From Mount Florida to the West End, Mark Warburton did not have to look far on Sunday to realise just how much his most significant victory yet as Rangers manager meant to the blue half of Glasgow.
After soaking up the adulation of the Ibrox club’s jubilant support at Hampden following the epic Scottish Cup semi-final victory over Celtic, Warburton tried to slip quietly into a restaurant across the city to savour the achievement with close family and friends.
The Englishman was true to his pledge that his own celebrations would consist of little more than a couple of glasses of red wine. But he still ended up with more on his plate than he bargained for.
“I went somewhere in the West End for some tapas and I couldn’t work it out when they brought me four calamari when I’d only ordered two – until I found out the chef was a Rangers fan,” said Warburton with a smile.
“The calamari and then chorizo just kept coming – but only the food, not the wine! I had two glasses of Rioja, enjoyed it, then went home and watched the game again. I enjoyed that too, especially knowing that last penalty in the shoot-out from Celtic was going to go over the bar!
“I’m not going to be bouncing off walls or anything after a win like that, I’m not made that way. But you have to enjoy the good times. There is enough negativity and bad times in football, so I enjoyed it.”
Warburton was back at his desk at Rangers’ training ground before 6am yesterday to begin preparations for tomorrow night’s rescheduled Championship fixture against Hibs at Easter Road.
With the title and automatic promotion already wrapped up, it is one of four remaining league games Rangers must now assimilate into preparations for the Scottish Cup Final against Hibs on 21 May which is three weeks after their last Championship match against St Mirren.
Warburton revealed he will allow his players a say in how best to cope with such a lengthy lay-off ahead of a Hampden showdown which offers Rangers the chance to secure a return to European competition next season.
“It’s a tough one, a really awkward gap,” he said. “I could go to the players and just say ‘there is the schedule’ but I will sit down with the captain and senior players first to see what they think.
“The more they are involved in it, the more they take ownership of it, the better we are. We might go away for a week, we might give the boys four or five days off. We might go away and play a game overseas or we might go down south. We will work it out.
“It could work to our advantage or it could see us lose fitness and sharpness. It can go both ways. It can be great for you – the boys have three or four days off, recharge, come back and train like demons and smash it. Or it goes the other way and mentally you subconsciously switch off.
“So it’s important we get that balance right.”
Beyond the Scottish Cup final, for which he expects to have both Martyn Waghorn and Harry Forrester available after injury, Warburton’s focus is on ensuring Rangers can build on this season’s progress and present a genuine challenge to Celtic at the top of the Premiership next season.
He is having ongoing talks this week with chairman Dave King, who travelled from South Africa to take in Sunday’s semi-final, over player recruitment plans for this summer.
“He (King) came down to the dressing room and spoke before and after the game,” added Warburton. “All the board came down as well, so it was fantastic support from them. I had a good conversation with him. We will be continuing those discussions at functions tonight and tomorrow night. I’ll get a chance to speak to him in detail. That’s the aim, to talk about things going forward.
“We are closing the gap on the team which is at the top of the Premiership – if it’s Celtic, Aberdeen or Hearts.
“Closing the gap doesn’t necessarily mean spending lots of money. It means improving the quality of our squad.
“It’s not always about spending £2 million, £3m, £4m or £10m – whatever it might be. It’s about adding quality and adding characters who fit into our squad.
“We could go and sign four or five players who, on the park, you would say would add quality – but they would be rotten eggs, bad apples in the changing room. We don’t want that. We can’t afford any negativity in the changing room. So a lot of our homework and research is on the characters, to see how we think they fit in.”
Warburton expects his team’s defeat of Celtic to spark a response from the Scottish champions in terms of their own close-season planning.
“I’m not going to speak for Celtic or their manager, far from it,” said Warburton. “But they’re not going to sit on their hands, are they? That’s for sure. Celtic will go hard – as will Aberdeen, Hearts and other teams in the Premiership. That’s the nature of the beast. So we have to do what is best for Rangers and we will.
“At the moment Celtic are the champions and they are going to win the Premiership. They have been in Europe for X number of years and are financially strong. So we have to recognise it and try to close that gap.”