RANGERS have reached a stage in the season when they are beginning to anticipate many happy returns.
When they turn up at Annan Athletic this morning, the surroundings will still be as small, unassuming and unremarkable as they were in September. The pitch will still have a 3G artificial surface as it did four months ago. Galabank will still be able to accommodate only 2500 supporters. One thing has changed, though – Annan no longer have an element of surprise.
Perhaps Rangers will drop points today, just as they did in a goalless draw in September, yet their third division campaign is different now. Back then they had yet to win an away game in the league and were stumbling from one embarrassment to the next whenever they left Ibrox. Now they carry a 10-game winning run in the league and could be 17 points clear tonight depending on how other results unfold. They are on a second tour of duty of grounds such as Galabank and expect far more rewarding trips this time.
Such a commanding lead in the championship means their priority in today's lunchtime game will be as much to avoid injury as defeat. It was at Annan that David Templeton suffered the ankle injury which ruled him out for two-and-a-half months. "I spoke to the medical boys, who said the surface definitely played a part in his injury," said manager Ally McCoist. "But it's like falling off a bike and I'd hope that's the way it turns out for 'Temps' – he's just got to get back out there and play.
"Playing on that sort of surface is something the bigger boys maybe find a bit more difficult than the smaller boys. Obviously 'Temps' got a bad injury, but in terms of the surface, the smaller ones tend to handle it better. That will probably have a bearing on my selection rather than individual injuries or experiences."
Montrose, East Stirlingshire and Clyde also play on artificial turf and that has been an unwelcome discovery for some of the Rangers players. "I'm not really fond of playing on plastic pitches," said Kyle Hutton. "It's in the back of your head every time you're twisting and turning that you're going to do one [suffer an injury]. I much prefer grass."
Perhaps surprisingly, given that it was a place which cost him two points and one of his better players, McCoist regards Annan with nothing but warmth and affection. "Once I got over the shock [of arriving there] I had a smile. We were in a housing estate at one point, took a left turn and there we were. But what a welcome we got. Their chairman [Henry McClelland] is fantastic. What a boy he is. He was giving me a tour of the social club and I had to say 'I'll need to go in and give my talk to the team'. I meant that in the nicest possible way. They're brilliant. They're just so friendly.
"Annan was arguably our toughest away game. We lost at Stirling but I watched that game twice and we should have scored about 10. But at Annan we didn't play and we didn't create anything like we did against Stirling. Annan was a disappointment but they played well. I thought they did well recently at the game at Ibrox too [Rangers won 3-0 in December] but we obviously want to do a lot better than we did the last time."
His team had been held at Peterhead and Berwick Rangers before stumbling again at Annan and Rangers' results were being criticised and mocked. At the time McCoist insisted he did not regard those results as embarrassments, for which further criticism came his way. "I stand by what I said and I got stick for it," he explained. "As soon as you're embarrassed then you're being disrespectful to the opposition. You can be embarrassed by your level of performance, I don't have a problem saying that.
"Our level of performance wasn't good enough. But you should never be embarrassed by defeat because it shows disrespect. I was getting a bit annoyed we hadn't been getting victories, of course I was. It was something we had to sort out and the Clyde game was a turning point in that respect. We now know we can go away from home, compete and win games.
"We weren't doing that at the start. It might have been a bit of a culture shock to one or two of the boys and indeed the staff. But you just need to get on with it. In the league it's settling down as I always hoped it would."
After that draw in Annan, Rangers lost their next away game at Stirling but then won at Clyde on October 28, the match McCoist regarded as the day their season changed. "At the start we just weren't used to it at all, small grounds and stuff like that," said Hutton. "But we know what to expect now. We knew it was going to be physical, but maybe we didn't realise how physical it was going to be. We are handling it a lot better."
Andy Little and Kevin Kyle are out, Dean Shiels is doubtful, but Lewis Macleod may return.