RANGERS players relentlessly seek to stay on-message in public forums these days. This drive gives rise to a mental image of Mark Warburton with a giant clipboard and pointy stick going over the very themes that require to be absorbed and regurgitated as the challenge from the east has left Hibernian followers starry-eyed. “It is all about us, we’re not thinking about anyone else”, “If we do our job we’ll win the Championship”, and “Whatever our recent results we are still top of the table” are common favourites.
There may be variations on these mantras. Pleasingly for Warburton, though, ahead of tomorrow afternoon’s potentially pivotal tussle between two teams separated only by goal difference, these tend to be slight. The Rangers manager would have been proud of captain Lee Wallace’s performance in front of the press last week at Murray Park. As amiable and expansive as he proved, there was also a prepared-script element from a player who patently buys in completely to the Warburton ways.
The 28-year-old was little enthused to run with the suggestion that the length and intensity of the build-up to Hibernian’s Ibrox visit made tomorrow’s encounter feel like a game against Celtic of old. “You’ll have heard me say 100 times that it’s just a game for us,” he said. “We realise the significance in terms of build up for yourselves, and maybe for other players outwith here, but it’s a game we just can’t wait to take to the field and play in front of our home support. We want to send them home happy because it’s disappointing that we haven’t been able to do that for the last two games. We are well aware that we’ve dropped below our usual standards.”
There was a “come on Lee, who are you kidding?” first thought to such a stock answer, especially when the meeting with Alan Stubbs’ men is in no way just another game. It is, in fact, the first since the opening day of the season when the opponents that Rangers face can move above them in the Championship.
“I take that as a fair point,” Wallace accepted. “It’s the first time that situation can occur. In terms of pressure there is pressure on us every day. We are Rangers. We realise and accept the scrutiny so the pressure on this game is no different to the day in, day out pressure we have as Rangers players, whether it’s away from the field or on the pitch. We are fully focused and will have a calmness to try and win.”
All too calm. Wallace effectively pooh-poohs any notion that the visit of Alan Stubbs’ men, which will bring up the halfway point of the season, will have an impact on the title race. “Probably none,” he says of that possibility. “Obviously we lost that game [at Easter Road in November] and it didn’t have any significance in terms of who’s going to go on and win the league. We’re level on points and there’s far too much football to be played, too many twists and turns, the usual clichés you’ll hear up and down the country from players and managers. There’s also the January transfer window so there’s a lot of changes to come irrespective of the result.”
Yet, the fact is that losing to Hibs two months ago appears to have had a huge impact on the title race. Rangers, with 11 straight wins before that day, have now only two victories from their past six league games – one point from six their recent haul after losing away to title-challengers Falkirk last weekend following a draw at home to Morton. When this dip becomes the discussion point for Wallace, he initially refers to it as a “so-called dip”. In fairness to the defender, he also acknowledges the “incredible run” of 15 wins and two draws from Hibs in an unbeaten 17-game sequence.
“We’re aware we’ve been below our normal levels. We know whenever we take to the pitch and play to our top levels we will win more often than we’ll lose. It’s difficult facing new challenges – like a defeat, a draw or a dip – but we need to rise above it. We have to turn negativity into positivity.
“You use criticism from any quarter as motivation. We’re not going to curl up into a ball, and be scared and hide. That’s certainly not the Rangers way. We’re a young, evolving team who maybe are now being exposed to some of this stuff where at the start of the season these guys weren’t. Everything was nice and rosy, we were winning games by fours and fives and playing what we deem to be the best way of playing. The pressure we put on ourselves within Murray Park is huge and we realise what’s at stake outside of here.”
Doubts about Warburton’s ways have bubbled to the surface as teams have started to shore up against an expansive Ibrox side. Wallace, who coaches amateur team Tynecastle FC, has nothing but praise for the 53-year-old. He would, “110 per cent”, want to be like Warburton as a coach. “If you could get anywhere close to the levels of detail, work ethic and general know-how of what we’re getting in here then you’re going to have a good chance of succeeding in management,” Wallace said.
The Rangers full-back lets the professional mask slip over the return to Ibrox this afternoon of Darren McGregor. Wallace is unabashed about the bond the pair developed in travelling through together from Edinburgh for the season-and-a-bit the centre-back spent at Ibrox, before being jettisoned in September and signing for his boyhood team.
“I love Daz. I think his story is magnificent,” Wallace said. “I coach at a similar level to what Darren was playing maybe only seven or eight years ago, so it speaks volumes about him. He came here half thinking that he maybe didn’t deserve to be here, but we all certainly always made him recognise that that certainly wasn’t the case. His attitude and his commitment, and the fact he is so grounded, shows that he deserved to be here. Obviously that didn’t quite work out, but he was always honest, was always a very good character and now he’s fulfilling a childhood dream being born in Leith and being a Hibs fan. I wish him all the best on a personal note, of course, but obviously not on a team level.”