separated from an untenable position yesterday morning.