ONCE some time has passed the historians and ordinary supporters will look back on the season Rangers moved from the third to the second tier of the Scottish game and struggle to recall the details of how it was done.
Rangers have never taken themselves off a spectrum of confusion and division off the field this season. But on the pitch? The two main cups have brought bloody noses but League 1 has been a sanctuary at the backbone of their campaign. Often the football has been laboured and pedestrian but the results have been undramatic and relentlessly effective. It was appropriate that they clinched the championship last night with an unfussy, comfortable victory, this time against Airdrieonians. After 26 wins and two draws from 28 games they are out of sight and promoted as champions with eight games to spare.
"Champions again" and "we are going up" chanted their excitable younger supporters. The majority in the 41,343 crowd joined in with a "stand up for the champions" in the second half but for most it was simply a victory satisfyingly delivered after the bleakness of recent performances. Near the end some headed off early to beat the traffic but the vast majority stayed to celebrate the moment, a little tentatively at first but then with growing volume and fervour. The players and coaching staff gathered for pictures behind a branded "League 1 champions" board then set off on a lap of honour.
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Ally McCoist, who had been beleaguered only a couple of days ago, milked it for all it was worth. He looked so pleased it was as if it was 1992 and he'd just scored against Leeds. Lee McCulloch had helped himself to a first half hat trick, two of them penalties, and there was pace and width about their play which yielded another handful of chances. It was their best display for weeks.
The half-hearted attempt to bill it as a "title decider" was never likely to catch on. Supporters know tension and uncertainty when they see it (there's a bit of both ahead of the upcoming Scottish Cup replay against Albion Rovers) and this title has been been an inevitability since its infancy when it was clear that Rangers would suffer none of the pratfalls that embarrassed them and kept their rivals hugely amused a year ago. It has been a relentless, pedestrian march in which a second consecutive promotion was secured without incident or drama.
"We really couldn't have done it much quicker," wrote McCoist in his programme notes. There was no arguing with that. They were 16 games into the campaign before they dropped points and the title has been won with the surrender of only four, from home draws against Stranraer and Stenhousemuir. The first half of the season brought some avalanches of goals: a five against Arbroath, five against East Fife, six against Airdrie and Forfar, eight against Stenhousemuir. From the turn of the year those dried up. There were still wins, but far less convincing scorelines.
The incongruity of Rangers being in the fourth and third tiers was always certain to mean their stays would be brief. They have been an ocean liner passing through backwaters. Inevitably the going will get increasingly awkward. The level of performances in many of the games will, if repeated, result in points being spilled in the Championship. The side lacks quality and mistakes are made which go unpunished in the lower tiers but will be seized upon by a higher standard of opponent. They'll be in the same division as Hearts next season and Kilmarnock, one of St Mirren, Partick Thistle or Ross County could drop down too, and two from Dundee, Hamilton and Falkirk could be around. In truth Rangers should still be strong enough to prevail again but not by anything like the 26-point margin with which they eased over the line last night. There is no clue yet as to what budget there will be for improvements.
The criticism received for failing to see off Albion Rovers - most of it reasoned and justified - had brought a petulant response from Ian Black, a "what more do you want" whine. When Black's name was read out before kick-off there was a murmur. Not outright booing, but a definite murmur compared to the enthusiasm for all the others. Barely 90 seconds had gone when David Templeton lifted a ball over the top and Andy Little was brought down by goalkeeper Grant Adam. It was a clear penalty and Adam was fortunate not to walk for denying a clear goalscoring chance. McCulloch rammed the penalty past him and did so again in the 21st minute after centre-half Gregor Buchanan felled Templeton for another unequivocal penalty.
Templeton was Rangers' brightest figure but McCulloch helped himself to all the goals, taking a Nicky Law pass and, stumbling, jabbing a finish past Adam into the corner five minutes before half-time. These seasons are doing a wonderful polishing job on McCulloch's statistics: the hat-trick eased him to 17 goals for the season. Bilel Mohsni might have had one but his low shot came off the foot of the post. He played to the gallery, celebrating as if he'd scored. Airdrie were unbeaten in seven until this but spent the night on a wild goose chase, offering no threat to Cammy Bell.
It was all entirely routine. "Welcome to Ibrox on what we hope will be another special night for Rangers fans," the chief executive, Graham Wallace, had written in his own column in the programme. "We anticipate a moment to celebrate for all Rangers supporters as our progression back to the top continues." Wallace remains mired in stress about Rangers' spending, income and ownership, but nothing about League 1 has ever added to it.