"When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars."
HAMPDEN -- It is easy to become lost in the many details of a season, lost in the nitty-gritty of churning out results, that we can forget what Rangers is all about: winning trophies. These last few years have been a journey, and in many ways the steps taken are unimportant and forgettable, for nothing matters except completing that journey. But in other ways the steps are important. When we look back we tend to forget the details, but, among the memories of particular goals, moments, players, it is the trophies claimed that give shape to our history. The Challenge Cup may indeed be a trinket in comparison to many past accolades, but it is a another trophy to add to our glittering list, another chance to add to the history of Rangers.
Our record in this competition has been nothing short of embarrassing, failing not once or twice, but thrice to lift this trophy. With resources many times that of our competitors, it is inconceivable -- even on our worst day -- that we have not been able to succeed in this quest. Our first campaign can (maybe) be forgiven for the youthfulness of the line-up: youngsters will always be at a disadvantage against men. But to then lose in the final against Raith, then to be humbled by Alloa in Semi-final (after leading 2-0) in successive years will always bring back painful, unacceptable memories.
The Scottish Challenge Cup will never be the most prestigious of trophies, being comprised of lower league teams, but it has been a popular addition to the football calendar. Intended to run for only one season, the Challenge Cup was created in 1990 to mark the centenary of the formation of the Scottish Football League. However, due to its popularity the competition was renewed thereafter, and has since been expanded to include Highland and Lowland league sides. Giving smaller sides their only real opportunity to claim silverware, the later rounds generate relatively high attendances, with a full capacity crowd of 11,000 for the first final -- unsurprisingly this record was broken when Rangers fans attended the 2013/14 final. This record will be shattered again at 3pm on Sunday.
Rangers' route to the final began in spectacular style, with a 2-6 thrashing of Hibs in Mark Warburton's first game as manager -- a precursor for what was a blistering start to the season. Routine victories over Ayr United, Livingston and St Mirren, conceding no goals in the process, saw Rangers comfortably through to the final.
Similarly, Peterhead have eased through to the final scoring 13 goals in four games. An unexpected 3-5 victory against Falkirk being one of their most impressive results. Rory McAllister scored five goals in that game and is the competitions top scorer with seven.
The League One side are currently in the Play-offs and have a good chance of promotion, but being comfortably second to Dunfermline and unable to now win the league, they have been in poor form. In the last six games they have won only twice, losing twice. Despite possessing the leagues top goalscorer in McAllister, Peterhead have struggled to find the net of late, scoring only once in the last four games. Generally, Peterhead score quite a few goals, but also concede a lot too.
Despite a rousing, albeit narrow, win against Dumbarton to finally clinch the Championship title, Rangers have been in indifferent, almost disappointing form. The last win came after only one win in three; goals have been free-flowing, but so have the goals conceded.
The head-to-head record between the two sides is also disappointing reading for Rangers fans. Our last meeting was a 3-0 win in August of this season in the League Cup. That comfortable victory was a long way from the previous meeting: a 1-2 home defeat in the Third Division in the 2012/13 season: McCulloch's early opener was eradicated by goals from Ross and -- that man again -- Rory McAllister. In fact, our first game in the Third Division was against Peterhead, which ended in a frustrating 2-2 draw. Two subsequent victories corrected that record somewhat. Even though our pride may remember, history forgets these games. Only the fact that we won that Third Division title -- and that we've just won the Championship title to regain our rightful place in the top flight once again -- is what matters. History only remembers the trophies.
Peterhead line up with a 4-4-1-1, with McAllister being the focal point. The squad features former Rangers goalkeeper Graeme Smith, who has been a mainstay in the side over the last few years. Also present are former Celtic youngster Simon Ferry (who thereafter played for Swindon and Portsmouth), former Inverness striker Shane Sutherland and former Dundee player Nicky Riley. These players have played at a higher level, most playing over 100 games for half-decent clubs in Scotland and England. It seems over the last few games the manager has been resting several regular first-team players -- possibly with Rangers in mind? They will be well-organised, with their core group of players looking to bring all their experience to bear.
Long-term absences remain missing (Templeton, Bell and Waghorn), but otherwise there are no new injury worries for Rangers. The bench will likely see some youngsters, and it would be good to see some get experience of playing in a Cup Final. Some of the fringe players may get a run-out and we may see some players rested also, with next weeks game in mind. O'Halloran and King are cup-tied for next weeks Scottish Cup tie, so they may start on Sunday. I predict the a line-up along the following lines:
An experienced Peterhead side will be well-organised and shrewd in everything they do; and Rory McAllister leading the line will always be a threat if we're not careful. It will be an opportunity to correct some of the bad results against 'The Blue Toon' over the last few years. Peterhead will be well rested and up for the game, but we are undoubtedly favourites.
For many, the Challenge Cup represents just another step in the journey, a mere curiosity. But perhaps, it's another opportunity to add another trophy to our glittering history. It may not be as prestigious as the Scottish Cup or Premiership title, but it is a trophy nonetheless. And what is the history of Rangers without trophies?
Like Whitman's "learn'd astronomer", frustrated by his everyday routine, it's only when he takes a step back and gazes up at the stars that he remembers why he does what he does. When we look back in years to come, at the many gleaming accolades accumulated, both prestigious and not, we can look back "in perfect silence", and smile. It won't matter what it is, as long as it adorns our trophy room; it will be just another layer in the long, illustrious history of Rangers.
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