LAST Christmas, to use the words of Wham, was when Rangers gave it away.
The Ibrox club were still outright leaders of the Clydesdale Bank Premier League when they travelled across the city on Wednesday, December 28 but that yuletide spirit swiftly turned to a bleak midwinter as they lost their advantage courtesy of a solitary Joe Ledley goal in a 1-0 Celtic win, not to mention a controversial Lee Wallace effort which was scooped back from behind the line.
As Ally McCoist recalls, little did those supporters who trooped out of Celtic Park suspect at the time that the match would become a footnote in a season which would see the club battling for its very existence. "In the grand scheme of things, it was nothing," said McCoist. "Because the very foundations of the club were shaking. And they were shaking well before that match. It was just that it became visible not long afterwards. Those foundations were rocked to the core, but thankfully the whole thing never gave way and we have had a chance to rebuild again."
Fast-forward 12 months and Christmas is certainly a more restful time for Rangers this year. The reincarnated club might be situated in the fourth tier of the Scottish game with only a festive calendar including a visit to Elgin City and a Boxing Day meeting with Clyde to sustain them, but they are in the midst of a seven-match winning run, developing a new team, and attendances are holding up remarkably well.
No longer does the club have the big tax case hanging over them, the first-tier tax tribunal having found in the club's favour, and the newco no longer liable should that verdict be overturned on appeal. A recent share flotation raised £22m of fresh capital and a return to the top flight, and eventually to Europe, seems only a matter of time.
For McCoist, the question is whether the club would be better served working their way back up gradually or finding themselves fast-tracked before they may be ready to compete again on an equal footing. "The stability of the club is the most important thing," he said. "A year ago we could never have seen all this happening. People would have thought you were mad if you had said the following year would contain this. But it did happen. And if it can happen to us, it can happen to anyone. Six months ago the very future of the club was in serious jeopardy. The most important thing is that we never allow that to happen again.
"We want to get back to welcoming Celtic, Hearts and all the big clubs in the country. That's what we want, but it ain't going to happen overnight. I would far rather get back there in a stable position with youngsters who have played a few games and can go and compete than any other way."
First up is the delayed Irn-Bru Third Division meeting with Elgin City, a match which was originally postponed on police advice after the Moray club oversold their Borough Briggs ground by around 1100 tickets. Chairman Graham Tatters yesterday received a £5000 Scottish Football Association fine for that offence, £4000 of which is suspended for a year, in addition to an earlier £25,000 SFL fine. A lot of his fans will have been out of pocket or had their previous travel plans disrupted but McCoist says the recent cup meeting between the two teams shows there is no residue of bad feeling between the clubs.
"I have a great degree of sympathy with them because every away game is, in a nice way, the circus coming to town," the Rangers manager said. "Everyone wants to get as much for their own club as they possibly can. It was a shame what happened. But we're over it and I just want Elgin to get over it now. It's history and there is absolutely no problem between the clubs. That was clearly evident in the cup game. We are now going to a place where I think we will get one of our toughest tests of the season in the league. Elgin are second and I can see they really fancy it from the quotes from [manager] Ross Jack, who I have a lot of time for, and the Elgin players."
Dean Shiels is still missing for the Ibrox club, as is the suspended Lee Wallace. Emilson Cribari and Sebastien Faure are fit to return but Ross Perry – who returned from a hernia operation against Annan in midweek – is hopeful of a start in defence. "It's four weeks since I had my operation and four weeks is the earliest you can come back," he said. "Elgin will definitely be tough – they are second in the league for a reason. They play good football and they win games. But I hope we can motor on now. It's a massive game for us and there's a real incentive for us to get the victory to put some daylight between us."