Almost six years on from their last involvement in Europe, Rangers return to the fold this week. For some it will be viewed as something more significant but, according to club captain Lee Wallace, the Europa League qualifier simply represents another step on the journey back to where they belong.
“In terms of league status, of course we have managed to do that. But where we belong is at the top of the Scottish league and getting to Champions League group stages. That is where the club was before. We realise that is going to take a lot of hard work, we realise it is going to take time but I don’t think we can say we are back to where we belong in terms of the prestige of the tournaments or where we need to be domestically. We are working hard to do that and there has been progress since the manager came in at the tail end of last season. We are going to make sure we can finally say, one day, that we are back.”
But, having finished third on their return to the Scottish top tier, this Thursday’s meeting with Luxembourg side FC Progrès Niederkorn is another step in the right direction.
After a long wait it also affords Wallace another taste of the kind of continental competition that had been such a lure to him when he signed from Hearts in 2011
“When I signed, my debut was a Champions League qualifier which was really special to me,” said the 29-year-old full-back, who says he is back to full fitness after an operation on what he describes as a “sportsman’s hernia” sidelined him for the final few weeks of the last campaign. “The result didn’t go to plan but I enjoyed the whole process, the build-up, the playing in the game itself and we were the reigning champions at the time and trying to get into the Champions League group stage. That is one of the reasons I came to the club and, yeah, it probably has been a void. I wanted to try and continue the European campaigns but I don’t think anyone in the world could have foreseen what was to happen six months later which has obviously played a part in our not being involved in European football.
“I am looking forward to it. I have nice memories although the Champions League and Europa results didn’t go to plan but that is ultimately why I wanted to come to the club and we will have a taste of that this week.”
Due to circumstances, that side of his career has not gone as planned, with three of his five European ties actually played in Hearts colours and every run curtailed.
So simply being back in European competition will not be enough to satisfy the player, who was denied a honeymoon due to the early start to the contest and the need to return to pre-season training as early as 5 June to prepare.
Having experienced five defeats in his five UEFA club competition appearances thus far, he wants to turn those fortunes around as he and his colleagues target a spot in the groups.
In Hearts’ short-lived Champions League campaign of 2006-7, he didn’t play in the win over Siroki Brijeg but was involved in the defeat by AEK Athens. Dropping to the UEFA Cup, he then suffered another loss, to Sparta Prague.
Three years later, he played the away leg against Dinamo Zagreb in the Europa League, succumbing 4-0. He then sat out the home leg.
At Rangers, his career started with the kind of European nights he expected would become a regular fixture in his calendar. He lost to both Malmo in the Champions League and NK Maribor in the Europa League but he believed there would be plenty more chances to garner the wins he wanted. But the wait for his next opportunity has been a long one.
“It hasn’t been great. So, aye, it has been a disappointing stat that I haven’t managed to do as well in Europe but we will be looking to do well this week.”
But, while little is widely known about the Luxembourg opponents, Wallace will not under-estimate them or whoever comes next as they attempt to tick off the names of qualifying rivals and ultimately force their way into the group stage.
“I think everyone will say [it is tough]. Stats will tell you it is very difficult for a team that have the four qualifying rounds, the eight games, to get through to the group but we are not going to let that hold us back. We will be realistic but in any competition we want to do as best we can. We realise it is going to be difficult but we are going to try and go as far as we can.”
The expectations are something that some Rangers signings have struggled with in recent years but with several new faces brought in by manager Pedro Caixinha over the short close season, Wallace says the early signs are promising.
“Yeah, but mentality is probably the most important thing,” he said. “We all recognise that these players coming in are good enough in terms of their ability but hopefully their mentality is such that can quickly adjust to what being a Rangers player is about. That is the day-to-day demands and the expectations on a match day. Hopefully that will be there in these players. I think they have done their homework and you hear a lot of them talking in their interviews about the size of the club and the ambitions that we have got so I certainly hope the mentality is going to be there.”
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