There was a collective sigh as the embattled ground saw the first shoots of spring and the warming rays of the sun. It was one of the worst winters on record, with blizzards battering the length of the United Kingdom, and the public were relieved to see the light at the end of the tunnel. On the 25th of April, 1891, Rangers welcomed Dumbarton to Ibrox Park for game 16 of the 18-game season. A crowd of 12,000 saw Rangers claim the points, winning 4-2 thanks to goals from McPherson, McCreadie, Hislop and Kerr. Finishing level on points, Rangers and Dumbarton would go on to draw a play-off decider 2-2, ensuring that the first Scottish Championship was shared.
It would be the first of many league titles as Rangers would carve an illustrious history, laden with silverware. Meanwhile, The Sons -- derived from the phrase 'Sons of The Rock', a term used to describe those born in the town of Dumbarton, under the rock -- despite going on to win the second Scottish Championship the following year, never reached the same heights, and settled into a position of mediocrity outside the top flight.
Fifty-four top league titles and 125 years later, Rangers and Dumbarton square-up again with another title at stake; this time 50,000 will watch Rangers go for the lesser prize of the Scottish Championship. It comes at the end of a particularly difficult period for Rangers as the club has fought to regain its rightful place at the top of Scottish football after being demoted to the fourth tier in 2012. In the wider context of the history of Rangers, the Championship title is nothing special, but after four years of turmoil, both on and off the pitch, it represents another priceless step completed.
In the narrower context of this season, the match comes at the beginning of a series of 'big' games, where the proverbial eyes could quite easily be taken off the ball. This contest also comes at the start of a gruelling run of four matches within two weeks, including a Petrofac Challenge Cup Final and an Old Firm game. A young and inexperienced 'Gers side has never dealt with a series of fixtures of this import so, despite these games not being at the level that the fans are used to, it does represent a new challenge.
The Sons have shown indifferent form over the past two months. An excellent victory against Hibs and a draw against Falkirk -- arguably two of the best sides in the league -- have been the only high points in series of games that has seen them lose five of their last nine, including a 6-0 mauling at the hands of Queen of the South. The results against Hibs and Falkirk suggest that have some ability when they get it right.
Rangers' form has also been inconsistent of late. Coming off a 15 game unbeaten run, Rangers have lost to Falkirk, narrowly beat Queen of the South and drew last weekend against Raith. The most worrying aspect is the nine goals conceded in those three games. The only upside is that goals-scored remain abundant, with nine goals also scored in the last three. With the end in sight, Rangers seem to be stuttering and stumbling towards the title.
The head-to-head has been the most one-sided of any match-up this season. In the three games played thus far, Rangers have won all three, scoring 12 goals. Invariably well organised, Dumbarton frustrated Rangers in the first game before eventually falling to two Waghorn goals, then goals at important times (just before and then just after the break) opened the floodgates in the next two meetings, paving the way for 4-0 and 0-6 victories.
Dumbarton generally set up with a 4-4-2, but have experimented with a narrow 4-1-2-1-2 formation recently. A solid defence includes the veteran Frazer Wright (once of Kilmarnock and St. Johnstone) and former Motherwell and Scotland prospect Steven Saunders while the seasoned campaigner Darren Barr strengthens the midfield. The powerful Christian Nade -- fresh from his March Player Of The Month award -- and experienced Paul Heffernan lead the line; a somewhat immobile front two, but both can provide a serious threat at set-pieces. There are no new injury worries.
Rangers, likewise, have no new injury worries (outwith the long-term absences of Templeton and Waghorn) and no after-effects from the recent international call-ups for the younger players.
There will be no change in the formation, with the 4-3-3 used in every game this season. With almost every player available, I predict the same line-up as started against Raith. The game is there to be won and the prize self-evident, so the defensive aspect of Ball's game is unnecessary. Thus, I'd retain the following team:
Dumbarton are invariably well-organised and can provide a strong test for our offensive line, but with the prize of Premiership football next season it's important that we finish the job. A series of 'big' games in the space of a fortnight could easily be a dangerous distraction for our young and inexperienced side. Moreover, despite being in poor form, Dumbarton can pose a danger as their results against Falkirk and Hibs indicate.
Silverware is the prize at the end of tomorrow's game; it's there waiting to be taken. It may not be the league title we want, but it is vital. The history of Rangers is synonymous with silverware. More importantly, it represents another stage completed in our struggle to regain our place in the top flight; and one more step towards league title number 55. In the immortal words of Winston Churchill: "Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
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