Finally, four years after financial trouble hit Rangers sending them to the fourth tier of Scottish football, the club stands on the brink of its top-league return next Saturday at Ibrox against Hamilton.
It was quite incredible what went on throughout the intervening period but that is a sickening story that has been covered by many people already, so what I want to focus on is Rangers chances of challenging arch rivals Celtic for the title.
From the way we are tactically set up to dominate the ball, to the signings of intent in Barton and Kranjcar, supplemented by the exciting potential of younger players like Josh Windass and England under 19 captain Jordan Rossiter, the squad looks impressive and the quality along with the much improved squad depth should make a big difference to our aspirations.
Similarly, there isn't a departing player I'm sad to see go. That may sound harsh, some would say disrespectful but I am all for recruiting smartly as we have done and improving the playing squad so sentiment shouldn't come in to play. Dean Shiels, Nicky Law, Nicky Clark, Cammy Bell and David Templeton were the first team players we moved on this summer and they weren't of the right quality, so thanks for your efforts and good luck in your careers but we move on quite easily in my opinion.
We also lost the loan services of Billy King who didn't impress too much, Gedion Zelalem who had glimpses of talent but not on a consistent basis and Dom Ball who did impress me at times - especially in the Old Firm game when in the holding midfield role - but I feel we have improved the squad so much he wouldn't be a worthwhile target now. I'm sure many may disagree with that last point though!
Onto our arrivals this summer. First off, Matt Gilks has arrived on a free from Premier League new boys Burnley. At 34 years of age and a goalkeeper who has been back-up for a while, I wasn't too enthused by this signing at first, however having taken some steps back I think I have changed my mind. I still see him as our number two 'keeper, however he can offer vast experience and provide much better competition than Cammy Bell. Hopefully that should push Wes to perform better on a more consistent basis and cut out some of his silly mistakes. I really rate Wes; his distribution and how comfortable he is on the ball is vital to how we build from the back. He's also a solid shot stopper but he just needs to cut the mistakes out. Another positive to this deal is Liam Kelly and Robby McCrorie are two highly rated young goalkeepers but aren't at right level yet and it is no good for a young keeper not to get regular football so they can both go out on loan.
Moving into the defence, Clint Hill arrived from QPR amidst a cloud of slight bemusement from the support in parts due to his age. This isn't to say the fan base doesn't support Warburton - it clearly does - but supporters have a right to an opinion as long as it's channelled in the correct way. So far, Hill has played in the Annan and East Stirling games and looked solid in both matches. Nevertheless, I'd suggest that he is there for back up but can pass on top experience and be able to fill in if needed. Another first choice centre back may be agreeable though.
Nevertheless, despite hearing regularly that Wilson and Kiernan can't be the central defensive pairing due to their inconsistency, I honestly think Warburton still sees them as his main pairing for this season. And with the astute signings of natural holding players in Joey Barton and Jordan Rossiter, I feel our back four (or two depending on how you view us tactically) will be far better protected this season. We must also remember the expansive way we play means we'll never be water tight at the back. If Rob and Danny talk more and interact well with the holding player then we will be in a good shape to paraphrase Warburton. Kiernan can be the more attacking central defender whilst Wilson can act as the covering, deeper player.
Lee Hodson on a free from MK Dons isn't a signing to excite supporters as such but from what I have seen of him he isn't afraid of a tackle and is positionally very solid. Obviously, with the way we ask the wing backs to bomb up and down the wing I'd always advocate Tavernier to start ahead of him and to be fair to Lee, he has said as much but if either Waldo or Tavernier go through a poor spell he is an able replacement and that should push both players on.
Coming now to a real signing of intent Joey Barton's arrival was something many supporters had put down as a ridiculous rumour (I'll include myself in that) however his arrival is a major coup for us. if we're honest, he's had an eventful career and a player I certainly hated in his early days but he has matured massively in recent years and his footballing ability is often lost on people who only think of him as a bruising no-nonsense midfielder. I often felt we were too soft and nice last season so this signing will help and as much as I like Andy Halliday, his positional sense as a holding midfielder leaves much to be desired.
In his first start against Stranraer at Ibrox Joey was very comfortable. OK, it's perhaps no great thing against the lower quality of Stranraer with the greatest of respect but he did his job well, he was always available for a pass, sprayed the ball on a few occasions (such as the switch to McKay that subsequently won us the penalty) and he was positionally good. Bigger tests will come but it was a good first start.
The youngest arrival, and the first of the Warburton reign to earn a four year deal upon signing, is Liverpudlian Jordan Rossiter. He wasn't getting enough football at Liverpool and despite them offering him a new deal and rumours of interest from Tottenham and Udinese, Jordan completed his move to Rangers before heading to Germany for the England U19 Championship where he had a good tournament before losing to Italy 2-1 in the semi finals with him captaining the side on that occasion. Jordan has in the past been likened to Steven Gerrard and it is a link that was being talked about by our supporters though, for people who have had the chance to watch him regularly, he is completely different. In my opinion he doesn't play as a box to box midfielder like Gerrard but Rossiter's strengths come from his excellent positional sense, passing ability, reading of the game and strong will to win the ball back which is perfect as a pivot/double pivot. At only 19 years of age, many have him pegged as a back up or understudy to Barton however I feel he will be a key player quite quickly. The central midfield is arguably the most hotly contested battle for places throughout our squad but I also feel a tactical switch to 4-2-3-1 and a double pivot may happen in tough away games like Celtic, Aberdeen and Hearts. Jordan could also play as the holding midfielder whilst Joey could be pushed to the box to box role in some games if Warburton wished to accommodate both players. It's hard to tell what will happen in terms of line ups in some areas as we have now so many options but that is a great problem to have and one which I'm sure Warburton wishes he had at times last season.
