Forget Joey Barton for a minute, even if he seems to make that dastardly difficult to do. The mouthy midfielder’s missing status shouldn’t be the focus of Rangers troubles when set against the failings exhibited by them yesterday, and which are scarring their season.
There was a degree of justification in Mark Warburton’s determination to talk up improvement in the display of his team despite a blank scoreline. A week after their desperate, sluggish showing for the 5-1 defeat at Celtic Park, they were urgent and dominant. Yet, to employ business-speak – which the Rangers manager is not averse to doing – when it comes to every key performance indicator, yesterday proved another game to provoke only grumbling from the Ibrox support.
Warburton’s side have now only won two of their first six league encounters. They have only scored seven goals in the course of these outings. In addition, their inability to break down a Ross County side visiting Ibrox for the first time – despite a clutch of opportunities that should have earned them an unassailable advantage – means Rangers have dropped to fourth in the Premiership. If Celtic win at Inverness today, Warburton’s side will be six points behind the Scottish champions, despite having played a game more.
County manager Jim McIntyre didn’t deny that fortune had favoured his team. “At times it was desperate for us, we had to hang in and graft and then you get that slice of Lady Luck that you need when you come to the big clubs,” he said, top scorer and newly anointed Premiership play of the month Liam Boyce ruled out late on with a back spasm.
“We were set-up to be hard to break through and counter-attack but we never threatened enough. We are normally better at that, but sometimes when you are working so hard against the ball tiredness can creep in. But the boys were magnificent. They gave me everything and you could see their desire, throwing their bodies on the line. When you come to Ibrox your goalkeeper is going to have to make saves too and Foxy [Scott Fox] did that when required.”
The keeper superbly palmed away a curler from Martyn Waghorn 12 minutes into the second period. Late on, he produced an equally impressive reflex stop to deny Josh Windass, having shortly before smothered at the feet of James Tavernier. Fox was left in no man’s land in the early minutes after coming to meet the on-rushing Windass but, after rounding him, the attacker’s delay in shooting towards goal allowed Paul Quinn to divert the ball clear.
With Windass and Jason Holt - partnering Andy Halliday in midfield for the first time this season following an injury absence - providing impetus, the County goal also led a charmed life at times. Never more so than when Michael O’Halloran had a header that struck the bar midway through the second period, and Tavernier had an effort blocked when appearing certain to convert from close range midway through the first period.
Two Alex Shalk shots saved by Wes Foderingham was all that County offered of consequence in reply. The Highlanders principal play was frustrating Rangers by keeping their shape and guarding their goal aggressively. And, helped by wasteful finishing, ultimately they achieved their objectives to remain only one point behind the Ibrox men.
McIntyre wasn’t willing to consider that his team had caught Rangers at a good time, in light of the Ibrox side’s travails over the past week. “They have had so much publicity and a bit of a circus going on this week which is hard for the players and management to deal with,“ he said.
“We knew we were going to face a determine side out to make up not just for the Old Firm result but everything else this week. I think it made it harder, I really do. It’s bad enough coming off the back of an Old Firm defeat but with what has gone on during the week it would have given them motivation to go and get the result, a comfortable victory.”
Memories of a comfortable top flight league victory for the hosts at Ibrox are dim and distant.