WHEN Rangers last played at Hampden, on March 20 last year, nobody present could possibly have foreseen that their next trip to the National Stadium would be to face Queen's Park in a third division match.
That last appearance was in a Co-operative Insurance Cup final in which the Ibrox side, with Walter Smith at the helm, beat Celtic 2-1 after extra time thanks to goals from Steve Davis and Nikica Jelavic.
It was only 21 months ago but, given everything that has transpired, it seems a lot longer. Only two of the Rangers players who featured that day, Neil Alexander and Kyle Hutton, are likely to play this afternoon but that is not the only constant.
Rangers were backed by around 25,000 fans as they clinched their last major trophy and they will likely have similar numbers, perhaps even more, offering their support in very differing circumstances. The predicted scenario that fan numbers would drop off as the novelty of lower division football wore off has not yet materialised.
"It would be strange if we had 39,000 away supporters there for a league game," said Ally McCoist, the Rangers manager. "It's not something we would have envisaged a couple of years ago, that's for sure. But our supporters have been the highlight of the year for us. They will want to finish on a high themselves so I would fully expect 30,000-plus to be at Hampden, which is astounding really, absolutely astounding."
Dean Shiels is looking forward to returning to the stadium where he lifted the Scottish Communities League Cup with Kilmarnock last season after the Ayrshire side shocked Celtic in the final. "It's a big thing to go back to Hampden because it's a great place to play," Shiels said. "At most away games, the pitches are quite tight and the grounds compact. But this will be the opposite.
"I've been reminding the lads about what happened the last time I was at Hampden. I have great memories from what happened there with Kilmarnock in March. Beating Celtic that day was probably the highlight of my career so far. I didn't think my next game at Hampden would be for Rangers in the third division, but this is where we are. Hopefully I can go back again at the end of the season for another cup final."
Rangers, after an almighty early-season struggle, have finally got the hang of lower-league football. With a 12-point lead, they are all but certain to escape the third division at the first attempt, allowing McCoist more time to look at strengthening his squad for the second.
A transfer embargo means Rangers cannot register players until September 1, but they can start discussing pre-contract agreements from next month. With the contracts of more than 150 Clydesdale Bank Premier League players due to expire in the summer, McCoist should have a raft of options.
"It's a sad sign of the times as much as anything," he said. "There will be a lot of players looking for clubs. That said, the more I can look at, the better. We will be allowed to register players from September 1 as long as they are out of contract and we would be looking to strengthen again. We'll look abroad, we'll look at the SPL. I'm not going to confine it to saying only players from the SPL; we want to get the best players we can and continue building.
"I sat last week [with Neil Murray, Rangers' chief scout] and put a line through 30 or 40 and a question mark or a tick beside others. If we want to go and look at players, then we go. Neil is always very thorough and good that way."
Shiels revealed players from the top league have been asking him about life at Rangers, and hopes he has shown there is life outside it. "I would encourage anyone in the SPL who the club are interested in to come," he said. "I've really enjoyed it here, it's a wonderful club to be at. I've played for two SPL clubs in Hibs and Kilmarnock and had a good time at both but Rangers is the next level. There's no risk involved for any players who might be thinking of coming to Ibrox. The club's only going to go forward."