For Mark Warburton, the bitter aftertaste of the 2016 Scottish Cup final is not easily washed away.
As the Rangers manager prepares to begin this season’s campaign in the tournament with tomorrow’s fourth round tie against Motherwell at Ibrox, the events of Hampden last May still linger at the back of his mind.
Warburton’s disappointment at his team letting a 2-1 lead slip in the closing stages as Hibs lifted the trophy for the first time in 114 years in the most dramatic fashion imaginable was compounded by his dismay at the post-match pitch invasion which, in the words of Sheriff Edward Bowen QC’s report to the SFA, saw “a number of Rangers players and team officials accosted and abused”.
While Police Scotland continue their criminal investigations into the disorder which sullied the afternoon for many, Warburton still reflects on the footballing failings which cost him the chance of his first piece of major silverware as a manager.
“What happened has been well documented now,” he said. “For me, it was just disappointment that a day of that significance should finish in such a manner. Football-wise, I was also disappointed. There is no doubt we defended poorly at two set pieces, gave the ball away cheaply and got punished for it.
“It’s the Scottish Cup and you are ten minutes away from winning it. Winning it, winning the Championship and winning the Petrofac Cup would have been a very good season for us. It was disappointing to lose it in the manner that we did so late in the game.
“So there is a sense of unfinished business in the Scottish Cup this season from our point of view. At the same time, the league is still important to us and we have got to focus on Motherwell first and don’t start looking ahead to potential semi-finals and finals or anything like that. We have to forget that and beat Motherwell first.
“Did I think about it much after the game last May? You’ve just lost a cup final, haven’t you? So of course you think about whether the preparation was right in the three weeks prior to the cup final. Did we spend it wisely? Was it right to do what we did? Who knows? We have the same problem now, having had the winter break before this tie. We will see how teams fare at the weekend. Some have chosen to go away to Dubai, some have chosen friendly fixtures, like we did, so it will be interesting to see what happens at the weekend.
“I had to watch the final back afterwards last season, because you have to analyse every game you play. We conceded two soft late goals and didn’t generally perform that well in the game. We had to look at it to see why.
“Some people suggested I was making a statement about my squad by just naming five subs on the day. That wasn’t the case. I just felt that maybe the squad ran out of petrol at the end. There wasn’t anything left in the tank, simple as that. They had given everything, we had no subs, we couldn’t play the players who had been out on loan, so it was a difficult one for us.”
Warburton believes Rangers are better equipped to go all the way in the Scottish Cup this season, despite the mixed fortunes experienced by the signings he made last summer.
“We are stronger, but then injuries hurt us in terms of Niko Kranjcar and Jordan Rossiter,” he added. “We also lost Joey Barton. We have had to replace them. But we are in a position where the young boys are a year older. The likes of Liam Burt, if called upon, can come up. So, yeah, we have choices in there as well, but we maybe need one more in this window to make sure we have that strength in depth.
“It is the Scottish Cup, that is the key thing. You hear Premier League managers in England talking about the FA Cup, and you can understand it with the money that is on offer in terms of the league campaign, saying the league has to be their focus. But don’t lose sight of the fact it’s the FA Cup. This is the Scottish Cup. Every time we win a game of football it is a positive. It galvanises the fans, reignites the fans so to speak, and we go through to the next round. You get the excitement of the draw and who you’re playing. That whole momentum starts to build. It’s important. Every team that enters, I am sure, has the ambition of winning the trophy.”
It is Rangers’ only remaining opportunity for silverware this season, although Warburton appeared irked when it was placed in the context of their 19-point deficit to champions Celtic at the top of the Premiership.
“Honestly, if I hear any more about this points gap or anything else..” he said. “We are on about Rangers. We are rebuilding. We know about the gap that exists in finances and everything else. Everyone is well aware of that. There is that financial disparity there and we are not going to try and close it by spending £10, £20, £50 million. It is not going to happen. The focus is on us getting better every single day. Every single day at the training ground, every game that we play. That is why we played Leipzig last Sunday. People said we could have gone to Ireland and played a friendly. Yeah, we could have done. What does that do? Go out and win 6-0, high five each other afterwards. It doesn’t offer anything. We have to challenge ourselves and we have to get better. I am not worried about that. Of course this is a chance to win silverware, it’s a cup.”