Rangers' voyage through the lower leagues was meant to be an exciting new adventure for their supporters, the joyful antidote to a spring of uncertainty and a summer of frustration. Instead it has turned into simply more of the same. There will be few attached to the Ibrox club sorry to see the back of 2012 when the time comes to put take down this year's calendar and shove it in the bin.
This was meant to be a fresh start for Rangers, one in which players and management could freely express themselves without the usual accompanying pressures. There would be no must-win Old Firm matches or tricky European ties. Sure, there would be an expectation on Rangers to win the third division – and comfortably so – but beyond that it was effectively a blank canvas. Ally McCoist could, within reason, assemble the squad that he wanted, play them in whatever system he saw fit, and approach this latest challenge completely unencumbered by fear. Outside the realm of computer simulation games, it was as close as any manager could ever realistically get to being able to start over almost entirely as he wished.
It has turned out to be far from a footballing Utopia, however. Rangers have reached the top of the table but the ascent to get there has been both arduous and lengthy. The culture shock of venturing to ramshackle grounds with crumbling terraces and cramped changing rooms has been so great that it took them five attempts to finally win a league game on the road. Home matches, in familiar surrounds and backed by a support who continue to defy logic by turning out in vast numbers, have been more comfortable affairs although the aura of invincibility that used to surround Rangers has undoubtedly disappeared.
Teams like Queen's Park, Elgin City and Montrose have arrived at Ibrox intent on attacking from the first whistle, playing two up front and zipping the ball around quite confidently. Rangers' superior fitness has told the longer each game wore on but it spoke volumes about how McCoist's side are viewed within the division that teams, who in the past would have arrived with few ambitions beyond sitting in and hoping for the best, now feel suitably empowered to travel to Ibrox and have a go. It is the sort of freedom of expression many Rangers fans hoped to see from their own team this term.
Rangers, instead, seem a side whose whole is worth considerably less than the sum of its parts. Yes, some caveats must be made; McCoist lost the crux of his old squad when it became apparent that there would be no legal obligation on the players to transfer their contracts over to the newco once the oldco had slipped to the brink of liquidation; there was also the ongoing farrago about a transfer embargo and when it would be imposed, as well as the distraction of Charles Green's takeover and the wait to see what division the team would be playing in. All valid points that need to be factored in.
McCoist, though, still had time and opportunity to compile a squad capable of streaking away at the top of the third division as well as challenging for the cups. So far neither has materialised. There were eyebrows raised when Rangers chose to add Scottish Premier League-calibre players to their squad. Was it really necessary to push the boat out to pay big wages to take care of part-time opposition? Green and McCoist both insisted it was, pointing out that marquee signings like Dean Shiels and Ian Black would help with ticket sales and also greatly enhance the team.
So far they were right only on the first count. The hasty recruitment of a number of overseas players also looks increasingly curious given none have really shone. It is always easy to be smart in hindsight but there must surely have been experienced players operating in the first division who would have been a better fit for the challenges ahead.
It remains something of a mystery why players who operated with distinction in the top flight just last season should find the adjustment to the third division such a struggle. A sense of discombobulation at their circumstances was to be expected, but elite players should always find a way to thrive. Is motivation an issue? Presumably those senior players who elected to remain at Ibrox, and those who joined from other SPL clubs, did so for the financial rewards as much as for the chance to play for a club of Rangers' stature. With little glory to be gained from trampling over football minnows, perhaps some simply don't have the appetite for a weekly diet of lower-league football.
McCoist continues to talk up the younger players in the squad – and there have been strong performances from the likes of Barrie McKay and Lewis MacLeod – but it is far from a callow squad. The side that started against Inverness had an average age greater than their opponents and was also older than the Celtic side that defeated St Johnstone the night before. There is therefore sufficient experience within the squad but it has not been enough to ensure a smooth start to the season.
For Rangers and their supporters, the journey so far has been somewhat uncomfortable.