McCulloch lifts himself to key player status at Rangers

LEE McCulloch probably won't want to be reminded of the last Ibrox visit by Aberdeen, who will be going at it in Govan again come Wednesday night.

In late September, the combative Rangers midfielder was only booked for challenging Michael Paton elbow-first. It was the beginning of a trend but gave no indication of more significant others. For, this season, while he has been cautioned another 13 times, the capable all-rounder has also chipped in with seven goals and featured in the majority of the club's games as no less than one of the powerhouses driving the Ibrox men towards a second successive title. McCulloch may play on the edge but is no longer on the periphery.

By the 31-year-old's own admission, last season he was little more than a make-shift centre-back who didn't look as if he "was going anywhere". He's gone from that to central performer in both position and status, who has undoubtedly benefited from the emergence of teenage centre-back Danny Wilson and the club's debt-demanded sell-only transfer policy. In the process, McCulloch's enforcer ethos has led to him amassing the disciplinary points. From bit-part player to bite-part player, if you like.

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"Is it?" he says, when told of his yellow cards tally. "I'm not keeping count. Ah, but is that Champions League games, and all that? You've got to get booked in those."

In reality, McCulloch only had his name taken in one European encounter, and feels he has been very unlucky in the domestic environment. "I've always seemed to get a booking or two but this season I've played the majority of games and had a few. I'm not proud of that but I don't think there has been a bad tackle in among them. I'll defend myself by saying I don't think I'm a dirty player – it's just silly fouls I get booked for. It's just the way I play and I can't take that away from my game. Sometimes I get booked on reputation for doing next to nothing, that's just the way it goes, and I'm not complaining. Me and Thomo (Kevin Thomson] are in there (central midfield] playing against three men nearly every week. I get caught myself sometimes and just take it – it's a man's game."

And it has been 18-year-old Wilson's ability to "play like a man" that has been instrumental in McCulloch being allowed to influence encounters from his favoured position. The subject of a note of interest from Liverpool, McCulloch, who played in the Premier League with Wigan, is utterly convinced in the future Wilson will be able to "play wherever he wants." This season, he has been a more than able deputy for a man considered Rangers most important performer, Madjid Bougherra, and has now made more appearances than the Algerian.

"I think he wants to play here now and I think he can go on to become the Rangers captain and a real star for the club," the midfielder says of a team-mate currently in negotiations over a new deal as he prepares to enter the final 12 months of his current contract. "He's the best of the young boys, but doesn't act like one, the confident way he handles himself off the pitch. You can see that maturity on it. If he stays and plays here every week there is no better club for him. He has time on his hands to learn his trade and then, down the line if he wanted a move, he could go."

McCulloch believes the time isn't right for a parting of ways from the Ibrox club by Wilson or, for that matter, Rangers manager Walter Smith, who it has been suggested, may step down at the end of the season. Few would surely contest the midfielder's assertion that Smith ought to be a shoe-in for any manager of the year awards that are going. "For me, no-one else should even been considered," says the player of a man on course to claim a league and League Cup double.

"In previous years when he has had loads of money to spend people have said it's been easy for him. Now, when he's not got money to spend just shows what a good manager he is. He's not been able to sign a player for so long and has kept the winning mentality and kept the boys together. The boys want him to stay on, though if he does decide to go, I don't think there will be a problem with Coisty (Ally McCoist], Kenny (McDowall] or Durranty (Ian Durrant] because they've been around the dressing room. But the boys had a right good laugh when we watched him (letting go in his celebration] after the League Cup final. It is good to see he still has that passion and I hope he stays on." McCulloch, meanwhile, can promise his passion will keep him on the right side of officialdom.