As a young player Kenny Miller would climb up Arthur’s Seat to reach the peaks for a season. This summer it feels as if the 37-year-old and his Rangers team-mates will have to scale more sizeable obstacles to arrive at their desired summits.
The draw for the Europa League first and second qualifying rounds that takes place in Nyon tomorrow brings into sharp focus the tasks for Pedro Caixinha’s new-look side. Ibrox will welcome European football for the first time since 2011, either with the 29 June first leg or the return leg the following week. Miller, meanwhile, will look to contest his first continental tie since he scored away to Bursaspor in December 2010 – a draw that ended Rangers’ Champions League group campaign but marked a crucial moment in his being enticed away by the Turkish side a month later.
The veteran forward will do so as part of a team that, with potentially eight new signings, will then hardly be on first-name terms with one another.
Yet, despite the abridged close season break that only amounted to a mere fortnight, coach Caixinha’s rip-it-up-and-start-again approach to making his imprint on the team, and the need to negotiate four rounds to reach the group stages, that is where Miller believes Rangers must train their sights.
The first round is likely to see Rangers and fellow seeds St Johnstone stay close to home, with sides from across the Irish sea Cork City, Derry City, Coleraine, Ballymena United and Welsh sides Connah’s Bay and Bangor City possibles for the loosely regionalised draw.
For the second of four rounds required to reach the groups, Rangers’ unseeded status could give them daunting assignments against such as Galatasaray, Lech Poznan and Utrecht, to name but a few. Only two of 98 first-round teams negotiated the four rounds last season, but Miller won’t give up achieving the highly improbable because there were plenty times in the past six years that he would have said playing in Europe with Rangers again was highly improbable.
“We have to do it the hard way,” Miller said of making an impact in Europe. “I am not too sure about seedings and potential opponents, but we will just take it game by game. We will see who we get and take it from there.
“In a couple of weeks we will be good to go. After that Bursaspor game [in 2010] when I left for the second time, I didn’t think I would have a chance of coming back to the club. But when I knew there was a possibility to come back then Europe becomes part of the thought process again, along with another Old Firm game. When you leave you think you will never experience a game of that size again.
“But I managed to do that. The next stage is Europe, to win the league and get in the Champions League again – that’s where we want to be playing, but there’s a long way to go and a lot of hard work to achieve that, all starting with a Europa League qualifier.
“It will be great [for the club though]. It’s all part of the process. It’s all small steps in getting us back to where we want to be. We’d love to do it in one huge step, but it’s going to take a bit of time. We are going to have to keep getting better. But looking at the standard of player we are bringing in, we will definitely be more equipped this year.”
Equipped for the season, but not necessarily the Europa League. Although Caixinha has captured countrymen Bruno Alves, Fabio Cardoso, Dalcio and Daniel Candeias, Aberdeen captain Ryan Jack and should tie up Alfredo Morelos Carlos Pena and Eduardo Herrera imminently, with purchases of Graham Dorrans and Jamie Walker also looking likely, only Cardoso, Dalcio and Jack have been going through the pre-season programme at Murray Park. How quickly the shedload of players can form a team – Alves with Portugal in the Confederations Cup potentially until 2 July – is up for debate.
“There’s a language barrier straight away, so getting a message across is an issue – not from the manager, clearly, because he speaks their language. But communication is key, control, organising, speaking to each other, demanding. That can be an issue which needs to be addressed.
“But football’s football. If there’s an understanding of what we’re trying to do, it makes it a lot easier if we’re all on the same page. Some teams gel rapid, with some it takes a longer period of time. Is it ideal bringing ten players in? No, it’s not. But if that’s what the manager feels is right at this time, then we’ve got to roll with it and make sure it works.”
The work that Miller has been rolling with under Caixinha in the past fortnight is certainly far more refined than that he remembers from his days as a fresh-faced Hibee. “Pre-season’s pre-season, it’s always going to be tough,” he said. “Because of the short break everybody realises that the need to be running up and down hills and that old-school thinking isn’t really required for us when you’ve had two weeks off. In this day and age even after a week I was getting itchy feet. Towards the end of that week I was thinking about going down to the gym and do a wee bit – and that was after four days off.
“Even in those two weeks off I did three or four wee runs in the gym, a bit of work just to keep ticking over. I’m sure all the lads are the same and everyone’s back in decent nick. I’ve done that hard graft in the past – I think back to my first pre-season at Hibs and it was absolutely incredible, and although this year is hard, it’s a lot more specific to how the manager wants us to work in terms of attacking play and recovery running and transition work he’s big on. The need to put in that level of work and running is probably not needed for us at this stage.”
The hideously early European start, though, creates another difficulty: keeping going for practically 12 months. “There’s always a feeling of two seasons rolled into one when you start on 29 June,” Miller said. “That’s still a full five weeks before the first league game, so even at that point you are just coming back in to get ready for a game in August. With the numbers we are getting in the group as well – we will have a larger squad – that will help accommodate the number of games we will have this season... if we get through the qualifiers.”