At last! After almost two months of frustration and annoyance since Hibs beat us in the Scottish Cup Final, season 2016/17 is upon us.
This summer, we start the new campaign with another domestic cup match: this time it's the newly formatted Betfred League Cup and we travel to Fir Park for the first time in just over a year to play Motherwell at 3pm on Saturday. Moreover, this opening live TV match is quickly followed by games against Annan, East Stirling and Stranraer to complete our group section matches. Four games in nine days is a tough schedule but a great opportunity for the manager to utilise his whole squad and a few of the new players he's brought in during the close season.
Indeed, if we go back to the last time we played Motherwell, only three players survive from the squad that featured in that play-off match. Lee Wallace, Kenny Miller and Tom Walsh all played but none were able to deliver a positive result. Fortunately Wallace and Miller were able to turn around their and our fortunes last season while Walsh, despite starting our first league match, spent the season on loan at Dumbarton as Mark Warburton sought regular football for the forward. Since that Championship winning season ended, various players have left while eight have already come in - with another two or three likely as the league season draws closer.
Starting with Saturday's game, as much as Mark Warburton will see this is as game two in our pre-season program, events at Fir Park in May 2015 will mean a huge travelling support will be looking for a good performance and result on Saturday. As such, although some players will be unavailable, we can expect a strong Rangers line-up.
After a disappointing end to our league season earlier in the year, the manager has understandably added depth to a defence that struggled at times. Our first choice five of Foderingham, Tavenier, Kiernan, Wilson and Wallace all did well for periods but were also culpable with regard to the concession of cheap goals - especially from defensive set-pieces. The signature of the Clint Hill shows the management team have recognised our lack of organisation in such situations so the experienced former QPR player may well prove useful over the course of the new season. Full-back Lee Hodson has also come in on a free transfer but it's unlikely he'll be involved for another week or two due to his exertions in France for Northern Ireland. Meanwhile former Scotland 'keeper Matt Gilks has replaced Cammy Bell but will most likely be our second choice goalie - though it would be good if Foderingham was pushed harder in that respect.
Moving forward in midfield and this is an area of the team that has seen most changes over the summer. Not only have we seen Law, Shiels and Templeton leave, several more have come in. For the vast majority of last season, the manager opted for three men in the central roles and this should remain the case this term. In fact it's going to prove very difficult to predict exactly who will feature from game to game but it's great to have more strength in depth.
MW: tomorrow is too early for Joey but you might see Niko.— Rangers FC (@RangersFC) July 15, 2016
On Saturday, as you can see above the manager has said this game is too soon for our main signing Joey Barton to start in the defensive midfield role usually frequented by Andy Halliday so the latter should start. In front of him, we have a luxury of over five players who can take the creative lead in the centre of the park: Halliday can play further forward whilst Jason Holt and Harry Forrester both had effective début seasons. Add in new signings Josh Windass and Niko Kranjcar then that's five - though even Barrie McKay and Tom Walsh can play there too.
MW: Wes will start tomorrow & Matt Gilks will come in on Tuesday, so will Lee Hodson and Josh Windass to start— Rangers FC (@RangersFC) July 15, 2016
Despite an impressive game against Charleston Battery, the manager has also suggested Dean Windass is more likely to start in the next game against Annan whilst Forrester may have to settle for a place on the bench tomorrow as he returns to full fitness. Unfortunately, Matt Crooks is still some way from making his début after an ankle operation in early May. Jordan Rossiter is also in Germany with England for the Under 19 Euro 2016 Championships.
A feature of our attacking play last season was some 129 goals over 50 games. Before his injury Martyn Waghorn was prolific whilst Kenny Miller had a fine season, especially after the New Year. Add in Ryan Hardie's impressive loan at Raith Rovers and the versatility of Michael O'Halloran then we're reasonably well off - as it stands - up front. Nevertheless, the manager remains keen to bring in at least one more striker and Waghorn's injury last season shows how important such a signing may well prove to be. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of our early season matches may be how Warburton sets up his attack. McKay is arguably first choice on the left (but will be a week or two behind others in terms of fitness due to his Scotland international travels) but will Waghorn play on the right or centrally? Can Miller really keep up his form or will O'Halloran hit the ground running as he attempts to live up to the £500,000 fee we paid for his services?
All in all, the manager certainly isn't without options as the season begins. Four games in nine days certainly allows for experimentation - perhaps more so against the lower league sides - but all concerned will be eager for a bright start to 2016/17. Interestingly, only the eight group winners (plus the four best-placed runners up) progress to the last 16 so the pressure is certainly on the squad to deliver early doors if we're to have a chance of winning our 28th League Cup. In terms of our overall aims though, winning the domestic trophies may well be of lower priority to challenging Celtic for the SPFL Premiership title and our expectations will be interesting in that respect.
Thus far our signings indicate a manager keen to improve the experience of his squad but also retain a core of younger players to challenge over the longer term. Even so, Lincoln Red Imps (as well as Hearts and Aberdeen) have shown Celtic can be pushed hard, no matter the level of resource. With over 41,000 season tickets sold, up to ten new players brought in and the management team secured until 2019, our resources are certainly good enough to deliver a genuine contest. Yes, we may not be the favourites and our expectations must be appropriately tempered but more progress should be assumed with a hunger for genuine success imperative. As we start our push for our 55th top level title, we have to be realistic in what can be achieved but I'm looking forward to a renewed focus from all at the club to show that Rangers are back and we will be second to no-one.
Bring it on!
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