Half-full or half-empty: Rangers and the Scottish Cup

Rangers were drawn against Falkirk in the fourth round of the Scottish Cup after beating Airdrieonians 3-0 last Friday night. If the presence of Sir Alex Ferguson was meant to raise the level of interest then it was probably an unnecessary extravagance for the majority of Rangers fans: such draws were already more interesting in the absence of weekly meetings with Scottish Premiership teams. It would be fair to say, however, they have become more interesting to Rangers fans for two different reasons. Some await them with a sense of anticipation, others with a sense of trepidation.

Rangers seem to be a more formidable outfit than last season. This might be attributed to a number of factors including an improved fitness regime, a better understanding of what it required to excel in the lower leagues and players performing to a higher standard than in the last campaign. The convincing nature of some of the results has naturally stoked a desire to see Rangers tested against tougher opposition. Perhaps more than that, it has led to a belief that this Rangers team is more than capable of overcoming any side it might face. This argument was rehearsed last season but a better standard of performance this term has rekindled it. In addition, McCoist has shown he can guide a team to the final of a knockout competition-even if it doesn’t have the status of the Scottish Cup-after Rangers secured a place in the final of the Ramsdens Cup against Raith Rovers. Progress in the Scottish Cup, or League Cup for that matter, would be a stronger signal that we are returning to the natural order of things in Scottish football. Maybe some Premiership clubs and fans, dismissive of our progress to date, need reminding that the Rangers are coming?

It would be naive to pretend that some Rangers fans don’t think the cup competitions offer the chance to settle some scores. Defeating any Scottish Premiership side would be a great achievement, just as beating Motherwell was one of the highlights of last season. But we all know the dream is to get the better of one of the clubs whose fans took the most pleasure in our recent misfortune. Before anyone gets hurt trying to mount their high horse too quickly, this is hardly a unique impulse in sport and, so long as it is channelled appropriately, there isn’t much wrong with it. Suffice to say, Rangers fans have their own impressions and memories from last year. They might differ from fans of some other teams but they’re not likely to be modified or forgotten.

Other Rangers fans are not so enthusiastic about an extended cup run, seeing it, at best, as a distraction from the main priority which is ensuring the quickest possible return to the top flight. At worst, there is the risk that overconfidence might lead to an embarrassing exit at the hands of a smaller team or humiliating defeat against the likes of Celtic. Such fans are hardly likely to be encouraged by Rangers’ record in bigger cup competitions since Ally McCoist became manager. Our fourth round opponents have already been responsible for one cup exit during the McCoist reign and his CV also includes names such as Malmo and NK Maribor. The most recent example of this tendency came earlier this season when Rangers capitulated to Forfar after extra time and exited the League Cup at the first time of asking. It would be fair to say that this result might be considered an anomaly in a season which has been characterised by vastly improved results but there is a nagging feeling that such competitions aren’t compatible with our manager. Fans might also refer to last season’s lame effort at Tannadice which can’t be conveniently explained away by reference to the lack of support because of the successful boycott of the ground organised by Rangers fans. This was a dispiriting result at the time but the prospect putting on similar show against the likes of Hibernian, Aberdeen or, worst of all, Celtic is enough to keep hundreds of thousands of people awake at night.      

These are all understandable and sensible concerns. The current run of victories has been hugely enjoyable, even if some of them have been secured by graft rather than artistry. It would be disappointing if an embarrassing cup result were to knock the confidence of the squad and reverse some of the progress that has been made. Taking all these concerns into consideration, however, the response has to be the same every time: what other choice is there but to meet the challenge head-on? Simply excusing ourselves from the competition would be taken as a sign that Rangers had been made timid by events in recent years when we all know that certainly isn’t the case. Even if Rangers were to be outmatched in terms of ability (which shouldn’t be the case given our wage bill and the calibre of player we have in the current squad), a tough tie would give us the chance to measure the character of this team in the face of adversity that has so far been lacking this season. The future will bring tougher and more challenging times on the pitch and cantering to the League One title might breed complacency. Put simply, there can be no room for that at Ibrox. Collective character isn’t something that can simply be bought; it will have to be instilled by Ally McCoist and his management team. Being able to do so will go a long way to determining whether he is remembered as a great Rangers manager as well as a Rangers great.

The match against Falkirk was, all things considered, probably one of the better outcomes from Tuesday’s draw. While it might not be as tantalising as some would have liked, it looks more than winnable and doesn’t offer those who take the most pleasure in our misfortune the chance to gloat. If we progress in the competition then more appetising matches can be expected and exiting at the current stage would be disappointing. I’m sure this feeling that would be shared, at least to a certain extent, by those who would breathe a sigh of relief that an encounter with the likes of Celtic had been postponed. The appeal of cup competitions lies, ultimately, in transporting us back to a time before administration. We might be absent from the top league in Scotland but we’re still able to mix it with all the other teams in cup competitions, just as we have always done. The challenge needs to be embraced, not kept at arm’s length, and we should recognise its potential to deliver one of the greatest achievements in our long history.