Another top capture is Niko Kranjcar who is a classy technical player who has just lost his way. However, despite some valid doubts over his signing, some early exciting contributions has already found him a place in the hearts of supporters and, let's be honest, he's bloody handsome isn't he!? In all seriousness he's another statement of intent; rival fans can say what they want that he's “a washed up waster, signed from the backwaters of America” but there isn't many that can do what he can do with the ball or manipulate opposition with such ease. His main battle I feel will be getting up to full fitness and staying at that level but if he can do that we have a gem of a footballer. As Warburton has mentioned you don't get 80 caps for Croatia without being a top player and I loved his interview after the Stranraer game when Niko said the following:
“These people, the fans of this football club have suffered for a long time unfortunately, and they deserve nothing less than 100% commitment to achieve the goal that we have set out for ourselves and that is wining the championship.”
Also in midfield, Josh Windass and Matt Crooks join from Accrington Stanley. Josh has come in and been very lively getting a goal against Charleston Battery in pre-season and then a goal against East Stirling. He'll need to keep his performance to a high standard to get in the first 11 but given he can play as 8,10 or wide, I feel he has a big future and is a fast and direct runner so gives us another type of option.
Unfortunately, Matt Crooks has been out injured for a while and isn't due back for another few weeks but he placed in the top 10 League Two players of the season, is a strong footballer and has ability, but I haven't seen enough of him to judge.
Now we come to our latest signing Joe Dodoo signed from Premier League champions Leicester. Yeah I can't quite believe I've written that either but he didn't quite fully break in to their first team although he made a couple of appearances mainly in the cup competitions with a hat-trick against Bury. He was linked with a move to Arsenal last summer but what I've seen of him in his brief appearances for us I'd say he looks more comfortable wide, can take a man on and generally I would like to see more of the young man.
We have made many top signings and we have done great work without spending a massive deal on transfer fees. Warburton reportedly asked for a greater proportion of our budget to go towards to wages so has been backed by the board in that sense. We are still interested in another centre back to add competition and it seems a striker is also wanted. If we get those deals right I'm very optimistic for this season and our return.
Although we have added so much quality I still feel our best and most influential player is Barrie McKay. I put together a Gersnet profile on him in January (see here) however his development has been quite stunning. His first touch is up there with the best I have ever seen for his age and he now has a bit of a swagger about his play he never had before. Now he knows he can beat his man so loves to take players on and isn't afraid of hitting it from outside of the box.
Craig Gordon mentioned his semi-final wonder goal was a one-off strike but he's now done it against Hibs and Annan as well showing beating Gordon was no fluke. I have a lot of time for Barrie and can't wait to see more of him this season. It may be he has aspirations of a move to the English Premier League, however if we were to be able to tie him down to a longer deal it would be one of our best signings.
The likes of Martyn Waghorn and James Tavernier should both have big seasons as well and Waghorn has started well with four goals in three games whilst Tavernier's goal against Motherwell was also a stunner but we now have quality throughout the squad and shouldn't need to rely on these two as much.
At times last season we would sit off teams when they had the ball but from the few games so far this term, especially in wide areas, we press very high. In doing this we give opposition players less time to think, look to cut off their passing opportunities, resulting in mistakes and us winning the ball back very quickly. In the centre of the pitch we can be more combative too but you also run risk of losing shape so pressing in packs high in wide areas is making us look very impressive.
I have also noticed that largely we are playing with a higher tempo and moving the ball much faster which was something I had urged last season. Switches of play to wide players are now more accurate and when you have the likes of Barrie McKay with his first touch it's a ploy that can exploit and overload an area. We will still largely play a short passing game with very technical players asked to play passes through the lines, however if you play this at a low tempo the problem is the opposition (already sitting deep) can usually regroup and suffocate our play. With that in mind, my preferred team would be as follows: (4-3-3) Foderingham, Tavernier, Kiernan, Wilson, Wallace, Barton, Rossiter, Kranjcar, Forrester, Waghorn, McKay.
To conclude, get it out of your head that we should go for top three or four, or that coming second but 20 or more points away is an option. It isn't and these players share the supporters opinion that 55 is a very realistic possibility this season. Further, when a club is as together as ours is right now, it can be an unstoppable force. I would though say though that finishing second in the league and giving them a scare would be acceptable and if that happened we need to give the team and coaching staff more time to improve us further. I'd also say that patience will be key this season: we need to fully trust the team, accept our passing philosophy and not moan to go direct or launch every corner in the box. This clearly won't happen so we need get used to it given the 12th man can be so vital in tough games - let's get behind the team, not on their backs!
Let's go for 55 together! Ready!
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