It's far from easy to win the Scottish Championship. Ally McCoist couldn't do it. Neither could Stuart McCall or Alan Stubbs. Highly thought of young managers such as Alex Rae and Ian Murray struggled with their teams and even the 'remarkable human being' Neil Lennon isn't guaranteed to win it this year either. After all, tonight's visitors Queen of the South are ahead of them in the table and the Leith side also travel to Dumfries on Saturday.
One man that has done it though is Mark Warburton. The Rangers manager achieved this quite comfortably in his first season in charge. Early wins against our main challengers Hibs and Falkirk gave his new look side (and style) a great start and the team never really looked back. Sure there were stumbles along the way but by the time the title was clinched in early April this year, we were well clear and could afford to enjoy the rest of the campaign under no pressure. The Challenge Cup followed (hardly a glamorous feat but something we'd failed to do in the previous three years) and an victory over Celtic in the Scottish Cup was savoured by us all. Despite a poor end to the season - two draws and two defeats in our last four league matches as well defeat to Hibs in the Scottish Cup final - confidence was high Warburton could help us mount an immediate challenge upon promotion this term. This increased with the signatures of new players such as Joey Barton, Niko Kranjcar and Jordan Rossiter.
Unfortunately, the reality in the top division has been less positive. Only two wins in seven league matches and a heavy defeat away to Celtic means we're currently only in fifth position ahead of tonight's tough League Cup match. Add in a tricky trip to Aberdeen this Sunday and self-inflicted suspensions to our marquee signing Barton then the manager's extended honeymoon period is well and truly over. In fact, the Englishman is now under severe pressure with he and his players struggling to adapt to the higher standard of the Scottish Premiership.
In some ways, it's difficult to put a finger on exactly why the team are struggling. Our squad is better (and deeper) than last year, most players seem fit enough and we've looked stronger than others later in games. Indeed, we've again only had a few injuries. Despite this, we appear a yard slower than some sides and have lost our previous qualities in dominating the ball and playing with a high tempo. Worse, we're not scoring enough goals whilst still conceding far too many ourselves.
All things considered, while the players and manager can argue we're learning from this after every poor result, if we are, then it's a very slow process. Moreover, our inability to strengthen our central defence efficiently over the summer is bordering on negligent. Yes, we may have missed out on our supposed three main defensive targets (Mariappa, Tibi and Espinosa) but to be scrambling around the freebie market so late in the window doesn't reflect well on a recruitment process that had been reasonably good until then. The ongoing Joey Barton sideshow also suggests a gamble that hasn't paid off.
Unfortunately, the biggest and most simple problem is that few players are performing well enough. Josh Windass looks to be an inspired piece of scouting, Jordan Rossiter impressed before injury, James Tavernier has continued to improve at right back and Wes Foderingham has been blameless in goal. Unfortunately, the rest of the squad haven't stepped up. Yes, we've suffered from the loss of Holt and Waghorn to injury but erstwhile reliable performers such as Wallace and McKay have looked well short of form (and confidence) as well. Add in the inability of new players like Kranjcar and Barton to get up to speed then our play has been disjointed at best. No wonder then our best performance of the season (if not result) came last Saturday with a more recognised XI (and system) compared to previous games. It's no coincidence the energy and mobility of Jason Holt sparked our midfield into life. Meanwhile, although Martyn Waghorn still didn't look completely fit, I've no doubts he and Joe Garner will form the kind of relationship that will deliver goals going forward.
Onto this evening's match then and the quality of the opposition should see a strong team deployed. The manager has talked of a début for Matt Crooks (after several months out with an ankle injury) and the return from injury and suspension of Rob Kiernan, Joe Dodoo and Phillipe Senderos respectively but I can't see any of these lads starting. Warburton may be tempted into playing Lee Hodson but the quicker we get Wallace back to form the better. Similarly, whilst Clint Hill and Danny Wilson may not be our preferred first choice central pairing, they did well on Saturday so perhaps deserve another chance tonight. The threat of former Rangers player Stephen Dobbie will certainly need to be dealt with carefully. Can Kiernan and Senderos be trusted with that task?
Moving into midfield and this unit's performance was the most pleasing aspect of an otherwise disappointing 0-0 draw with Ross County. Andy Halliday looked comfortable back in the holding role whilst Holt and Windass combined well in more attacking positions. The latter in particular looks to be an exciting signing and may well be the first name on the team-sheet right now. Again the manager may fancy bringing in Forrester or Kranjcar but I'd argue finding a settled team would be more agreeable ahead of an increasingly difficult schedule.
That argument can also be applied to our attack. We have several options for the front three positions but none have really grasped the nettle in that sense. Many have shown brief glimpses of what they can offer but it's perhaps only Kenny Miller that has delivered any kind of consistency. The veteran striker will never be the most natural of goalscorers but his efforts in linking the play and helping create space often go unnoticed by his critics. In that sense, it's up to the manager to balance our attack with width, pace and goals as well. Unfortunately, McKay has looked jaded recently and perhaps needs a rest. Similarly, whilst the calls for O'Halloran to start have often been loud, when he does feature he does little to suggest he should be a first pick. Meanwhile new signings Dodoo and Garner are still finding their feet - though both look capable of supplying goals. But only if they get the supply to do so. With that in mind, should Harry Forrester be played on the wing and where do we fit in the threat of Waghorn?
All the above conundrums are difficult to answer but quick solutions must be found. Nevertheless, there's no doubt in my mind our squad is good enough to do a lot better than it has done so far this season. A realistic title challenge may be too much to ask but second place has to be the minimum we expect. However our form so far has left us scrambling for points and we're not yet out of September. Sure, it's early days and the gelling of over ten new players into our squad will take time but the clock is ticking on all concerned. The manager may not appreciate the criticism in the papers but, the less constructive stuff aside, he can't expect anything else after such a mediocre league start.
To conclude, if last year was a gentle introduction to the goldfish bowl of Scottish football, this season is definitely a belated baptism of fire for Mark Warburton. The attention placed upon him will be higher than he's ever dealt with before and it's important he reacts positively to it. He can complain about the media all he likes but he'd be better served noting the increasing impatience amongst the Rangers support. Some of that associated criticism is unfair but until his team responds with a period of good form - and results - then his successes at Brentford and last season in the Championship will look a long, time ago. I, for one, would like to hear that magic hat song again. Let's hope we do tonight...
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