TWELVE months ago, Rangers could not contain Jon Daly.
The striker played a critical role in Dundee United scoring after just 13 seconds in a Scottish Cup tie at Tannadice, then added the second goal in what finished as a 3-0 defeat for the Ibrox side. The way Daly dominated the Rangers defenders, as United built their attacks around his robust presence, would have caught Ally McCoist's attention. By the summer, Daly had agreed to move to Rangers as a free agent after his contract ran out.
The Ibrox club are back in the same stage of the competition this season, one victory away from reaching the quarter-finals. This time, they are at home to Dunfermline but Daly will tie game unfolds. He has barely missed a game since becoming eligible to play for Rangers at the beginning of September. He has scored 16 goals, and his experience has proved influential.
A Scottish Cup winner with United in 2010, Daly also brings the hardened psychological attitude, the winning mentality, that McCoist felt his younger players needed to be exposed to if they were to learn how to cope with the expectations at the club.
Rangers have improved in the last 12 months, even if on occasion this season their supporters have still found cause to grumble at aspects of some of the performances. They have defeated Dunfermline twice in the league already, including a comprehensive victory at East End Park that told of the Rangers team's ability to rise to the occasion and lift their performance levels when an encounter demands it.
"I wasn't aware last year that the boys here hadn't had a proper pre-season," Daly said. "Any footballer will tell you that is a massive thing. It is the main difference [to this season]. It would be nice to face a team from the Premiership further down the line [in the Scottish Cup].
"Whoever you are drawn against, you have to deal with that. It's a big game for us on Friday because Dunfermline are a decent side and they've had a good season so far. I'm sure they'll be well up for the game and it's up to us to ensure we match that and get through."
Even Daly has had to adjust. Rangers supporters have not lowered their expectations during the club's off-field traumas of recent years. The team are 23 points clear at the top of League One but still the fans are exacting. Rangers have dropped only two points during this campaign, but that 1-1 draw with Stranraer at Ibrox in December provoked stern criticism from the support.
"The game on Boxing Day when we dropped two points still haunts us. I don't want to experience that again," Daly said. "The manager said to all the new boys when they came in the summer [that] nothing less than winning will do. It's trying to get that winning mentality among the players. Personally, I try not to focus on what's going on off the park. I try not to let it affect me, but it might affect some of the younger boys. Fans are entitled to vent their frustrations. They are paying customers. The level of expectation is high so if we don't meet that level they will show their frustration."
Graham Wallace, the Rangers chief executive, is in the midst of a review of every aspect of the business. He is seeking to put it back on an even keel, since the outgoings and revenue streams are too far out of kilter. The club are currently, for instance, marketing quarter season tickets for the rest of the campaign.
The players recently rejected the notion of taking a pay cut, at least until the club's executives would also be prepared to make the same gesture, but their focus for the cup game is on the glory of the competition, not the extra revenue it will provide.
"I haven't really thought about the financial implications," Daly said. "As a player you just want to go as far as you can and try to win medals. But obviously it would be fantastic for the club from a financial point of view and also brilliant for the fans. I wasn't here last year but the boys have told me they backed the club massively and that was shown with the season tickets sold. So it would be great to get through and get to a final."
n Jon Daly was speaking at the launch of a new partnership between SAMH (Scottish Association for Mental Health) and the Rangers Charity Foundation. The initiative, which has been in discussion for several months, aims to raise awareness of mental illness and the help that is available.