FORMER Rangers manager Mark Warburton admits his "heart sank" when he walked out for the club's first Ladbrokes Premiership game to a giant "Going for 55" display.

Promotion under Warburton to the top flight months earlier, combined with a Scottish Cup semi-final win over Celtic, had fuelled optimism among fans that the club could return to the heights before Rangers went into liquidation in 2012 with 54 titles to their name.

But ahead of the start of the 2016-17 season, the former Brentford manager privately felt those were unrealistic aims and that was only heightened after a disappointing opening-day draw at home to Hamilton Academical.

HeraldScotland: Dave King unfurls the Ladbrokes Champions flag with a backdrop of 'Going for 55' at IbroxDave King unfurls the Ladbrokes Champions flag with a backdrop of 'Going for 55' at Ibrox

Speaking at Hampden to promote the weekend's William Hill Scottish Cup action on behalf of the sponsors, Warburton said: "There were lots of highs, getting back to the Premier League [sic] but, for me, when we walked out for that 'Going for 55' in that first game against Hamilton, my heart sank. That wasn't the message.

"The fans were rocking, they lit the blue touch paper, we were going to win the league. We weren't. We weren't going to win the league - it was up, consolidate, build the squad.

"I just felt that message was wrong from day one. The stadium looked magnificent but they weren't going to win the title.

HeraldScotland: Mark Warburton during his first Premiership match at Rangers against Hamilton AcciesMark Warburton during his first Premiership match at Rangers against Hamilton Accies

"You can't say that at the start of a season, it sounds negative, but the squad was young, it was being built, we had free transfers - Joey [Barton] and Niko [Kranjcar] and Clint Hill. It wasn't ready, it was building to consolidate for Rangers to challenge again in year three.

"I walked back into my office and Davie Weir said: 'What on earth is that?'

"Had it said 'Great to be back', that type of message, anything but 'Going for 55' because immediately the fans were just in raptures and that to me killed us from the outset."

HeraldScotland: Joey Barton, right, endured a torrid spell with the Ibrox clubJoey Barton, right, endured a torrid spell with the Ibrox club

Warburton believes Steven Gerrard has the foundations to maintain a title challenge given the money he has spent in the transfer market, but he did not feel Rangers were anywhere near that stage in August 2016.

"Realistically you are thinking, when we beat them [Celtic] in the semi-final, that was our day, our luck was in, Patrick Roberts misses from five yards, they hit the bar," said Warburton, who had an acrimonious departure from Ibrox in February 2017.

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"But you are looking at players on two, three, four, five grand a week playing against players on 15, 20, 25, 30 and more, and nine times out of 10 you are going to lose those games.

"When you go with really young players and free players, you are never going to beat Celtic consistently. You have to invest, so I am delighted for Steven [Gerrard] that they are seeing the investment coming through and bringing in quality players.

HeraldScotland: Steven Gerrard has impressed Mark Warburton with the start he has made as Rangers managerSteven Gerrard has impressed Mark Warburton with the start he has made as Rangers manager

"If you are going to beat Celtic on their Champions League money, Rangers have got to invest.

"I'm not sure where the money is coming from, it's not my business, but you are seeing now some investment in the club, which is great for Steven and great for the fans, and hopefully it gives us a really strong title race and they can get over the line."

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When asked whether it frustrates him, comparing the funds spent now to those he was provided with, Warburton said: "You sound like a bitter and twisted old man if you say that, but the fact of it is, it was where the club was at that particular time.

"I would have loved the funds that Pedro [Caixinha] spent straight after us, which was probably more confusing for us at the time.

"But it's life and it's a stage of a club developing and coming back from where it had been."