If Mark Warburton’s defence had fought their corner against Hearts on Wednesday night as feistily as he did when facing the press yesterday, the Rangers manager might have been spared the inquest which followed his team’s 4-1 capitulation at Tynecastle.
His approval rating among the Ibrox club’s support is on the slide but Warburton remains defiant in response to criticism of Rangers’ overall performance levels and results so far in their first season back in the top flight of Scottish football.
The Englishman insists he does not feel under pressure in the wake of the heavy loss in Gorgie, which cost his side an opportunity to strengthen their claims on second place in the Premiership, something chairman Dave King identified as the minimum requirement for them this year.
They remain two points ahead of third-placed Aberdeen, who have a game in hand, and Warburton was dismissive of suggestions that Rangers’ superior budget to the Pittodrie club should have ensured a more comfortable gap at this stage of the campaign.
With a revitalised Celtic side having long disappeared over the horizon at the top of the table, which the champions now lead by a staggering 25 points, Warburton also repeated his call for greater understanding of the gulf in resources which now separates Rangers from their traditional Old Firm rivals.
“Don’t forget we are second in the table,” said Warburton. “No buts. I’m not being rude. We’re second in the table, so no buts. Yes, of course we can get better. That’s how a team learns, moves forward, gels and grows. But we are still second in the table. There is an awful lot of negativity.
“Wednesday was a poor result, unacceptable by Rangers’ standards in terms of display and the result itself. But we are still doing okay in the last eight games. We haven’t been too bad.
“Budgets don’t always guarantee you success. In that case, why weren’t Derby promoted from the Championship? If it works for that logic, why did Leicester win the Premier League? Celtic have been in the Champions League for how many of the last five years? Where have Rangers been in that five-year period?
“Where did Leicester come in terms of budget, yet they won the Premier League against teams with far more. Brentford got into the play-offs when we were there and had the third smallest budget in the Championship.
“Should we be in second place because of our budget? We got promoted last year. It’s disrespectful to Aberdeen and Hearts, who have been in Europe for the last few years, and have squads that are battle-hardened from those type of games when the team comes together. We had 11 new players come in last summer.
“My focus is on Rangers, and getting us into Europe this year. If we finish second and get into Europe the year after being promoted, I’d defy anyone who said that was a bad season.
“I’ll ask a question. When what the previous time Rangers had been down to the bottom division? It’s unprecedented. The club is coming back. Let’s be clear. Senior supporters have come up to me and said, ‘the club’s never been like this before’. They’ve always been at the top. They are right. The club’s pedigree is outstanding. The history of the club is magnificent.
“But we’ve never been to the lowest level before and had to fight our way back. We have to recognise it. We can’t say it’s unprecedented and then compare it to previous events.
“The club is coming back from a very, very low ebb, a very, very tough time. To come back and get promotion was last year’s target and we achieved it. What I’d like you guys to say is, ‘there is a big gap alright, but finishing second and getting into Europe is not a bad achievement’.”
Warburton believes that Rangers’ victory over Celtic in last year’s Scottish Cup semi-final may have burdened them with unrealistic expectations this season, compounded by the record-breaking unbeaten domestic run Brendan Rodgers has overseen since replacing Ronny Deila at the helm of the champions.
“People are reading too much into that Celtic game, maybe,” added Warburton. “I am very respectful to other managers but I would imagine that squad of players are different to when they played us that day.
“Please don’t say I am criticising any other manager, I’m not, but that squad was still full of international players. Should we have won that day or had that result? I don’t know.
“When we played them at Parkhead this season, I’m watching internationals come off their bench. They have built the squad in European football and Champions League, and we’ve got to get there. I have never been derogatory about them. I’ve said we’ve got to get there. We have to build and get to that point.
“We haven’t got a squad of international players, not at the moment. We haven’t got a squad on international wages, not at the moment. But we have to get to it. Celtic are on a record-breaking run. If they won four games less, they would be 13 ahead. If we had won one of our games it would be ten. That’s how it is. They are on a record-breaking run, going back however many years, so credit to them.
“Where should we be? Challenging Celtic and challenging for the league – that’s where we need to be. Right now we have a situation where the financial income they have from the Champions League makes it a vicious circle. There’s £30-odd million coming in to them. How do we close that gap? We have to find a way. But is it easy? Absolutely not. I understand the history but we are just being realistic.”