Familiarity in Defeat

’22 Trophies in 11 Years’

‘We Set the Standard’

These were the sobering banners facing the Rangers support as we trudged despondently out of Hampden with a now all too familiar feeling of anger and disappointment. Our great institution, the one built before us on silverware and trophies, has been allowed to regress and settle into the role of second-best and Sunday’s defeat confirms that our recent league title was an exception, not the norm.

To have worked so hard to clinch 55 and then watch all that investment, endeavour and energy squandered so swiftly is a difficult thing to acknowledge as a supporter. From a position of hard-earned dominance in 2020/21 we have since handed two league titles to Celtic without so much as a challenge and they now sit one Scottish Cup away from yet another treble.

Criticism for the above of course falls on the board and their appointed executive team but on Sunday it saddens me to say that the manager must shoulder his share of the blame. The team selection and set-up looked questionable from the outset and that’s without the benefit of hindsight. A quick glance as social media timelines pre-match would have shown widespread surprise at the exclusion of Nico Raskin in particular.

Furthermore the utilisation of our best player in recent months – Malik Tillman – to cover the right-flank defensively was reminiscent of Van Bronckhorst’s approach in Old Firm games. Instead of pressing forward & playing freely between midfield and attack as he has done for months he was dragged deep and wide and asked to do the hard yards in preventing Celtic’s overload down that side of the park. That’s simply not his skillset.

That left Lundstram and Kamara as the other two tasked with winning the midfield battle. The former hasn’t played for over a month & the latter has played one good game in the last year. Lundstram’s purple patch was as the name suggests and Kamara hasn’t really kicked a ball since he signed his new contract. Neither are hugely mobile & we’ve already seen in these games vs McGregor and Hatate just how they are incapable of coping with their industry and movement. So as the first-half unfolded I’m not sure many would have been surprised at the outcome.

Too many Rangers managers have placed trust in players who have long since stopped performing at the level required. If there is to be a lesson from Sunday for the manager then it surely has to be that some of these players don’t deserve the loyalty they have been shown and that the need to revamp the squad very much still remains despite a very strong showing in terms of domestic results since he took charge. I think he knows that.

The majority of the Rangers team on Sunday was made up of remnants of the 2019 defeat in the final of the same competition. Celtic on the other hand fielded only one player from the same match. Where they have refreshed we have regressed.

The Celtic goal before half-time seemed almost inevitable. Another first-half where these players have been unable to start with any tempo or verve and needed to get to the break for a rocket up the backside or a tactical tweak. Neither were forthcoming.  

The lack of substitutions at the interval was baffling given what had just unfolded and, if the manager was giving them a chance to redeem themselves in the second-half, it was clear within minutes the players weren’t taking it. I turned to my uncle shortly after the restart and said ‘we need to change this before it’s too late’. Celtic scored a few minutes later and with that the cup was gone.  

This particular group of players have been reactive for almost 18 months. Unfortunately on Sunday they were joined by the manager. I know there’s always that tendency to wait until 60 minutes before making a sub or to see how the game settles but on Sunday I couldn’t see any argument for keeping that starting XI on the park beyond half-time. Not when the players we signed to upgrade the squad were sitting on the bench.

Looking beyond that the difference in the two teams was stark. Celtic pressed high and hard with confidence, forcing Goldson and others into shelling long balls up the park only for us to lose both the first and second-balls more often than not. We on the other hand pressed disjointedly, allowing Celtic to play through us & overload in areas they could exploit. They looked like they wanted to win whereas we never really played like we believed we could.

Celtic’s full-backs pushed wide onto Sakala and Kent meanwhile ours retreated 10-yards inside the pitch allowing unchallenged passes to Jota and Maeda in particular. That the goal would come from such a scenario is again no surprise. Our midfield gets pulled out of shape, Tillman is nowhere and Celtic get the ball across the six-yard box where two attackers were there to make sure of the goal. And the worst part was it had been coming. They’d stretched our right-side for the majority of the half and only a lack of quality from Maeda meant it took nearly the full 45 minutes before they eventually capitalised.

The difference after the belated substitutions was evident. Raskin was industriously sweeping up loose balls and passing forwards & Cantwell was finding space and driving at the Celtic defence from the very position Tillman should have been playing in in the first place. Suddenly we looked like a team who might just be capable of going toe-to-toe and asking questions of our opponents instead of just seeking to ineffectively nullify them. But it was too little too late. Another trophy was not only lost, but lost to our rivals.

I grew up barely knowing what defeat at Hampden felt like. Our record from Advocaat to McLeish and through to Walter was tremendous. Nowadays a trip to the national stadium comes with the scar tissue of too many defeats and too many days like Sunday. That is now engrained at the club and within the squad. The winning mentality presently sits at home across the city counting the silverware stockpiled in their trophy cabinet. And that’s simply not acceptable.

With only the Scottish Cup left to play for I think the manager really needs to start being ruthless and look towards next season. Cut loose the likes of Barisic, Kamara and Lundstram where possible. Let Devine, Lowry, Hagi et al step in and play for their futures and support the core group of players – the likes of Raskin, Cantwell and Tillman – with some quality additions in the summer. Playing the same players repeatedly and expecting a different outcome falls into the definition of insanity and Einstein territory.

If I can however make an attempt at some positivity then it is that with a couple of quality signings in the right areas we could be looking at a decent squad. We know that a goalkeeper and first-choice striker are absolute necessities and if we can compliment that with some additions elsewhere then perhaps we could be hopeful of turning round this trend of being perennially second-best.

The summer leaves a rebuild with simply no margin for error. This season’s transfer activity saw an immediate period of transition as players struggled to get up to speed and settle in, perhaps not aided by a stubborn manager. By the time they did we had already lost the league. That can’t be allowed to happen again.

When Gerrard was the manager as we rebuilt I was confident he was the right man, even when times were getting tough and success was slower than we had hoped. I feel the same way about Michael Beale and, as I’ve said before on this blog, he must be fully backed by the board with the tools to allow him to succeed. Sunday however was a bad day at the office for the gaffer resulting in his first defeat as Rangers manager. He’s always big enough to accept responsibility, which I like, but he must now demonstrate that he can learn from mistakes.

The cacophony of raucous celebrations that emanated from the other end of Hampden should not be allowed to become the soundtrack of the last decade. It must instead be the catalyst for change at our club. Talking about standards is one thing; delivering them is quite another. And that goes way beyond and above the man in the dugout.

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2 thoughts on “Familiarity in Defeat

  1. 100% Correct. Never mind about injuries, houses being built, toilets, coffee shops, murals, award ceremonies, plastic pitches, VAR, poor refereeing, conspiracies, and the world being against us. The squad is poor in terms of quality, desire, and hunger. If we accept failure and mediocrity that is what we’ll get. Time for the talk and apologies to stop. Get the gap at the top cut to no more than three points and get the Scottish Cup defended. The Rangers are not in competitions to take part. We’re there to win them. Season after season. Getting to a final is not an achievement unless you take the trophy home. Mindset has to change to winning. Nothing else. Manager and board, have their work cut out . Ever mindful that our competitors won’t be standing still, waiting for us to catch up.


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