HE ISN’T pinning his hopes on the possibility, but Stuart McCall is willing to entertain the prospect that his Rangers team could benefit from Hearts proving far too good for the rest of the Championship this season.
The Tynecastle side will visit Ibrox today with the title already stashed after the club’s ransacking of all second-tier opposition. In proving a class apart, Robbie Neilson’s men effectively now have six meaningless league fixtures to contest. Two of these will come against a Rangers side vying with Hibernian to finish second in order that they would have four play-off games to negotiate to earn promotion – as opposed to the six games in quick succession required by the club finishing third.
McCall doesn’t deny that the intensity which has allowed Hearts to post 26 wins and avoid defeat in all but one of their 30 league outings could be diluted as a consequence of them having assured their top-flight return at such an early juncture. “I don’t expect them for one second to take their foot off the pedal, but psychologically you don’t know,” he said.
Yet, from his experiences of powering to titles with Rangers during their 1990s nine-in-a-row run, he does know that a team can subconsciously have their focus dulled if they have done their job with more than a bit to spare. That could work to Rangers’ advantage.
However, without McCall having come in until the end of the season – as it stands – and appearing to have knocked Rangers into some sort of shape in presiding over their first back-to-back league victories in four months, Hearts’ motivations would hardly have mattered.
“Craig [Levein] , Robbie [Neilson] and everyone in their squad will be on about winning as many points as they talked about, getting 100 goals and all these targets. But our [Rangers’] best season in my eyes was the 1996 one when we beat Hearts in the [Scottish] Cup final because we went right to the end and beat Aberdeen in the second-last game of the season [to win the title].
“Celtic lost one game that season and we lost three. They pushed us all the way and we went into that final with everyone still on top of their game, whereas in the 1994 one we were looking for a double treble, and we won the league with five games to go. We didn’t win a game after that and went in against Dundee United in the Scottish Cup final flat. We couldn’t pick ourselves up and we lost. Speaking from experience, getting pushed all the time got the best out of us.”
In all possible measures, Hearts have been an example of best practice. The antithesis of Rangers, indeed, whose de-listing from the stock exchange has now allowed the deposed board to roundly condemn those now at the helm in a reversal of the back-biting across the past couple of years. Unedifying and unhelpful, from cash concerns to coaching to capturing of reinforcements, Rangers appear to have plotted a calamitious course as Hearts have consistently followed the right path. The Tynecastle club have hit the bullseye, but McCall won’t be thinking about what Rangers could have won as he casts his eye over Neilson’s side this afternoon.
“I haven’t given that a lot of thought. I’m not saying this to blow smoke up their backsides but Hearts have been outstanding, haven’t they?” he said. “Last season they knew they were going down and played a lot of their young lads like [Sam] Nicholson and [Jamie] Walker, good players.
“OK, there were a few raised eyebrows in the summer when Gary Locke went. I thought he had done a good job and that he had been a bit harshly treated, but their board will look at it and say that they’ve got it right. Mrs Budge and everyone connected with the club have gone about it superbly.
“To win 26 games out of 30, if you actually think about it, is outstanding form – nine games on the bounce going into today.
“They’ve also recruited really well and not at an old age – [Alim] Ozturk is 22, [Genero] Zeefuik is 24, [Osman] Sow is 24 – but good recruits at a good age. They’ve got an energy which naturally comes with confidence. You’ve got to bear in mind though that Rangers went down three divisions and Hearts have gone down one but their supporters, like Rangers supporters, have had it tough over the last 18 months, maybe longer, with things off the field. They’ve bounced back outstandingly well and fair play to them.
“Whatever model it is, at whatever club, if it’s successful you look and see if you can learn from it. You’d be naive not to. Everything that Hearts have been doing, from their training to recruitment – from the board right down – it’s a model that ticks most boxes.”
The previous Rangers management team of Ally McCoist and Kenny McDowall, currently on gardening leave, often cited the lack of a scouting department as a problem when attention turned to their flawed squad building.
McCall, though, succeeded in guiding Motherwell to second place in the top flight in the past two years without “a great scouting network” – the 51-year-old believing that Hearts have shown what can be achieved in this department.
“At Motherwell I got [Henrik] Ojamaa in – watched him on YouTube, if I’m honest – and we got to see him on a trial at Christmas, brought him back. We were paying him £300 a week when he came in and after a month he hit the ground running. A Celtic scout was on to him and we panicked – gave him a grand! – but at Motherwell we had agents giving us DVDs of players all the time.
“And Rangers will be a bigger attraction, obviously – with the size of the crowd, the ground, the club, the history, etc,” said the current Rangers manager, who hopes to achieve the promotion that would surely lead to his Ibrox stay being extended into next season.
“So you need scouting, but I don’t know where these Hearts guys have come from – has there been someone in the background who’s actually abroad and scouting these players? It’s always good if you can have a look at players before you bring them in, but a club of Rangers’ size will always get players out to them. I’ve had lots of players put to me already and you can do your homework now, looking ahead.” Doing homework and looking ahead have too often proved elusive concepts for Rangers.