The end of the beginning: Rangers v Celtic

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As another year comes to an end, not many people will be sad to see the back of 2016. The election of Trump, the isolationism of Brexit, the increase of far right politics, poverty, famine and the daily fear of terrorism remain a blight on the modern world. From the deaths of Bowie and Prince to Wilder and Wood to Ali and Cruyff, it seemed no aspect of public life was left untouched as the bad news flowed right from the off last January. Surely 2017 will be better?

For Rangers fans though, it’s not been so much an annus horribilis as five years of ongoing pain. Opposition fans may rejoice in our difficulties while singing crudely (and wrongly) about how we let our club die but the truth is Sir David Murray, Lloyds Bank and Craig Whyte brought about a living nightmare that we’re only just starting to truly awaken from.

In that sense, 2016 wasn’t so bad for us compared to many others. Yes, we lost the Scottish Cup final and were hammered 5-1 by Celtic a few months back but we’re back in the top league and sitting (reasonably) comfortably in second place – despite some indifferent and inconsistent form. Dave King and Mark Warburton may not be the second coming but they’ve stabilised the club and tentative signs of improvement have been glimpsed since both arrived in 2015.

‘Glimpsed’ may appear harsh at first glance when we consider the issues the club has faced since 2012 (and still does thanks to people like Mike Ashley) but, for one reason or another, genuine progression on and off the field is hard to place a definitive finger on for some Rangers fans – even the more pragmatic amongst us. Last month’s AGM may have proven uneventful and the accounts fairly positive but there’s still some uncertainty about the direction in which we’re travelling.

Wednesday’s game in Perth was perhaps the ideal example of why so many bears remain frustrated. Some good, sharp football; an excellent goal and a well-deserved lead at the mid-way point of the first half. Unfortunately, we then shot ourselves in the foot with an awful mistake by Robbie Kiernan for a quick equaliser from the home-team. What was arguably worse though was our inability to react to a tactical change from St Johnstone and provide a winner. In fact, we never really looked likely grabbing a second goal and scoring has certainly proven difficult this season. Ironically, despite the cheap concession of another goal on Wednesday, our defence has looked more steady so this is a tactical conundrum the manager needs to solve.

Of course the bigger picture has to be examined as well. Warburton’s budget may dwarf that of Hearts or Aberdeen but it won’t be enough to mount a genuine challenge to Celtic who’ve had a free run at the SPFL and European football since our administration. And without a run in Europe ourselves (or a change in our retail fortunes) can we really afford to build our debt again – no matter how friendly the sources of said finance are? As such not only do we need to be patient, we need to be honest with ourselves. Drawing with St Johnstone will never be a good result but neither do we have any divine right to win every game.

Speaking of the Almighty, unless we find the kind of intensity and passion we seen in recent wins over Hearts and Aberdeen, a win at Ibrox on Hogmanay may require some sort of mystical intervention (and that’s not a metaphor for the awful Steven McLean). Problematic muscle injures to captain Lee Wallace and Clint Hill aren’t helping and only Wes Foderingham can consider himself above criticism after the draw in Perth. However, the squad have shown they can react well to disappointing performances and they’ll need to show the same level of character on Saturday.

At this point in my match previews, I usually dispense with the tangents and get on with the nitty gritty of going through the team we may see start tomorrow. However, as much as we know the likes of Foderingham, Tav, Halliday, Holt and McKay will all likely start against Celtic, the manager showed on Wednesday he may well tinker with his formation and differ from ‘plan A’ meaning more than a few starting XI positions will be up for grabs.

A positive result is imperative as every player and the manager have to show we can beat Celtic going forward as, like it or not, that is the current barometer of success in Scottish football. Yes, we did so nearly nine months ago now but that is a long, long time in football. With the end of 2016 upon us and three weeks until our next game after an enforced winter break, the negativity from another defeat would fester amidst a support often as fickle as it is loyal.

As such, Mark Warburton now has to offer a New Year's message that our final game of 2016 is merely the end of the beginning and not the beginning of the end for him and his players. Let’s hope we’re toasting them all on Saturday night and 2017 brings the tangible progress we all so desperately want. Lang may yer lum reek, bears!

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