Limping on to the Hampden playing surface on crutches, with his right knee in a brace, Niko Kranjcar cut something of a forlorn figure as he joined his Rangers team-mates for their pre-match walkabout on Sunday.
The Croatian midfielder’s frustration at missing out on the high-profile Betfred Cup semi-final against Celtic could be compounded by a season-ending prognosis of the injury he suffered in training last week.
But Rangers manager Mark Warburton remains hopeful the damage may yet prove not to be as severe as initially feared for one of his marquee summer signings whose influence and effectiveness on the pitch had been steadily increasing after an indifferent start to the season.
Regardless of the medical verdict delivered once a full examination of the still swollen knee can take place, however, Warburton has no doubts that the 32-year-old former Tottenham playmaker will ultimately make a full recovery.
“Of course he can come back,” said Warburton. “If he was 37 or 38, you might think differently. But he’s responded well to the quality of staff around him, the outstanding medical guys.
“He had the initial scan but with those type of injuries, you get inflammation and that hides the true picture. So we have to wait maybe another seven days to get a specialist opinion on where we are. We need the knee to settle down and the inflammation to reduce to get a better picture of it. We will hopefully know in a week’s time.
“It wasn’t a challenge. He was just doing what Niko does, a brilliant turn where the whole ground seems to shift. Unfortunately his knee gave way in that movement.
“Either way, it’s going to be a matter of weeks, not days that he is out. We don’t know how many weeks it will be. Hopefully, touch wood, it won’t be the worst case scenario. We just have to wait and see.
“I’m frustrated for him because a lot was made about his weight and his fitness when he joined us. But we knew Niko had probably had three or four years of not being really pushed.
“The idea was to get him from nought to 30, then nought to 60, and then progress on. You saw the impact he had coming on as sub against Kilmarnock and Motherwell, then he started against Partick and in Inverness. He was having more and more influence so we’re so disappointed for him. He’s a top character and all the boys here have so much respect for him.
“The physios said they’d never seen a reaction like it on the day he picked up the injury. All the boys came after training to see how he was – every single player. That shows you the esteem in which he’s held by the squad.
“Niko is obviously frustrated, as much as I am, as much as everyone here is, because we know how hard he’s worked since he joined us. He’s done extras every single day, he’s been in on his days off, been in here almost every single day. He’s gone back to Zagreb to see his daughter on a couple of occasions but, even then, he’s been working on the heart rate data we’ve given him. He’s been the ultimate professional and was reaping the rewards. So there is obvious frustration for everyone concerned.”
Warburton believes Kranjcar can continue to have a positive role from the sidelines for Rangers as they seek to bounce back from their 1-0 semi-final defeat by Celtic by building some momentum in their Premiership campaign which resumes with a home game against St Johnstone tomorrow night.
“We had an analysis session today, looking back at the semi-final, and Niko played a big part in that,” added Warburton.
“He’s a very knowledgeable player, a very intellectual football player who knows the game inside out. His dad Zlatko is a pedigree coach and Niko knows a lot about the game. So the lads really respect him. With injured players, the danger is you can alienate them while they are out. We try not to do that here, we want them involved in everything we do. So there is no danger of that happening with Niko.”
Of the 11 summer signings made by Warburton, Kranjcar joins Jordan Rossiter, Joe Dodoo, Josh Windass and Matt Crooks in having their efforts to make an impact at Rangers disrupted by injury, while Joey Barton remains in the limbo of his ongoing club suspension. But Warburton believes the contributions of Matt Gilks, Lee Hodson and Clint Hill, pictured, against Celtic on Sunday provided some vindication of his recruitment policy, while he also expects striker Joe Garner – his most expensive signing at £1.5 million – to come good.
“The obvious inference is Joey and that’s a separate issue,” said Warburton when quizzed about the value of return on his close-season recruits.
“Clint Hill? Free. You saw his quality against Celtic. Matt Gilks? Free. You saw him coming in at Hampden again. Lee Hodson? Free. Northern Ireland international who was outstanding against Celtic.
“How much money have we spent to assemble this squad of players? What wages are they on in comparison? There are a lot of questions and people are so wide of the mark it’s ridiculous. I‘ve read some stories about what our players are being paid and it’s laughable. Make sure of the facts. Our recruitment? Joe Dodoo is an excellent young player. I’m delighted with Jordan Rossiter but he’s been injured.
“Joe Garner is a proven centre forward. He’s horrible to play against. I have no problem with Joe settling in. Matt Crooks and Josh Windass have been injured but will be long-term assets to the club. Niko Kranjcar? I’ve spoken at length about him. We have got a balance of experience, youth, maturity and energy.
“Our aim is to keep improving but St Johnstone will say the same. They want to beat Rangers on Wednesday night. Likewise, Kilmarnock will come to Ibrox on Saturday looking for three points. There are no easy games in this league.
“Anyone will tell you that. We have to ensure there is no hangover from Sunday. There are no excuses. St Johnstone played on Sunday too, just a couple of hours before us. It’s about the mindset and going into two important games in the next few days. We have to focus on delivering performances. We have said, ‘Be patient’ but the hype and expectation around Rangers is there for all to see. Now you are seeing signs of improvement. We are doing okay.”