How Are Rangers Doing in the Third Division?

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In amongst the drivel, the
pettiness, the hate, the baggage and the utter nonsense accompanying Scottish
football this season, there have, staggeringly, been actual matches played. Now
deep into January, and Rangers have played 21 games in the Irn Bru Scottish
Third Division, so it seems quite appropriate to dissect it and appraise the
performance of the players, and of course, the manager.
First off, let us summarise the
current table: Rangers top the division by an incredible 19 points, their
nearest rivals being Queens
Park on 33 points who
have 2 games in hand. Pause for a moment. 19 points. That is over 6 victories
ahead of the Hampden side. It would be astonishing enough to be nearly 20
points ahead come May, but to possess that lead just over halfway through the
season is almost embarrassing. It is not only embarrassing to the league the
club plays in, but it is embarrassing given Rangers have not won every single
match. Far from it.
However, starting at the
beginning, and the first thing to recall was how utterly shambolic the Ibrox
side’s away form actually was. Until Clyde on
the 28th of October, Rangers had amassed a grand total of zero wins on their
travels, and it was becoming something of a mental block. By the same token all
home games up to this point had been fairly resounding triumphs. Thankfully the
Govan men finally broke their travelling duck at Broadwood with a tough 2-0
win.
Today those away day blues are a
thing of the past and while sometimes victories have to be ‘ground out’, they are
nigh-on guaranteed. That horror show in Stirling when defeat was meted out by Albion on October the 6th was the last failure to win
away. So that has clearly been turned around, and the home record is nearly
100% – just that solitary draw recently with Elgin as the only blot on the copybook.
So, the stats on the report card
would appear to suggest the side has gotten to grips with the league and
comfortably lead. Well, that is true
but it is also arguably debatable.
In terms of player performance it
is a very mixed bag – the uniformly wonderful displays from the likes of Lee
McCulloch and his namesake Wallace, along with the impressive rise to
prominence from youngsters Barrie McKay and Lewis MacLeod have been a joy to
witness. They have shone tremendously and look leagues apart from the Third
Division. Fraser Aird, while featuring less than his youth colleagues, has also
been extremely good and scored a stunning winner at Hampden. Goalkeeper Neil
Alexander has been thoroughly non-descript, his only moment of mention being
that woeful fumble which gifted Elgin
said point. Otherwise he has been more or less what he has needed to be.
Unfortunately there is a downside.
Supposedly ‘experienced’ SPL stalwarts such as Ian Black, Francisco Sandaza,
Dean Shiels and David Templeton have been a very patchy bunch indeed. Black has
struggled to dominate midfield in the manner we recognise from his Hearts days,
while Shiels and Templeton have been extremely inconsistent. Sandaza has
improved significantly in recent weeks but he still requires more goals to
prove his worth. Kevin Kyle has shown some decent bite in attack as a target man but his progress has been thoroughly curtailed through injury so it is hard to judge him. Overall, as SPL players though, really rather underwhelming.
Rangers’ own experienced SPL
‘youth’ players like Andy Little, Kyle Hutton and Ross Perry have also been hit
and miss – the former exploded brilliantly in the early stage of the season
with goal after goal, but thanks to injury he has struggled to maintain form. Midfielder
Hutton has been fairly indifferent, not unlike his senior colleague Black,
while defender Perry has plain struggled this season with the switch from
fringe player to first-team regular. Darren Cole barely featured and was sadly
carted off with injury when he got a chance, and Robbie Crawford has been
sparingly used – but pretty impressive when utilised. Chris Hegarty has been adequate
but not shone.
As for the ‘big foreign signings’
they have been almost entirely poor. Anestis Argyriou has been used mostly as a
right-back cum right winger and seems a tad off the pace of the league – he
also does not appear to have cultivated a significant understanding with his
colleagues. Indeed he was hooked at half time in Elgin on the 22nd of last
month and has not featured in the squad at all since then – whether or not
injury is hampering him is unclear but he was supposedly available on the 28th
and despite speculation over him competing with Hegarty for the RB slot, the
Greek did not even make the bench.
Brazilian Emilson Cribari was
frankly hopeless last calendar year, and while he has moderately improved to
the point where he does not appear to look completely lost any more, he is
still a massive disappointment for a former Napoli
defender. He is not the classy stopper his reputation hinted at. And Francesco
Stella disappointed so badly manager Ally McCoist let him go without even playing
him.
And what of Ally McCoist? Well after struggling initially with formations,
team selections and tactical approaches he seems to have grasped it rather
well. While the team fails to play consistently flowing football away from home
thanks, in place, to hatchet-jobs being administered by over-eager opponents,
it tends to dominate at Ibrox. Ally has put together a pretty consistent team
now, and while no one would pretend it would challenge for the SPL in its
current guise, he has seemingly settled on a pretty robust 3-man midfield and
3-pronged attack which is at ease in the league.
There are still dissenters
regarding McCoist’s performance – given this is Rangers in the Third Division
some seem to expect Barcelona-esque displays at all times. I would probably
consider myself guilty of such demands prior to the league beginning but I
learned very quickly the division is a much higher standard than initially
anticipated – the gap between the SPL and Div 3 is far smaller than I
previously thought. Consequently it is an impressive testament to McCoist’s
improving performances that not only are the club 19 points ahead at such an
early stage, but even the players who are not quite peaking in terms of
performance are being helped by their team-mates and the tactics.
We expected a landslide. We are
getting one. It might not be with premier-quality football at all times but it
is getting the job done very well. While these extraordinary circumstances
should be measured differently to ‘normality’, the report has to read ‘-B’ for
the players and ‘A’ for McCoist.