Rangers continue to look like a team that won’t give too many sleepless nights to their next opponents, Celtic, but will give their own supporters restless slumbers.
Kilmarnock’s efforts to gain a point at Rugby Park, earned by Kris Boyd’s first-half opening goal, proved all the more commendable, and damning to their visitors, because they played almost half an hour with ten men following a truly ugly, feet-off-the-ground lunge on Joey Barton by Greg Taylor that could only bring red from referee Kevin Clancy.
By then, a ripper of a free-kick by James Tavernier had put Rangers level, and the unrelenting pressure they then applied to Lee Clark’s men looked like it would produce their second stoppage-time winner. However, Jamie MacDonald denied Barrie McKay twice as Kilmarnock desperately sought to hang on.
They just about warranted doing so at the end of a pulsating encounter that produced six bookings as well as the red, but will drain the colour from Rangers faithful as they consider the trip to Celtic Park that awaits them next, the 10 September date following the international break. This Ibrox incarnation are not title contenders, to be blunt.
Pre-match, Mark Warburton had said he required to make some “tweaks” to improve his team’s “combinations” and make them so. This amounted to dropping Andy Halliday to the bench so that Joe Dodoo could be introduced in a wide forward area. In turn, this meant that Harry Forrester dropped deeper into the midfield three where – with no Halliday – Barton could take up a more central position. These didn’t have the desired effect, and Rangers – who lost Danny Wilson in the warm-up, his place taken by Clint Hill – have conceded four goals and now scored only six in the course of winning two and drawing two of their first four games.
Fitting new players into a team pattern could be considered a cakewalk for Warburton compared to the reshaping job that his Kilmarnock counterpart Clark had given himself. It has been presented as a reckless gamble for the Geordie to have brought in eight new permanent signings and seven loanees over the summer. Yet, last night eight of the home side’s starting line-up were on the books last season. Clark isn’t just throwing players at his team to see which ones stick.
On the evidence of the early skirmishing, he does have a coherent strategy. It might not arrest the declining fortunes of a club that have been drawn ever closer to the top flight trap door in recent seasons, but there was commendable intent in the manner that Kilmarnock were prepared to take the game to Rangers.
It made for an open encounter that would have been expected to have suited the Ibrox team who, in their three previous games, have appeared trussed up by opponents camping in against them.
After Kenny Miller had an early opening, Warburton had to reset his forward line after Dodoo was forced off an a stretcher with what appeared to be an ankle problem. That meant an early introduction and a debut for £1.7 million buy from Preston North End, Joe Garner.
A bustling No 9, by repute, such would never be said of Kris Boyd. The half belonged to the languid former Rangers striker and his game-changing abilities. A howling miss when he miscued horribly when set up for a middle-of-the-goal swipe just after the quarter-hour mark looked the sort of moment Kilmarnock would be left to curse.
But approaching the half-hour a 250th goal in British football for the irrepressible Boyd arrived following a lacerating sprint from deep by Greg Kiltie. He spotted the 33-year-old’s angled run in behind the defence and Boyd duly slid his effort wide of Wes Foderingham’s outstretched arm.
Rangers’ efforts to remedy their situation either side of the break lacked the ability to trouble MacDonald but the keeper was powerless to prevent the visitors striking back when Tavernier produced one of his trademark howitzer free-kicks that exploded into the top corner from 22 yards.
When Taylor walked for his 63rd minute assault, it seemed his team would also suffer but Clark might just be building something at Rugby Park.