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Eyes on the rise as McCoist looks ahead to even tougher challenges for Rangers

FOR the Rangers players it is about the now.

Ally McCoist is well aware life will only become more difficult for his Ibrox team as they close in on and achieve their goal of returning to the top flight Photograph: SNS
Ally McCoist is well aware life will only become more difficult for his Ibrox team as they close in on and achieve their goal of returning to the top flight Photograph: SNS

The climb back up the leagues is felt in flesh and blood week in, week out, as they confront the hard, aggressive competitiveness of opponents who might never have expected to line up against the Ibrox side in the grind of league business.

Yet, every achievement, every result recorded by Ally McCoist's team, is measured against a looming presence: a realisation that the demands of the SPFL Premiership will be greater.

Ever mindful of the bigger picture, the manager always makes reference to the distance the club still have to travel when invited to reflect on how far they have come. "We still have a long way to go," he said when asked about this season's results being better and more consistent that last term's.

When history looks back at this period in Rangers' existence, each victory and setback will be considered in the context of the journey back to the top flight, rather than in isolation. Those who understand the club and its psyche already acknowledge that truth. McCoist celebrated last season's Third Division title win not because it was an equivalent to the 54 previous triumphs at a loftier level, but because he understood the challenges his makeshift squad had endured during that campaign.

When McCoist signs players now, it is with a mind towards the tests they will face when they return to the top flight, since Rangers supporters will not settle for a team that flits around mid-table and cannot challenge Celtic.

Already, some of his new recruits are learning necessary lessons, one example being the criticism they faced after conceding an injury-time equaliser to Stranraer at Ibrox on Boxing Day, the ensuing 1-1 draw ending Rangers' 100% league record in their 16th game.

McCoist said: "I read Nicky Law talking about the reaction to losing a goal in the 95th minute, but that's just life at Rangers and the players seem to be getting that and handling it. It's a big pressure and completely different from other clubs.

"Nicky said that with other teams he has played for 1-1 was sometimes acceptable and a good result. [At Rangers] you are trying to ingrain a winning mentality into the players because that's what our club is all about. You need to win games, simple as that. We are delighted with where we are, but we will not get carried away, we will not underestimate the long journey we have ahead.

"At other clubs if you win two then lose or draw one, that's acceptable because it's what they have become accustomed to. It's not a criticism of other clubs, but at our club it is certainly not that way at all. You are expected to win.

"Some of the players have come from clubs where they haven't had that pressure on them, but results tell you they are handling it pretty well, in fact better than pretty well."

After the draw with Stranraer, Rangers overwhelmed Dunfermline 4-0 and last Thursday spurned chances against Airdrieonians, leaving them protecting a 1-0 lead for a nervy final 10 minutes.

Both games involved hostile away crowds, some unrelenting physical challenges, and the need for the Rangers players to stand up and be counted. That they did and while the second-half performance against Airdrie lacked sophistication, McCoist is acutely aware that results are what matter.

"Two weeks ago everyone was talking about whether we could go through the season winning every game," McCoist added. "I said categorically that would not happen and believed it. I don't take any pleasure in being proved right. I remember Arsenal going through a season undefeated which I thought was outrageous. We are certainly not Arsenal and bearing that in mind we will look no further than the next game because once you take you eye off the ball that's when accidents happen.

"You better believe it will be [more difficult next season, assuming Rangers gain promotion to the Championship], whoever comes down from the top flight. Everybody wants to win with flair and style, but the most important thing is you win games and that's what we are trying to do here."

McCoist has mostly selected a settled starting line-up, but an injury to Lewis Macleod and suspensions for Bilel Mohsni and Ian Black will disrupt the team for today's trip to Stenhousemuir. The manager wasn't happy that the game, postponed last month when high winds damaged Ochilview, was not rearranged for this midweek, since his side will have played four times in 11 days, then face nine days without a fixture.

Maintaining consistency is vital, as is being ready to rise to the next set of challenges that will present themselves. "The manager keeps us on our toes," said goalkeeper Cammy Bell. "There is competition for places, so you need to keep playing well week in, week out. It is everybody's cup final when they play us. Some games aren't pretty, like the Airdrie match, but we just try to build and build and hopefully put in some good performances."

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