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'We have the opportunity to put things right tonight'

IT is hardly difficult to comprehend why the inhabitants of the Rangers dressing room prefer to remain upbeat within their own little bubble rather than dwell on the general beastliness of the world outside.

Robbie Crawford of Rangers passes Dunfermline Athletic's Stephen Husband. Picture: Chris Clark/PA Wire
Robbie Crawford of Rangers passes Dunfermline Athletic's Stephen Husband. Picture: Chris Clark/PA Wire

Sticking your head in the sand must be tempting, a survival tactic of sorts, amid the political infighting, financial uncertainty and supporter-led protests that characterise Ibrox just now, again demonstrated in Govan on Saturday, with blue A4 sheets of paper being raised on 18 and 72 minutes to show support for former director Dave King in his endeavours to orchestrate regime change through a plan to starve the board of season ticket revenue.

Of course, isolating yourself from life's harsher realities can bring pitfalls. Ian Black's eyes may still water a little from the vitriol directed his way for asking his side's more impatient followers what more they wanted after Albion Rovers' £20-a-week part-timers came within 12 minutes of knocking them out of the William Hill Scottish Cup at home.

SPFL League 1 is a comfortable place in which to indulge in self-congratulation, though. Title wrapped up with two months to spare, team unbeaten, goals going in all over the shop, clean sheets delivered fairly regularly. The statistics look impressive and the views expressed by manager Ally McCoist and striker Nicky Clark after the win over second-placed Dunfermline Athletic would make one believe all is well in the football department.

But there are reasons why McCoist, apparently at odds with chief executive Graham Wallace over how well forward planning is progressing, says he wants to strengthen in all areas of the team before the challenges of next year's Championship campaign.

The visitors were the better side in the opening period of this encounter and felt they should have had a penalty with the scores at 0-0 just before the interval when Ross Forbes, booked by referee Kevin Clancy for diving, went down in the area under a challenge from Sebastien Faure.

Even when Stevie Smith had placed a 30-yard free-kick into the postage stamp corner deep into first-half stoppage time and visiting full-back Danny Grainger had been sent off for a second bookable offence late on, it took a desperate saving tackle from Frenchman Faure to prevent Jonathan Page from levelling minutes from the end of a poor second 45 following a bout of bagatelle in the Rangers penalty box.

Of course, a number of leading performers were rested ahead of the cup replay with Albion Rovers tonight and 19-year-old Calum Gallagher ended the game as a contest in time added on with a low finish on his debut, but it is hard to share McCoist's opinion that the display against a Dunfermline side just lacking the necessary bite in the final third was "really encouraging".

Clark went further: he believes Rangers can win the Scottish Cup despite requiring a second attempt at seeing off a team from a lower ­division. Yet anyone who has watched their games of late may fear for them should they earn the right to face sides from the SPFL Premiership.

Rangers benefited from a questionable refereeing decision to scrape a draw against Cliftonhill's finest eight days ago and have hardly been setting the heather on fire since new year. They were given a run for their money by Arbroath and Brechin City at Ibrox, needed Cammy Bell's heroics before winning 2-0 at Ayr United and staggered even their most critical fans with their defending when drawing 3-3 at home with Stenhousemuir. The regulation 90 minutes of their 1-0 win at East Fife were soul destroying but Clark, back from two months out with a fractured foot, retains his belief that lifting the trophy at Celtic Park on May 17 is a realistic target.

"We have great players and I don't think we'd be where we are now if we didn't have players good enough to go and win it," he said. "I think the Scottish Cup will define the season. Even without that, though, we've won the league and I think it's the earliest any team has won it in a long, long time.

"We have scored loads of goals and we're in the final of the Ramsdens Cup, but the Scottish Cup would be a great achievement if we get there. It will be hard should we make it to the semi, but I think we've done great."

Clark also insists there are a few scores to settle against Rovers at New Douglas Park tonight. "I think there is a point to prove," he said. "We are expected to win 6-0 or 7-0 every week, to batter teams, but it doesn't happen because teams up their game against us. They play 10 men behind the ball and make it really difficult."

McCoist expects his opposing number James Ward, bullish about his team's chances, to place the emphasis on defence and believes tonight's game will be the most telling of the season thus far for his side.

"I think they'll set up the same way with a 4-1-4-1 formation and I would imagine we will have to be a lot crisper and sharper on the ball than we were last Sunday," said McCoist. "We still had chances to score and chances to win the game, but it wasn't good enough and now we have an opportunity to put things right. I've said to the lads that arguably our most important game of the season is coming up now. Albion Rovers fancy it, which is great. Good on them. It's going to be a proper cup tie."

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