Kilmarnock fans have quickly had to come to terms with two, new aspects of their…
Celtic play Rangers on Sunday in a title-deciding match at Parkhead. Perhaps we’ve all been consumed by the announcement of the PFA shortlists or the circus of media attention surrounding the rumours of Steven Gerrard moving to Ibrox, but there just doesn’t seem to be all that much interest or hype around this coming match.
Where the newspapers would usually be full of ex-pros from every available source spouting half-arsed lines about Rangers this or Celtic that, we’ve instead had 100 different takes on Gerrard’s coaching pedigree or debates about whether Kris Boyd or Scott Brown deserve to be crowned player of the year. You’d be forgiven for forgetting all about the derby in Glasgow this weekend.
And that has largely been on purpose. While the four Old Firm clashes we’ve already had this season have offered a wide range of drama, entertainment and downright fantastic football, Sunday’s clash will likely be as one-sided an affair as we’ll probably see this season. Celtic will be desperate to wrap up their league title and all that stands in their way is an exhausted, demoralised Rangers side.
Of course, most of this was quite avoidable. Although Rangers have had their own, unique issues on and off the pitch this season, a large chunk of the frustration and anger that has forced the club in to action has come about from direct comparisons to Celtic. And for the most part that’s exactly where their season has fallen apart.
Although Pedro Caixinha was never afforded much time or patience by the Rangers support following an early exit from Europe, the Portuguese manager was truly dumped when he first lost to Celtic. Despite only one defeat in his opening six Scottish Premiership games and a decent enough job of embedding a number of new players, it was the pensive look across Caixinha’s face as his side lost 2-0 at Ibrox to the Scottish champions in September that would ultimately cost him his job.
Michael Stewart in the Scottish Sun lamented how Rangers were still nowhere near Celtic despite the money spent over the summer, while Charlie Nicholas suggested in the Daily Express that Caixinha’s time at Rangers had already came to an end. All because he lost to a manager with far greater resources than him. A month later Caixinha was sacked.
Then Derek McInnes entered this tragic tale. Reportedly favoured by the Rangers board as Caixinha’s ideal replacement, fans and pundits lamented the Aberdeen manager’s record against Celtic. Forgetting the five years McInnes had spent rebuilding the northern club into the second best team in Scotland, claiming consecutive second place finishes and winning the club’s first piece of silverware in 18 years, the 46-year-old was solely judged through the prism of what he could do against the green and white outfit across the city. Public opinion at Ibrox was notably ambivalent – if not downright opposed – to the appointment and as luck would have it McInnes decided the Rangers job wasn’t for him.
Forced into making a decision on the head coach job almost two months after sacking Caixinha, the Rangers board finally decided to give the job to interim boss Graeme Murty for the remainder of the season. If there was a silver bullet to stopping Celtic then Dave King & Co. hadn’t yet found it and until they could the softly-spoken youth coach would keep the show on the road.
And remarkably it worked. Not only did Murty rejig the side to play more direct, attacking football but he also did a fantastic job of fusing the useful players Caixinha had bought with Mark Allen’s loan signings in January. From December 22 to February 27 Rangers not only held Celtic to a draw but also picked up more points in the Premiership than any other team. Murty had turned things around and some were even speculating that the young, inexperienced coach may have coached his way into a long-term deal at Ibrox.
Then came another defeat to Celtic. In the build up to another Ibrox clash on March 11 Rangers found themselves just three points above Aberdeen but more enticingly just seven points behind Celtic. While neutrals and pundits in the media gave little weight to a potential title race, fans couldn’t help themselves. This was the chance to put a proper dent in Brendan Rodgers’ dreams of another treble. Rangers could finally drive a thorn in to the side of the Scottish champions and cause them trouble.
As we all know, Rangers took a superb stab at beating Celtic on the day but by sheer luck or individual talent a fateful goal from Odsonne Edouard won the day in Rodgers’ favour. And so began the demise of the second Ibrox manager of the season.
Despite leapfrogging Aberdeen with three wins and gaining ground on Celtic, a solitary defeat against their most bitter foe was enough to derail all the good work that had come before. Murty went from a potential long-term coach to once again the man simply charged with holding the fort till someone who could bring “immediate success” was found.
It’s not a coincidence that Rangers’ form took a notable nosedive after this. Directly after the Celtic defeat Murty’s side suffered another loss to Kilmarnock and then dropped two points to Motherwell. Two weeks after that Rangers once again played Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi-final. Yet rather than embrace the chance of besting the champions in a 90-minute knockout tie, Rangers slumped to a 4-0 defeat. It seemed as though the manager, squad and even the club itself still hadn’t gotten over the last defeat to Celtic.
Which now brings us to the here and now. Despite sitting level on points with an Aberdeen side that Murty confidently disposed of four months ago, the fight seems to have entirely left Rangers. With so much left to play for between now and the end of the season this club seems as though they’re simply going through the motions without any drive or ambition to reach the aim that should have been front and centre of any list of priorities at the start of the season: tie down second place.
Rangers will most likely lose to Celtic on Sunday, making their job of finishing ahead of the rest a whole lot tougher. And even if they can best the Dons or Hibs to the last, remaining achievement of the season a large, dark cloud entirely of their own doing will still loom over Ibrox throughout the summer.
Plenty has gone wrong at Ibrox and fans have legitimate complaints to direct at those that run the club, but if we were to plot a timeline of Rangers’ season and jot down where things took an upturn in confidence and where each crisis blossomed out of thin air they would almost exactly line up with each and every Old Firm derby.
This club has always been defined by beating Celtic in competition – just as Celtic has with them – but times have changed. And the sooner Rangers can accept that, the sooner they can put the routine defeats to Rodgers’ team to one side and pragmatically get their house in order. Because tantrums and dramatic sagas after every loss aren’t getting them anywhere.