They say it comes in cycles. In England, it seems a Man City era is upon us, following previous Chelsea and United ones. In Italy, Napoli appear to be picking up from Juventus, themselves following on from both Milan clubs. And in Spain we see the resurgence of Atletico Madrid pushing Barca all the way while Real flounder.
In Scotland it’s always been Rangers and Celtic. Sure, we’ve seen Aberdeen and Dundee United occasionally chip in as well, but there’s a reason Rangers and Celtic have over a hundred titles between them.
And of course since 2012 Celtic have completely dominated in Scotland, taking advantage of Rangers’ deep troubles and four-year absence from the SPL to sweep up domestically, while Rangers’ return has not produced a title rival for the Parkhead side.
At least, not till, thoroughly unexpectedly, the past two weeks.
In a staggering turnaround from even only a month ago where a title challenge was never at the back anyone’s mind never mind at the forefront of fans’ thinking, Celtic’s repeated dropped points and Rangers’ recent consistency has suddenly propelled the previously unthinkable pursuit of 55 way ahead of schedule.
Many fans, including yours truly, expected a decade of struggles before anything like a real title challenge could materialise. And yet, here we now are, 6 points behind Celtic who have to restore it to 9 with a tricky trip to Pittodrie.
Rangers’ display yesterday at Ibrox was one of champions-elect, let’s be honest. Whether we do indeed go on to lift the trophy or not, that was a team who believed they can.
It is not a vintage Rangers team, albeit January’s business has put it closer to one than any since summer 2012 by some distance, but it does have a number of players who are proving themselves to be worthy of the jersey, steered by a manager who is quite honestly defying all expectations in performance.
Where did it all change? What was the moment 55 became possible? For us, it has to be, oddly enough, a Scottish Cup match at Ayr. For Rangers to go to Britain’s highest-scoring domestic side, albeit two divisions below, and actually look like a team at the top of the SPL rather than the usual horror show against minnows demonstrated a sudden steel and ruthlessness which has been sorely missing in recent years.
Then to follow it up with an eight goal thriller which saw a deserved win even if we shipped three appalling goals showed a team capable of grinding out a victory and scoring more goals than their opponents.
That then created the pressure over yesterday – Hearts are not exactly Scotland’s in-form side but they are draw specialists and well known as being hard to beat. And yet Rangers not only handled the pressure but genuinely steamrollered them, with only the outstanding John McLaughlin preventing the Gorgie side being hammered on the scoresheet as well as the pitch.
That is the difference now, and the pivotal work seems to have been done in the January window. While Russell Martin has had his moments, and critics, yesterday showed him a bit more comfortable and Rangers were rarely troubled even if David Bates still has some work to do to win everyone over in light of his rejection of a deal.
But the other four (or five) January recruits have all been utterly outstanding. Declan John was made permanent and bar the odd weaker game here and there has been a complete upgrade over Lee Wallace. Like Tavernier he gets caught out of position now and again and isn’t the most convincing when it comes to defending, but his work over the half way line is as good as anything in the SPL.
Sean Goss has just been a revelation – derided as a ‘QPR reject’ when he first joined, a number of the fanbase were disappointed at best at his signing – oh how he has proven them wrong and become undroppable. Meanwhile Greg Docherty’s combustible, combatable and tough style in midfield has won him many admirers, a few of whom appeared on Saturday evening after vocally berating his display at the SuperSeal last week, and Jamie Murphy is just vaunted by everyone of a blue persuasion.
Jason Cummings has been incredibly unlucky that Alfredo Morelos’ recent form has been so good and the free-scoring Colombian has kept him benched except for when Murty selects a 4-4-2, but the young striker has still looked technically outstanding and very capable when coming on, and his two goals have both been stellar.
Meanwhile Graeme Murty somehow has hit on a winning formula. He never wanted to be manager, and has made the odd dubious comment, but has increasingly embraced the role and whatever he is doing on the training ground and in the dressing room is clearly working and we must praise him as much as the players.
From nowhere, this Rangers is a title contender. If Aberdeen finally break their embarrassing Celtic hoodoo and take three points today at Pittodrie, this truly is game on for 55.
And no one, not the most blindly loyal Rangers fan on earth would have said that was feasible before we took the field at Fir Park in August.