BEING permitted to unfurl a championship flag is a rare privilege for any serving player, but few are as deserving of the honour as Lee McCulloch.
There may be a dearth of popular alternative candidates in the Ibrox boardroom these days, but the 36-year-old has done better than most at keeping his standard high amid the malaise afflicting the club in recent times. Last night he challenged the entire Rangers squad to raise theirs to ensure a return to the Scottish top flight at the earliest time of asking.
The former Scotland international, who will raise the League One title flag before this lunchtime's season opener against Hearts, has been a totemic figure in the club's journey back to relevance. Mainly housed in central defence, but nonetheless weighing in with more than 40 goals, few would derive greater satisfaction should Rangers emerge triumphant from the predicted three-way title battle with Edinburgh rivals Hearts and Hibs in the Championship to clinch their return to the Scottish Premiership come May.
Loading article content
Whether he will be around to celebrate the spoils of such a scenario, however, remains unclear. McCulloch's zeal and energy for the task ahead is hardly flagging, but he has entered the final year of his contract, and two of the club's arrivals this summer, Marius Zaliukas and Darren McGregor, are central defenders.
"It is the last year of my contract, so I just need to wait and see what happens," said McCulloch. "I would love to take the club back to the top flight then stay on, it would be the perfect scenario, but for me in my head it's about concentrating on this season, trying to stay in the team and trying to win things, that's what's important.
"I think we should be trying to add another cup and not just have the pressure of the league. But it's important the club gets back to where we were. Of course it is going to be harder, but we have to remember we are Glasgow Rangers, our players have to remember that as well. It would be brilliant to get back there next season, competing against the top of Scottish football again. It would be a great satisfaction to everyone."
In terms of interest and excitement, if not always technical quality, some may say Rangers are already at the pinnacle of the Scottish game. The sense that the Championship will be more than just a diverting distraction to the main event was hardly dispelled by a fine performance from Hibs at Ibrox last Tuesday on Petrofac Cup duty which Ally McCoist reckoned might have been as good as any their fans had seen in 18 months.
In addition to a group of exciting young players with a season under their belts, Hearts with Craig Levein and Robbie Neilson at the helm, have added the experience of former Rangers keeper Neil Alexander, Morgaro Gomis, Prince Buaben and others besides. McCulloch, though, feels it is one thing playing without expectation, but quite another when you need to win games to piece together a title challenge.
"Sunday will be a different game, against a young team that will be high on confidence, but it's a season where they have a different expectation level on them," said McCulloch. "Where before a draw has been all right in the top division, now they are expected to win games and it's a different pressure they are facing. Obviously the clubs in this division are bigger than we've faced in the last two so it feels a step closer. And the bar has been raised in here in training as well. We know we need to raise the standards."
His manager was in New York getting married this summer when he learned that Hibs had lost to Hamilton Academical in the relegation play-off and were coming to join them in the Championship. Rather than dampen his spirits, the news actually improved them. "I couldn't believe it initially and a couple of the boys - whom I won't name - thought 'oh no' because they believed it would make the league tougher," McCoist said. "But I looked at it the other way. It was someone to take points off Hearts and Falkirk."
While there are potential pitfalls waiting each week for McCoist and Rangers, equally there is the chance to derive some glory in the event of victory. The club negotiated 36 league games without defeat during the previous campaign, but there is no expectation of them repeating such a feat this time around. "There is double no-chance of that happening," said McCoist. "If anybody was at the game on Tuesday they might back me up on that. I don't think there is an awful lot between about eight or nine in the top division and the top teams in the Championship."
McCoist says he is "Budget-less in Seattle" but won't rule out further wheeling and dealing before the transfer window closes. He adds his approval to the choice of McCulloch as flag bearer, originally nominated by the family of the late Sandy Jardine. A stand will be renamed today in honour of Jardine, a legend of both clubs.
"I'm a wee bit wary of someone from within the team unfurling the flag but if anyone deserves to do it, it is the skipper," said McCoist. "He has been absolutely magnif-icent. He has been through the whole thing with us so far and with the way he is working and the attitude he has in training, he is hell-bent on guiding this team through this division as well."
"I think I'm the first player to do it so it's a great honour," said McCulloch. "To be asked to do this isn't something I was expecting. I know Sandy's family will be there and I think it was them who put my name forward. He was always about to lend a helping hand or a word, off the pitch and on it. Hopefully it will be a great occasion to celebrate a legend."