Well this is it. It really is crunch time for Mark Warburton’s Rangers in its fledgling campaign to get back to the Premiership, and last night another piece of the jigsaw came into effect when Dundee confirmed themselves, at a canter, as Rangers’ quarter final opponents in the Scottish Cup on March 5th.
And when I say ‘crunch time’, the last fixture of February and the entire month of March is by some distance the most testing period of Warbs’ maiden season at Ibrox.
At a glance, St Mirren come to Govan, followed by fixtures against Raith, Dundee, Morton, Falkirk and, once again, Queen of the South. Hibs would have been in there too but for that clash to be moved for broadcast purposes.
Looking at that glut of matches, there really is no ‘easy’ one at all. No Dumbartons, Alloas or Livingstons. It is all tough upper Championship and Premiership opponents, and it is far and away the biggest and most valid test yet for this Rangers squad’s Premiership credentials.
Six meaty matches, including that cup quarter final, which will probably define whether or not Warbs’ outfit has the guts within it to take that step up into the top tier of Scottish football.
Fans have been far from happy with displays recently, with even results themselves rather underwhelming; thus this tricky upcoming patch could have picked a better time to begin.
But if we want to see what this team is really made of, they will have to start answering the difficult questions the likes of Dundee and Falkirk will undoubtedly pose.
Warburton himself is also under the microscope – after being disappointed with the team’s performance against the Doonhamers, he needs to lift them up, and show that he can do that, and get his side ticking along again – because a great number of questions are once again being asked about the quality of the squad and his ability to manage hard games.
And having six in a row is the most illustrative example of what both he and this squad is able to deliver.
Naturally, of course, all discussion of Rangers’ Premiership credentials does take summer changes in the squad into consideration, and the notion that some improvements will be made to cater for the step up. But chairman Dave King and Warburton have gone on record as stating this existing squad has been built for immediate graduation to Scotland’s top flight – that they wanted to bring in players ‘ready’ for the SPL.
And while that probably is not completely 100% accurate (expect further additions of a higher quality this summer), it certainly is not too far off, so this team has to show it is capable against sides the calibre of the next six Rangers are up against.
It will be an intriguing period, a testing time, and ultimately if Rangers still have a reasonable lead at the top of the Championship come the end of it, a valuable one.
But it is up to the players and the manager to deliver that.