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Undefeated. But back story has rarely been a happy tale

STAGE two of The Journey is now complete.

Nicky Law (centre) said the draw at home to Stranraer on Boxing Day felt "like the end of the world". Picture:SNS
Nicky Law (centre) said the draw at home to Stranraer on Boxing Day felt "like the end of the world". Picture:SNS

With victory over Airdrieonians at Ibrox last night, Rangers ensured they completed, with relatively little fuss, the second chunk of their three-part challenge to achieve promotion to the top division as quickly as they can.

In years to come the SPFL League 1 trophy is not one that they or their fans will look back on with any great affection but - like the third division title clinched a year earlier - it will be acknowledged as a means to an end in the pursuit of a greater goal.

Since liquidation and their rebirth in the bottom tier of Scottish football, Rangers' focus has always been on motoring through the lower leagues in three straight seasons and, to date, they remain on course to realise that ambition, even if it has not always been an entirely smooth passage.

This title has been secured without a loss to their name and despite the backdrop of persistent turbulence behind the scenes. Those are the positives. There are lingering gripes, however, about the style of some of the performances and the need for a club with the second biggest wage bill in the country to grind out results against largely part-time opposition.

The team may be enduring an enforced break from the highest echelon of Scottish football but the expectation of the support remains the same. When Rangers finally dropped their first points of the season in a 1-1 draw with Stranraer on Boxing Day, the ferocity of the crowd's response took some of the newer players aback. "It was like the end of the world," said midfielder Nicky Law.

There is a feeling, then, among some fans that certain standards are not being upheld. Coincidentally or otherwise, Rangers' record at home has been inferior to their form on the road where they have not conceded a goal since October, as if playing in front of their own fans is inhibiting them in some way.

It would be unrealistic to expect Rangers to go through the season swatting every team aside with contemptuous ease but there has been a noticeable reduction in the swagger prevalent in the first half of the campaign when they put eight past Stenhousemuir, six past Forfar Athletic and Airdrie, and five past both Arbroath and East Fife. The reliance on long, high balls from back to front has become a common grumble of late.

It was always felt that the true worth of this Rangers side, extensively upholstered in the summer, would be most accurately measured in a cup tie against Premiership opposition. A first round League Cup defeat to Forfar reduced that prospect by half, while a William Hill Scottish Cup run to the quarter-finals has yet to place a top-flight team in their path. That will change should they make it through Monday's replay against Albion Rovers when they would then welcome Dundee United to "neutral" Ibrox for the semi-final. Their lacklustre performance in the original tie against Rovers, however, seems to have diminished the appetite for Rangers to show they can still cut it at the top level.

A United team seemingly back to their best, and fresh from a 5-0 walloping of Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the last round, may be inclined to hand Rangers a brutal appraisal of their shortcomings.

Ally McCoist has already made soundings about the need to make improvements to his squad in the summer ahead of the next challenge in the Championship. The Rangers manager never fails to be diplomatic when talking about his players but his recent remark that the group "doesn't contain a Laudrup, Gascoigne, Greig, Johnston, or a Stein" was as close as he will ever get to acknowledging that some may not be good enough for the step up. In theory, the majority ought to be. Of the side that started against Rovers only two have no Premier League experience, while only Fraser Aird - at 19 years old - could be considered young and callow.

This group should be good enough to comfortably win the Championship, even if Hearts and a possible second Premiership side end up there, but clearly McCoist is not convinced. Is the balance in the team not right? Are there players underperforming? Have they become complacent or disillusioned with this fairly unglamorous slog through the divisions? And who will come in to improve them?

Money, of course, will play a part in the size of any squad overhaul, and the findings from chief executive Graham Wallace's 120-day review should lay bare the state of Rangers' financial health. The club's recent need to take out loans to ease working capital would suggest there is less chance of McCoist being given a transfer warchest, perhaps more a petty cash box. That could greatly restrict the work of a manager who has preferred to sign ready made players, rather than taking a chance on younger, rawer talents who could be moulded with proper coaching and guidance. Ever since Rangers entered the third divison, the focus has always been on the short term, rather than addressing the bigger picture.

And what of McCoist himself? It is hard to be overly critical of a manager who is yet to lose a league game this season while working with constant uncertainty at boardroom level, but stumbles such as the draw with Rovers give further ammunition to those who remain unconvinced that he is the right man for the job. McCoist, though, will plough on as before, briefly celebrating this season's success before starting work on the next challenge. At Rangers it was always thus.

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