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From Scarred to Scary

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We are the national champions. We have reached the last 16 of continental competition in each of the last two seasons. We put Galatasaray out the Europa League six months ago. Cove are part-time. They were playing Highland League football a minute ago - one of their players was realising a childhood dream just stepping onto the Ibrox turf: Yet all our players wanted to do was destroy.

At 1-0 to Rangers on Sunday, as Premier Sports’ Setanta-liveried clock shows the 29th minute fading into the 30th, Kemar Roofe doesn’t get as much as he wants on a layoff to Scott Wright. A move begun with a gracefully piercing ball round the corner from Steven Davis, deep in Cove’s half of the centre circle, is successfully intercepted.

It’s the kind of moment which, pre-Covid, elicits a grumble or even a howl of impatience from an Ibrox crowd. Even this season, with that crowd watching from our sofas, social media can still convey a self-defeating roar of opprobrium.

Sometimes we moan because we’re scared the game isn’t going our way. Often we’re worried what Celtic-supporting workmates might say the next day. Mostly we’re just scared for our team, afraid they won’t show the world exactly how great we know they are.

On Easter Sunday 2021, none of the above applied.

By the time Kemar Roofe slightly overcooks that wee ball to Scott Wright, there is already little doubt about Rangers winning this game. Nevertheless what happens next, as that on-screen clock strikes 28:54, is frightening.

The Cove player caught in Roofe and Wright’s inside-left sandwich won’t go any further but lunges at the ball so forcefully it fires, lightning quick, straight to a team-mate, ten yards up the pitch. That team-mate has time to turn and face the Rangers half. Filip Helander goes through him.

As he’s fouled, this second Cove lad lays it off to another team-mate. Before this third Cove player can do anything with it, Filip Helander floors him too.

Our Serie A-seasoned Sweden centre-half is still hunting the stray ball as Kevin Clancy’s whistle sounds. The pitch is littered with bodies of white-shirted opponents. Kemar Roofe is already behind Fil, covering, on the half-way line. The clock is at 28:58.

It’s a harrowing four seconds; harrowing for everyone except Steven Gerrard’s Rangers.

Whatever it is Cove do with the resultant free kick, we have the ball in their net within a minute. Calvin Bassey relentlessly bullies and harasses the entire visiting defence until they surrender the ball to Jermain Defoe, scorer of the opener, poised to feed off such scraps.

A contemptuous ball across the face of the box to the feet of Scotty Arfield; shot parried by an overwhelmed Cove goalkeeper: Roofe is yet again exactly where he needs to be. And fifty seconds later our Walsall Whirlwind has a brace.

Our other reserve wingback hunts in our half like Bassey in Cove’s, circumventing a charge up our right. Clearly, if our goalkeeper has to make a save today the Rangers outfield will commit hara-kiri.

Nathan Patterson powers down to the other end like a man whose career has always been on the line. Wright and Arfield play dizzying one-twos: Roofe moves like a ghost and slams home like the Hulk. It’s Game Over after barely half an hour.

In the opening minutes Defoe missed an open goal from two yards. Another chance came off the inside of Cove’s post. What’s expected when Rangers play a lower league side? No. We’re expected to dominate possession and to win. But in Sunday’s frantic opening 20 minutes our creativity was so overpoweringly violent even our strikers couldn’t tame it.

In the minute after our third goal, Bassey is booked for fouling a Cove player who dared to get over our half-way line and seconds later Steven Davis - Mr Nice Guy himself, the most capped British player of all time – spins another Cove Ranger into the air for even looking at the Copland Road Stand.

We started this game gifting Cove a pennant to commemorate the first competitive meeting of the two clubs. We ended it before half-time by again stealing the ball at the edge of their box. Our 19-year-old right wingback, showing the SFA why they need him more than Rangers need them, swooped like a ravenous hawk on a rabbit-like defender and netted with the outside of his right foot, like a European Championships finalist.

It turns out that famous quote from the Duke of Wellington about his troops – “I don’t know what they do to the enemy but, by god, they scare the hell out of me” – either wasn’t said by the Duke of Wellington or wasn’t about his troops. But my team – Steven Gerrard’s players – scared the sh*t out me yesterday with their first-half intensity. God knows what it did to everyone hoping we might be easing up now 55 is in the bag.

We’d failed to win, or even lead during any of our first three games after officially sealing the Premiership title. They were three difficult games – Parkhead following home and away to Slavia. No disgrace at all and, to be honest, given how much the decade-long quest for 55 had drained me as a mere fan, I would have had little problem if my team slacked off for the rest of this campaign.

My only fear would have been perception – it would be unfair on fans and players if we don’t cement this glorious season by finishing on another high - and potential bleed-through to next season: by 22nd May Celtic, our only challengers for domestic domination, could be on the rise again if we let them take our unbeaten league record and/or give Scott Brown his fifth straight Scottish Cup as a send-off.

Moreover, our first Scottish Cup match of the last two seasons, following on from winter breaks after seminal Old Firm wins, came against much poorer sides than Cove. Yet we laboured against Cowdenbeath in 2019 and Stranraer last year. Both games signalled the collapse of our domestic campaign.

What we saw this Sunday, however, following an international break after a horrible European defeat, was the complete opposite. It was a mesmerising combination of forensic skill and a work ethic approaching bloodlust. All it signals is our players and our club again have that insatiable taste for victory which made Rangers the club we are.

Steven Gerrard is fighting the SFA attempt to ban his players. He barely acknowledged opposing manager Paul Hartley yesterday, pre- and post-match. There was a lovely tension between our gaffer and Defoe in the Premier Sports post-match interviews. The very fact of drawing Celtic in the next round of the Cup, a few hours before kick-off, filled our entire staff with a palpable need to rip into someone, something - anything.

And our Man of the Match, Scott Wright, is talking about how much muscle he’s gained since he arrived at Ibrox. Downing tools? We’re more about pumping iron.

We look like a club with nine more wins in us on the park in 2020-21 and a singular ambition off it. While everyone else in Scotland wants their summer holidays, Rangers are clearly on a war footing. After a decade of familiarity with turmoil and doubt, that’s frighteningly reassuring.

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