Right time for Rangers’ return to Scottish elite
EDINBURGH – In the aftermath of Rangers’ failed bid to win promotion to the top flight through the playoffs last season, former captain Barry Ferguson was roundly panned for suggesting the club may benefit from another year in Scotland’s second tier.
His argument, that instability off the pitch and a stagnant product on it could see Rangers struggle, provided little solace to fans desperate for a return to the top flight after the indignity of liquidation and demotion to Scotland’s basement.
Fast forward 10 months, however, and few would argue with Ferguson’s comments.
Rangers secured their return to the Scottish Premiership after a four-year absence with a 1-0 win over Dumbarton on Tuesday, but promotion itself is not the reason for the unbridled optimism surging through the club and its fans.
After years of financial mismanagement resulted in administration and liquidation in 2012, businessman Dave King took control of the club last year and brought stability to a boardroom racked by infighting and riven with personal agendas.
While finances remain fragile, King and fellow investors have removed the spectre of another meltdown, though the club’s troubled relationship with shareholder and sporting goods tycoon Mike Ashley must be resolved if further progress is to be made.
For the fans, however, it is the performances on the field this season under new manager Mark Warburton that have given them the belief they will soon be challenging ‘Old Firm’ rivals Celtic for the Premiership title.
CELTIC LITMUS TEST
The appointment of Warburton, a former city trader who swapped the London rat race for Glasgow’s footballing goldfish bowl, has proved a masterstroke for the Rangers board.
The first Englishman to manage Rangers in the club’s 144-year history, Warburton has revolutionised not only the way Rangers play, but their approach to training, fitness, development, nutrition and matchday preparation.
Where teams of the recent past relied heavily on the long ball, grinding out victories by sheer force of will alone, Warburton has built a side committed to attacking football that dominates possession and moves the ball quickly on the ground.
The impact of that commitment to passing football was perhaps best illustrated by the fact that Rangers tallied 49 goals before scoring one from a header this season.
Rangers wrapped up the league on Tuesday with four games to spare, scoring 83 goals along the way, but there have been dips in form.
Premier League side St Johnstone handed Warburton his first competitive defeat as manager in the League Cup, ending a run of 11 straight wins to start the season and giving Rangers fans a much-needed reality check.
In the following 31 league and Cup games, however, Rangers have lost just three times — to Falkirk (twice) and Hibernian, their closest challengers.
While fans of top flight clubs have scoffed at their achievements this season, rightly pointing to the lower standard of opposition, Rangers have recorded wins over Premier League teams Kilmarnock and Dundee in the Scottish Cup this year.
But a true test of their progress arrives on April 17 when they face Celtic in a Scottish Cup semi-final.
The rivalry between the two Glasgow clubs is one of the fiercest and oldest in world football, and the pair have won exactly 100 top flight titles between them.
They have played just once since Rangers collapsed at the end of the 2011-12 season under debts that could potentially have risen to 134 million pounds ($190.24 million), with Celtic strolling to a 2-0 League Cup semi-finals win early last year.
Warburton knows the mood at Ibrox will change quickly if Rangers are put to the sword by Celtic, who remain the standard bearers of Scottish football and whose coffers have been swelled by four years of Champions League football.
“I’ve been here 10 months, I can’t pretend to know… the suffering they’ve have been through, now the club is back in the top tier so I’m delighted for the fans,” he told the club’s official website after Tuesday’s game. He told the players to enjoy the moment but warned against taking the foot off the pedal. “What they have to realise is that we can’t stop moving forward. If we do that we’re finished.” -Reuters