Ian Black is no Longer a Gamble

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Like so many players in the
summer of 2012, Ian Black was effectively a last-minute no-planning panic buy.
While his reputation was one of a very decent Hearts midfielder, he had
notoriety attached too in the eyes of most Rangers fans given his scything challenge
on Nikica Jelavic which left the Croat out of action for 3 months.
However, last summer, due to an
exodus of more or less the entire first-team squad bar Alexander, Little,
McCulloch, Perry and Wallace, replacements were urgently needed. A glut of
players came in, with a number of them accompanied by big SPL reputations such
as Kyle, Black, Shiels, Sandaza and Templeton.
None of these players had
remotely impressive seasons with Rangers last year, with two being
acrimoniously released. However, it was Ian Black for whom most ire was
reserved. While Sandaza had failed to set the Ibrox heather on fire and had
been demonised by ‘that’ phone call which led to his sacking, it was Black who arguably
attracted the most criticism.
A stalwart at Hearts, Black’s
ability was conspicuous by its absence at Rangers in 2012/2013 with decent
displays a rarity. Indeed, he became more of a ‘villain’ in the eyes of many,
myself included, with an incredibly poor temperament plus the ignominy of the
epitome of said volatility when he was sent off after a tempestuous cup match
at Dundee Utd.
For so many fans, this was the
final straw, and they would have been glad to see his exit from the club at
this point.
His glaring inability to grab
games, to hold solidly, to play like the tough, dominant midfielder we had
expected stood out like a sore thumb, and indeed midfield partner Lewis MacLeod
was the player receiving the plaudits. Not Black. Black seemed more concerned
with getting booking after booking, albeit he was admittedly targeted for
particularly heavy treatment from opposition players given his own ‘hatchet
man’ image.
To put it bluntly, Ian Black’s
first season at Ibrox was a shambles, and many would have been overjoyed had he
been offloaded during the summer window.
Fast-forward to Saturday the 28th
of September 2013. After an 8-0 demolition of Stenhousemuir, third in League 1
going into the match, a result which has made much of the Scottish football
world realise this club they despise so much is on its way back, slowly but
surely, it has become clear Ian Black may just be the first name on the team
sheet.
There is admittedly the issue of
captain McCulloch in that context, but for sheer performance, Ian Black has
been an absolute standout.
Let us try to ignore the gambling
nonsense – it was a mistake and he paid for it, pun not intended. Let us
instead focus on how extraordinarily good he has been for Rangers this season.
Along with Nicky Law he makes Rangers tick. It is no coincidence that this
pairing generates all that is good on the pitch for the team.
Black keeps it simple; clean,
quick passes, covering grass and acting every inch the ‘destroyer’ the
defensive midfield position demands. He makes excellent use of the ball,
effortlessly breaks up opposition play, and works in total synchronicity with
Law, also allowing MacLeod to blossom beautifully.
There is no coincidence Rangers
did not play at their best during his 3-match ban, and indeed struggled at
times despite coming through the matches with wins. Add him back into the
equation and the team absolutely steamrolled a genuine League 1 championship
rival.
However, maybe the biggest secret
of Black is his set-piece delivery. His quality from dead-balls is exquisite, with
him expertly placing the ball on Jon Daly’s scalp for the first goal of the
Irishman’s 4. That kind of delivery has been painfully absent for a long time,
and it is a consummate pleasure to see it return.
The first sign of Black’s
renaissance came at Cliftonhill. While Nicky Law became an instant hit thanks
to his two goals in this first round Ramsden’s Cup match V Albion Rovers, there
was real surprise at the nature of Black’s display. Gone was the hot-blooded
fiery temperament, and the anonymity of his football, and in their place was a
cool, calm, and collected central midfielder who was clinical, effective, and
concise.
He gained a great deal of praise,
albeit not as superlative-ridden as Law did, but aforementioned admiration has
grown and with the way the side struggled in his absence, his presence on
Saturday, which led to the highest score in Britain this weekend, attracted
rave reviews. While most of the team had an excellent match, it was Black’s
renewed partnership with Law which caused the rest to improve drastically.
If we recall, the previous match
was that painful visit to Station
Park in Forfar where the
Bears scraped a 1-0 win over the bottom-placed team despite a truly awful
performance. 6 days later, an utter crushing of the third place team which saw
maybe the best display since the club exited admin.
The only personnel change in
these matches was Steven Smith benched from left wing to make way for Black’s
return. Otherwise exactly the same team. The gulf in performance was almost
comical, but showed the impact Black had on the display.
I am of the school where if a
player proves himself to me, he can change my opinion of him. I have an open
mind, and I believe many fellow fans have the same. From Black’s near-scapegoat
nature last season to his borderline-heroic one this, it is an amazing
turnaround for a player many would have driven out of Ibrox themselves last
season.
I shuddered last season every
time I saw him on the team sheet.
This season I shudder when he is
not.