Rangers' season is put on ice

IT was a gift for the conspiracy theorists. Rangers' game at home to St Mirren yesterday called off days earlier because the Ibrox stadium was placed out of commission by burst pipes.

Just, coincidentally, when taking part in the fixture could have threatened the availability of Allan McGregor, Madjid Bougherra and Steven Naismith for the new year Old Firm derby. The three would have been suspended for the hosting of Celtic had they picked up bookings in the scheduled encounter against the Paisley club but now have no such fears.

A juicy suspicion, no question, but one that fails to take into account a couple of crucial factors. For a start, in the past four weeks the title holders have had only one Scottish Premier League game survive the artic conditions that have been gripping the country. More pertinently, from their experience in season 2007-8 - a time, as now, they ended up the nation's last respresentatives in Europe - they know only too well how contesting continental competition as you have to deal with a backlog of domestic fixtures can ultimately derail a championship bid.

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The possibilty of a repeat may start to stalk Smith, whose side were this week drawn to play Sporting Lisbon in the last 32 of the Europa League in ties that will be played either side of the third derby on February 8. It was certainly on his mind yesterday as he faced up to the fact that already Tuesday's rearranged trip to Tannadice could also be about to be put on ice.

"I was reading the other day there that because we are near suspensions it would be good for us to get the St Mirren game off and it would allow us to get the injuries back. But I will be quite clear to you we would have preferred to play for the last two or three weeks when we haven't been playing," the Rangers manager said. "Never mind the outside reasons, I saw what happened to us a couple of years ago, and we don't want a repeat of that. Our preference would have been to play if at all possible."

The possibilities of dusting off the snow to go toe to toe with United in two days he believes have been slimmed by the elements currently proving to be as dastardly as expected of them. "Yesterday, the forecast was for snow this afternoon and it has arrived this morning, so I think they might have a problem," he said in a breakfast conference at Murray Park yesterday. "The weather forecast is horrendous, we are looking at closed airports and things like that."

Smith accepted that it was difficult for his team to gain momentum when suddenly faced with a dearth of games on the back of having to cope with a glut of them in pursuing success on four fronts. It was the chasing of a quadruple that really did for Rangers three years ago, their problems exacerbated by requiring replays to progress in the Scottish Cup. At least that is not an issue for them. Yet. As it stands the potentially difficulties for the Ibrox men are a common feature to a number of clubs in the SPL, who have endured three weekends off.

"It was a strange situation (in 2008], maybe this year everybody will get to know what we had to handle in that period of time. That might well be the case. It is going to be very difficult for the SPL, if they are already talking about extending the season. We have international games almost immediately after the season, with the Carling Nations Cup. So we will just have to wait and see. Obviously it is not an ideal situation we find ourselves in."

If Sporting were overcome to set up a seemingly winnable tie against either PSV Einhoven or Lille, then Rangers wold be into the realms of playing most midweeks from now until April, at least. Smith said that scenario would be looked on as a "pleasurable burden" but the accent this year, when he only has an 18-man senior squad, might be on the burden.

"But I don't think we can look too far ahead at the present moment," he said. "It should be obvious to everyone that if you look at the squad we have got and how small it is, that starts to come into the same situation as suspension and injury for us. We would be badly affected through lack of numbers, and obviously the more games you have to play close together the more chance of injury and suspension kicking in. So we could well do without this break."

Smith describes himself as a "traditionalist" who favours "playing through the chaos" rather than a winter break. Instead of a couple of weeks off when the worst of the weather cannot be predicted, indeed, he would favour a Nordic-style summer season if the idea was to avoid the bleakest part of winter. It appears the only element of the SPL's strategic plan with the top line of a ten-team elite the body hopes to get agreement on from the top flight clubs at a meeting tomorrow that might be considered at odds with. Likewise the second part of Henry McLeish's review of Scottish football.

He has managed to capture the feeling of the majority of the people," he said. "It's like all the other think tanks and what we've had before, it is implementing change that is the most awkward thing. Although you do feel there is a willingness on everybody's part to do this."

The initiative McLeish and the SPL have both flagged up that Smith is fully square behind is the introduction of colt SPL teams into the lower divisions. "That is a good idea and young players would be playing at a better level than reserve team football, which in my mind is currently no use," he said. "There is no doubt that young players are gravitating towards the academies or SPL teams, so the country's best youngsters are going to be in those colt teams. It would be good for them to play in a competitive environment but also a good thing for Scottish football as well."