Our league campaign kicks off on Saturday lunchtime, with Hamilton Accies the opponents at a sold-out Ibrox. I can’t be certain, but I’d be surprised if any previous game against the Lanarkshire club was so keenly anticipated. A card display in the Sandy Jardine stand will tell all those watching that Rangers are ‘going for 55’ after four season out of the top flight. But is that objective being pursued more in hope than in expectation?
There are plenty of reasons to approach the new season in an optimistic frame of mind. We know this Rangers team is capable of playing football of an excellent standard characterised, at its best, by swaggering control of the ball. The Scottish Cup final might have been a disappointing way to end the season but its significance in the grand scene of things it was minor. The accumulated performances of last season, including notable wins over sides from the division above, testified more accurately to the qualities of the team. That longer term perspective lends itself of a sense of buoyancy. Arguably, the squad has been strengthened over the summer with the likes of Nicky Law, Nicky Clark and Dean Shiels moving on and players like Joey Barton, Niko Krancjar and Jordan Rossiter coming in.
The contest for midfield spots lots set to be fierce, with top performers from last season such as Andy Halliday and Jason Holt battling to retain their positions against the newcomers. This is the one department in which it feels like we have a luxury of dependable options. Doubts, albeit of differing severity, remain about our options at the back and up top. Our problems in defence are well chronicled and enough to bring on a cold sweat. In the centre, Danny Wilson and Rob Kiernan, the preferred pairing from last season, have yet to convince (so will they ever?) or convey that sense of solidity that’s so important in that area. Clint Hill has been brought in and his relatively advanced age evokes memories of the arrival of David Weir. He has so far started games in the Betfred Cup alongside both Wilson and Kiernan but it wouldn’t be surprising if the two younger players were the preferred pairing, at least in the early stages of the season. Mark Warburton has stated his desire to bring in another player for the position, with reports at the time of writing linking Rangers with former Arsenal player Philippe Senderos.
Lee Wallace is under no threat out on the left but doubts remain on the other side where a tough cost-benefit analysis might have to be carried out on James Tavernier. His contribution in attack is remarkable, a real bonus, and something for other teams to contend with. But in the performance of his defensive duties he is less diligent. Given the step up, it would be reasonable to anticipate his positional weaknesses being exploited more often than they were last season. Lee Hodson has been brought in to provide cover and meaningful competition for places but if Tavernier contributes goals at the rate he did last season, and he has already opened his account with a classy finish against Motherwell, then it might be difficult to shift him. Of course, Tav’s forays could be more comfortably accommodated if we had a rock solid central pairing but…well, we’ve covered that already.
In attack, Barrie McKay and Martyn Waghorn, two of the standout performers last season, will likely expect to be considered automatic first picks. It remains to be seen where Waghorn will be deployed as the manager looks to accommodate other attacking options such as Kenny Miller, Harry Forrester and the recently signed Joe Dodoo. Waghorn is arguably at his most effective though the middle, with other players able to offer more from a wide position and Michael O’Halloran might even come into consideration for a starting role on the right. A striker is Warburton’s other priority in the transfer market this summer but many fans would probably view such an addition as being less important than added fortification at the back. That being said, and at the risk of sounding churlish, there is a nagging sense that we aren’t quite as clinical as we might be when it comes to converting scoring opportunities. Maybe this is a distortion rooted in our regular dominance of possession, maybe is grows out of the unease that we won’t be able to rely on outscoring our opponents to compensate for frailties in defence. Dodoo might be the player to soothe those anxieties but another option is clearly being sought.
On balance, the squad is better now than it was at the end of last season, even if certain longstanding problems remain to be addressed. But what does this mean for our chances of winning the league? Pundits and journalists don’t seem to believe the season will end with the trophy in the hands of Lee Wallace. A number don’t even fancy our chances of coming second, favouring either Hearts or Aberdeen for the runners-up spot. Both teams were strong last season and there’s no reason to think that won’t be the case again. But Celtic are not as far ahead as they should be given events of the last four years. In fact, it’s not clear they are ahead at all, a realisation that must churn in the stomach. In any case, Rangers fans need only think back to the predictions made before the Scottish Cup semi-final to recall how the consensus of experts can be trampled on by events.
Being underestimated can be a powerful source of motivation. The club exudes a sense of determination and hunger can override the most careful analysis of relative strengths and weaknesses. We can take comfort in knowing we have a level-headed manager who knows his mind and a squad that’s as good as any in the league on its day (hi Joe Miller!). That being said, we might do well to remember that cliché intended to console children who lose out in competition: It’s not the winning that counts but the taking part. The past four years haven’t been erased by our return to the top flight so we should think back to the worst days and know that even the taking part wasn’t guaranteed. We could go further and note, maybe even take pleasure in knowing, that our presence is enough to aggravate some. We know and they know that 55 might not be landed at the first time of asking but it will come. I’m going to enjoy the season whatever happens.< Back